In the U.S., more than 30 million people of all ages and genders suffer from an eating disorder, and nearly half of Americans report knowing someone who struggles with disordered eating. Unfortunately, however, many of those affected by these conditions go undiagnosed and untreated.
Enter “Let’s Check In,” a campaign from The Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt. The new program is intended to educate the public on the warning signs of eating disorders by providing resources for those concerned about a friend or family member (such as a disordered eating fact sheet and tips for starting a conversation with someone you are worried about).
“The earlier that eating disorders are treated, the better the prognosis, especially in children,” Dr. Mamata Mysore, a psychiatrist on staff with The Center for Eating Disorders, says. Most eating disorders have their first onset in adolescence, making it critical for parents to pay attention to their children’s eating habits and body image from the outset.
“Let’s Check In” launched in April, just before the start of summer. The season is often a triggering time for those with eating disorders (or those on the brink of developing disordered eating), due to the societal fixation on the “summer body,” “bikini season” and other “ideal” physiological traits.
According to Mysore, however, one can’t always assume that those with or striving toward a certain body type are suffering from an eating disorder–or vice versa.
“You can’t really identify an eating disorder based on an individual’s appearance,” she says. “An eating disorder does not discriminate.”
The biggest warning signs are related not to changes in appearance, but to changes in behavior such as eating habits, exercise and self-perception. If you’re concerned about a friend or family member, Mysore recommends educating yourself and researching various eating disorders and how they may present themselves. (Try The Center for Eating Disorders’ website, as well as that of the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA)).
When initiating a conversation, it is critical to choose the right time, setting and approach. Make sure there are limited distractions and a certain level of privacy, as the person in question may feel guilt and shame over their behavior. Blocking out time for this conversation will allow both people to feel more comfortable.
“When you have the conversation, it’s important to be compassionate, not confrontational,” Mysore says. “Be clear and concrete about what your concerns are.”
With children, however, getting professional help is recommended. Parents “shouldn’t hesitate to ask a pediatrician if they have doubts” about whether their child’s behavior is normal, Mysore says. Speaking to your child’s pediatrician about your concerns can be the first step towards treatment.
Learn more about the “Let’s Check In” campaign at eatingdisorder.org/letscheckin.