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One million Canadians have been diagnosed with eating disorders. And these are just the ones we know about. Countless others are struggling in silence due to the stigma about this mental health condition. Unfortunately, lack of diagnosis and prompt treatment can have dire—and potentially deadly—consequences.

Held during the first week of February every year, Eating Disorder Awareness Week (EDAW) shines the light on eating disorders to help eliminate the shame associated with them and ensure that people get the care they need.

If you or someone you love is coping with this life-threatening disease, there is hope—and you don’t have to do it alone. In this article, we’ll cover everything you need to know about eating disorders, including how you can join the fight against this insidious illness.

What are Eating Disorders?

There are many different types of eating disorders. Some of the most common include:

Anorexia Nervosa (AN). Often referred to solely as anorexia, it is characterized by an intense fear of weight gain, low body weight, and distorted perceptions about weight and shape.

People with anorexia use a variety of methods to lose weight, including excessively limiting calories, using laxatives and diet aids, and vomiting after meals.

Bulimia Nervosa (BN). Often referred to solely as bulimia, it is characterized by episodes of binging and purging accompanied by feeling a lack of control over eating.

People with bulimia may also restrict their eating or eat large amounts of food at others. They may vomit after eating, over-exercise, or use laxatives to compensate for purging, and are often preoccupied with their weight and body shape.

Binge Eating Disorder (BED). As with bulimia, people with binge eating disorders may feel a lack of control over their eating and regularly eat too much food. They may eat even when they’re not hungry, and may not stop eating even when they’re uncomfortably full.

Unlike people with bulimia, people with binge-eating disorder do not attempt to get rid of the calories through purging. They may be consumed with feelings of guilt, disgust and shame, and may eat alone to conceal their behaviour.

Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID). People with ARFID fail to meet their minimum daily nutritional requirements for reasons ranging from lack of interest in eating to fears about choking.

Unlike other common eating disorders, ARFID is not related to fears of weight gain.

Otherwise Specified Feeding and Eating Disorder (OSFED). Previously known as Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS), this category encompasses people living with eating disorders that don’t meet the specific diagnostic criteria for anorexia or bulimia. For example, a person may have symptoms of anorexia but do not meet the low weight criteria for a full anorexia nervosa diagnosis.

Just because OSFED is a “catch-all” classification does not mean it’s less serious than other eating disorders.

An individual has restrictive behaviors and other symptoms of anorexia, however, they do not meet the low weight criteria.

While each of these eating disorder types may differ in their specifics, they can all lead to severe health problems and become life-threatening without treatment.

How prevalent are eating disorders in Canada?

Not only do eating disorders impact millions of people in Canada, but they are also a leading cause of premature death.

They have the highest overall mortality rate of all mental illnesses. As many as 10 to 15 percent of people with eating disorders will die from them. People suffering from anorexia and bulimia are also at increased risk of suicide.

Eating disorders are especially prevalent among youth in Canada. Many start dangerous dieting behaviours at early ages, which is linked with the later development of these disorders. Here are some eye-opening statistics about eating disorders and their causes and effects among young people in Canada:

    • As many as 30 percent of girls and 25 percent of boys aged 10-14 diet to lose weight, which can snowball into eating disorders.

    • 2 to 4 times as many Canadian children have eating disorders as they do Type 2 diabetes.

    • The mortality rate associated with anorexia for females aged 15-24 is twelve times greater than for all other combined causes of death.

While young people may be at significant risk for eating disorders, the reality is that eating disorders are an equal opportunity disease. This means that they can strike anyone, regardless of age, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic class, race, ethnicity, or abilities.

What is EDAW: Eating Disorders Awareness Week?

The statistics above underscore the need for effective treatment, which starts with awareness and prevention. This is why the National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC) established Eating Disorders Awareness Week.

Observed across Canada every year from February 1st to the 7th, EDAW comprises a week of action aimed at educating the public about eating disorders, debunking dangerous myths and misconceptions, and increasing access to support for everyone affected by them.

During EDAW, organizations across Canada host events and conduct public education campaigns. Additionally, supporters wear purple clothing — the official colour for this awareness week.

Deborah Berlin, Executive Director of eating disorder support organization Sheena’s Place explains, “Research shows that those not treated within the first three years can battle the illness for decades. It can mean the difference between life and death if we can encourage those who need help to come forward, knowing that there are open arms and open minds at the ready.”

History of Eating Disorders Awareness Week

EDAW’s origins date back to 1986, when 40 people from the US, Canada, and UK came together to talk about the need to shine the light on eating disorders.

“The idea was to increase awareness, to identify people who were struggling and to look at the needs of individuals in terms of treatment, because in 1986 there wasn’t a whole lot going on [in the eating disorder community], or people were just getting started,” recalls National Initiative for Eating Disorders (NIED) Co-founder Patti Perry.

While the concept was relatively simple, the process wasn’t. It required significant advocacy and time — almost six years! — to push through Bill 61, which officially proclaimed EDAW in Ontario.

That moment was huge for the people who’d worked tirelessly in the effort. Says NEDIC’s Suzanne Phillips, “It felt like everybody’s hard work was recognized. It felt like individuals who are impacted by eating disorders had what they rightfully deserve, which is recognition. It’s a first step, and I think it was a very necessary good first step to give us the energy to keep going.”

Things You Can Do To Support Eating Disorders Awareness Week

Want to add your voice to the EDAW cause? There are many ways of doing so, including the following four activities.

1. Raise awareness on social media

Social media isn’t just a great place for sharing photos and funny memes. It’s also an excellent platform for getting the word out about causes that matter. Whether you share an article (like this one!) or reshare posts from organizations like NEDIC and NIED, you can make a difference.

To maximize the reach of your posts during EDAW, make sure to use relevant hashtags, such as #EDAW and #EatingDisorderAwarenessWeek.

2. Attend local events in your area

All over Canada, organizations have been busy planning in-person and online events on eating disorders, body image, self-esteem, mental health, and other related topics. Show your support by showing up!

Here are some places to look to find events in your area:

3. Volunteer for an eating disorders prevention organization

“Many hands make light work,” which is why volunteering is so important. Many local organizations need help during EDAW and throughout the year.

Whether you have a specific talent such as publicity, event management, or photography, or you’re eager to pitch in any way you can, here are some spots to start your search for opportunities to volunteer:

4. Donate

Unite for Change’s Support Mental Health Fund is actively raising funds to end the stigma associated with eating disorders and other mental health issues—and to increase access to critical care. It comprises more than 470 registered charities supporting mental health and caring for people with mental illness. By donating to the Fund, many Canadians are helping to ensure that no one suffers alone, and that everyone has access to counselling, peer-to-peer support, helplines, and other critical services. Join hundred of Canadians and become a mental health champion by donating to the Fund today.

You can also help us spread the word by sharing a link to the Support Mental Health Fund on your social media.

While Eating Disorders Awareness Week is a great time to support the Fund and raise awareness, organizations work yearound to ensure people get the help they need. There’s no need to wait. You can make a difference at any time. Learn more about the Support Mental Health Fund or make a donation today.

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