We’ve all heard about the obesity epidemic in America—fast food galore, no exercise, and excess calorie intake—but what about the growing number of eating disorders?

Whenever we hear about obesity, the solution seems to be clear: eat fat free foods, cut out empty calories, exercise more. However, our understanding of eating disorders are more hazy and cannot easily be attributed to a few clear causes. How many times have you heard a speech about the dangers of under eating? How many commercials do you see encouraging someone to seek treatment for anorexia? They’re much less common. Yet, eating disorders affect over 24 million people in the United States.

[one_third]An eating disorder is not something that just comes and goes for a couple of weeks[/one_third]

Eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia nervosa, while often overlooked, should be treated as the perilous and deadly diseases that they are. According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD), they have the highest mortality rate for any mental disorder. Think about this: The entire American population seems to be encouraging dieting or weight loss. Nearly every magazine has at least one article on the latest food fad or fat burning diet. According to the ANAD, only 5% of the American population naturally has the body so often portrayed in the media. Yet, still every girl and boy sees this idea of perfection in magazines, on television, and on the internet. We are pressured into believing that we won’t be good enough unless we look like tall, thin, beautiful models. Moreover, we seem to be joining the fad of “fat talk.” At least once a day, I hear someone say, “I feel so fat,” or “I should seriously go on a diet.” This negative and cruel talk is not only discouraging to others, but also a form of self-destruction. Why do teenagers feel the need to hate their bodies? Why do people always find a reason to dislike themselves? It isn’t the way we were meant to be. By constantly bringing ourselves and others down, even in friendly banter, we are subconsciously destroying our self-esteem. There is so much more to people than what we see on the outside. Don’t rob someone of the chance to see themselves positively.

[one_third]Only 5% of the American population naturally has the body so often portrayed in the media.[/one_third]

Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder in which one loses excess weight through the restriction of food intake and over-exercising. Victims of this disease have extreme fears of weight gain and suffer with severely distorted body images. This fear rules their lives so potently that they will continuously starve themselves to no end. But how can we know who has this terrifying and deadly disease? Is it your friend who’s boasting about her latest diet? Or is it the boy who never eats at parties? How can we truly know? While confronting a friend or loved one may seem like a valid option, oftentimes, victims of anorexia will feel attacked or respond defensively. They are engulfed in self-hate and feel in control with their food, so of course they wouldn’t want you to go and ruin everything. It may be as simple as telling them you love them. Be there to support them when they fall, to help them back on their feet. Remember that you alone can’t save someone from this disease. If you’re extremely worried for someone’s well-being, tell a counselor or contact a trustworthy adult who can help. According to the ANAD, anorexia requires intense physical and mental treatment that only 10% of the eating disorder population receives. The painful truth is that 20% of people suffering from anorexia will prematurely die from complications related to their eating disorder, including suicide and heart problems. So, don’t be afraid to report suspicious and harmful activities you believe to be associated with this disease. Speak up and you could possibly save the life of a loved one.

Bulimia nervosa, another form of restrictive eating disorders, is very closely related to anorexia. Anorexia sufferers can develop bulimia after prolonged periods of starvation. Bulimia is an illness in which a person binges on food or has regular episodes of overeating and feels a loss of control. After intaking excess food, or binging, these people feel guilty and attempt to get rid of the food they ingested. This happens in several different forms: purging, abusing laxatives or over-exercising. Bulimia is different from just going out and eating what you would consider a lot of food with friends and then feeling upset that you broke your diet. Instead, bulimia is the result of extreme and dangerous starvation for an extended period of time. A person can only starve for so long before they either die or hit rock bottom with weight loss. Bulimia often develops in victims of anorexia after they have lost as much weight as their body can handle. When an anorexic realizes they plateaued in weight loss, it becomes harder and harder to continue the starvation and overworking of their body. Sooner or later, bulimia almost always develops.

Both of these eating disorders cause severe and often irreversible damage to the body. If the disease doesn’t kill its victims, it can and will destroy their bodies. These consequences—including kidney failure, irregular heartbeat, osteoporosis, hair loss, ulcers, and gastric ruptures—are tragically ironic and stand out as unfortunate examples of how people destroy themselves for the sake of what they think is beauty.

An eating disorder is not something that just comes and goes for a couple of weeks; it is a serious, long-term disease that is a 24/7 nightmare for the sufferer. If you or someone you know is struggling with this disease, take action and tell a trusted advisor. Don’t let it run your life.