Eating disorders have been steadily increasing in prevalence in the United States in recent decades. By now most adults have grown up with peers they suspected had eating disorders. The knowledge we have today about eating disorders (and the mixed messages from media and other poor sources) leaves some quick to judge, “my girlfriend (or kid, or boyfriend) doesn’t have an eating disorder...he/she eats!” and others are left confused about and unsure about what is normal and abnormal. Eating disorders do not fit nicely into the box that the DSM (diagnostic and statistical manual) or google searches provide. People are often situated along a continuum of symptoms with some visible to the eye and others completely unobservable. The average woman in the United States has spent some time on that continuum starting at a mild discomfort with her body or food all the way to being completely plagued by thoughts of food every 3 seconds. We have diagnostic criteria for a reason. Symptoms observable in behaviors are helpful because behaviors are:
1. Often an indicator that more complex distress exists
2. Help us conduct research to improve treatments
3. Help us all stay on the same page and provide “effective” treatment.
Still, we don’t have to get all diagnostic here. You don’t have to jump up and say, " you have an eating disorder!"First, that’s frequently not the best thing to say to someone. Second, it takes time and an experienced clinician to determine that. Third, there is a common goal here regardless: You (and most people) want your loved one to be able to go through life not struggling with food and body image. You may have a strong feeling about this because of stories you’ve heard from other friends, TLC and hallmark shows, or perhaps because even you have walked that line at some point where you wished that you could be a little less self-critical of your body, and think a little less frequently about your weight. If you've ever struggled with eating issues then chances are you certainly wouldn’t want your loved one to deal with such a feeling out of empathy.
Whether or not such seemingly "normal" things like wanting to lose weight or criticizing oneself for eating a candy bar is a "problem" to someone is perhaps something only that person can decide. And when that method fails (and it certainly does), then hopefully a well trained therapist can help bring some clarity.