Advocates: More Research, Funding Needed for Eating Disorders

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Health care researchers estimate about 1.1 million people in Illinois suffer from some form of eating disorder, which can range in severity from mild to lethal. During National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, advocacy groups are calling for more education funding and research. Experts say the exact cause of eating disorders is hard to pin down. They say the condition can range from an unhealthy relationship with food to a serious obsession with overeating, under-eating, or both. Lauren Smolar, vice president of mission and education for the National Eating Disorders Association, said the illness can show up in a number of ways.

“It could also mean that they are not interested in eating meals with other people anymore. Drastic changes in shape or weight can be a warning sign of an eating disorder. But even cause for concern could be just changes in the way that they’re talking about foods,” Smolar outlined.

One thing researchers agree on is eating disorders are a mental illness, not a choice. Smolar observed people often assume young, white females are most frequently afflicted with anorexia, bulimia and other eating disorders. But she pointed out the illnesses are common in all ages, genders and ethnic groups. Smolar acknowledged the pandemic heightened awareness of eating disorders and other mental health issues. But she noted there is still very little research, funding and social acceptance of eating disorders as lethal mental illnesses, the same way, for example, cancer is seen as a deadly disease.

“But you can see cancer on a physical screening, whereas it’s a little harder to show that an eating disorder is there, in essence,” Smolar explained. “There’s still a lot to be learned about brain chemistry and rewiring of brains and how mental health works. There’s just a lot more education that needs to be done.”

And because health care workers are not required to learn about eating disorders as part of their training, Smolar emphasized early detection is also lacking. The American Society for Nutrition reports more than 10,000 people die each year from eating disorders, the second-most lethal mental illness behind opioid addiction.

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