When I went to urgent care at the Student Health Center and then the emergency room after passing out, I told every professional who helped me that I was currently in treatment for an eating disorder, thinking that my battle with anorexia was important for them to know as they tried to figure out what was going on. Instead of using this information to guide their assessment of me, almost every professional I talked to questioned my diagnosis and whether my eating disorder was still a problem for me. When I asked not to see my weight, the nurse who weighed me read my weight out loud and then, at the end of my visit, handed it to me on a piece of paper. These incredibly invalidating interactions are just a few glaring examples of a much bigger problem: the lack of education that medical professionals receive on eating disorders.
After sharing my frustrating experience with friends who also struggle with eating disorders, I found many of them had similar stories to share: doctors telling them they don’t fit the “criteria” for having an eating disorder because of their weight; doctors who already know they struggle with an eating disorder telling them to lose weight; doctors telling them that they don’t understand why they think that they have a problem because it “sounds like they eat a lot.” Moreover, when I brought up these experiences to my primary care physician — who specializes in treating eating disorders — she said that many medical professionals remain woefully ignorant about the warning signs of eating disorders as well as the medical complications that often result from them.
The latest statistics indicate that more than 30 million people in the U.S. will suffer from an eating disorder in their lifetimes and eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, with approximately one person dying every 62 minutes as a direct result. With this in mind, not to mention the taxing mental struggles that accompany eating disorders, it is extremely important for doctors to know how to treat the symptoms and medical consequences. They must also to be sensitive to patients who struggle with them. In my own experience, it was only when I finally met with a doctor who specializes in eating disorders, after years of medical professionals telling me that I was fine, that I realized I had a real problem. When eating disorders are invalidated and overlooked, especially by professionals, it makes seeking treatment and coming to terms with the illness much more difficult. Especially on college campuses, where eating disorder prevalence has increased from 23% to 32% for females and 7.9% to 25% for males in the last 13 years, doctors must know accurate information on eating disorders so that they can recognize and help students who struggle with them.
What these examples demonstrate is that many medical professionals still look to the depiction of anorexia most often portrayed in the media — emaciated teenage girls who simply don’t eat — as the primary example of what an eating disorder looks like. In the ER this weekend, it was only after seeing my healthy weight and hearing that I actually eat that doctors began questioning whether my eating disorder was still a problem. The common thread in my friends’ stories is doctors not understanding that you do not have to be underweight or restrict your food intake in order to have an eating disorder. In fact, binge eating disorder is more than three times more common than anorexia and bulimia combined. It is inexcusable that many doctors continue to look to restriction and weight loss — symptoms of anorexia — as hallmarks of an eating disorder.
Eating disorders are extremely complicated and individualized; each disorder manifests and impacts people in different ways. However, it is estimated that more than 70% of people with eating disorders will not seek treatment due to stigma, lack of education, diagnosis or lack of access to care. There are already too many obstacles preventing people from receiving help. Medical professionals have a responsibility to educate themselves on eating disorders and how to be sensitive to patients struggling.
Opinions expressed on the editorial pages are not necessarily those of WSN, and our publication of opinions is not an endorsement of them.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Nov. 25, 2019 print edition. Email Helen Wajda at [email protected]