Eating Disorders: It’s Not What You Think!

In 2012, almost nine times more people died  from eating disorders than from breast cancer (300,000 ED deaths / 34,000 BC deaths) yet less than one dollar per person per year is spent on researching eating disorders by the NIH as opposed to almost 300 dollars per person spent researching breast cancer.   Additionally, according to NIH, the prevalence of eating disorders is 10 times that of breast cancer.

As a breast cancer survivor, I am grateful for the dollars spent and the incredible gains made in this field in recent years.  However, as a Psychologist who treats individuals with eating disorders, I am dismayed at the serious lack of interest in eating disorders; a more fatal disease.  Why such an incongruence?  The answer may be in large part due to lack of awareness and myths related to why a person develops an eating disorder.  The vast majority of these people do not wish to have an eating disorder, do not choose it, cannot just get over it, are not raised by bad parents, are not selfish (in fact they doubt their self-worth in the face of overwhelming evidence), are not only young white girls and CAN fully recover.

The truth is that people who develop eating disorders are typically born with differences in their brain chemistry which increase their sensitivity to stimuli.  This sensitivity produces a heightened awareness of their own experiences and of those around them which generally leads to harm avoidant behaviors such as perfectionism, social avoidance and eating disorders. The parents of these individuals often describe them as having been sensitive and perfectionistic since a very early age.  The young women afflicted with eating disorders are among our brightest and most talented individuals.  They are generally selfless and extremely caring.  Given the statistics, you know someone who has an eating disorder!  With a mortality rate estimated at about 12 times higher than the annual death rate due to all causes of death among females aged 15-24 in the general population, drastic measures should be taken quickly.

Although there have been amazing strides and developments in the understanding and treatment of breast cancer in the last 20 years, I have seen much less development in the understanding and treatment of eating disorders.  If awareness of these truths is raised, increased funding for research will eventually follow and romanticizing thinness may diminish.

We want to thank our esteemed guest blogger, Linda Paulk Buchanan, PhD. Dr. Linda Buchanan is the founder and Clinical Co-Director of the Atlanta Center for Eating Disorders, an Intensive Outpatient and Day Treatment Center for individuals with eating disorders. The center was founded in 1993, over 20 years ago and has grown to provide treatment not only in its original location in Dunwoody but to two satellite offices in Alpharetta and Decatur. Dr. Buchanan received a masters degree in Counseling from Georgia State University, a masters diploma in Christian Counseling from the Psychological Studies Institute and a Ph.D. from Georgia State University in Counseling Psychology. She has published two chapters on her model of treatment of eating disorders which have been used as texts in a local doctoral program for Clinical Psychology students. Additionally, she has published four research articles on the treatment of eating disorders including two outcome studies of the treatment provided at Atlanta Center for Eating Disorders. She has been married for 30 years and is the mother of two teenaged boys.