Three minutes can save a life during eating disorders awareness week

Around 30 million Americans will deal with an eating disorder at some point in their lifetime, according to the National Eating Disorders Association, a number that includes 10 million men and people of all socio-economic backgrounds and age groups. A large part of the association's messaging involves helping people to understand those statistics and busting myths around eating disorders, according to CEO Clare Mysko.

"Unfortunately, eating disorders are still largely defined as girl's and women's issues, but they affect men and women, girls and boys. They also affect people of all ages, of all ethnicities, of all sizes," she said. "They are often dismissed or misunderstood as vanity issues, or choices, and in fact these are very, very serious illnesses. ... They have the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric diagnosis."


Since 2001, the biggest tool for spreading the word on eating disorders has been the annual National Eating Disorders Awareness Week campaign, which this year kicked off on Sunday.

"This year, the focus of the campaign is on early intervention," Mysko said. "Our theme is 'Three minutes can save a life. Get screened, get help, get healthy.' We are directing people to an online screening tool."

While recovery from an eating disorder is possible at any point, getting treatment early, before behaviors become entrenched can be easier, according to Mysko. The screening tool cannot diagnose an eating disorder, she said, but it can help identify behaviors that could be signs of potential troubles ahead, allowing for that important early intervention.

"It's a set of questions really looking at attitudes and behaviors around food, weight, body image, exercise and it will give you an indicator of whether you might need to speak to a health professional," Mysko said. "We have a database of treatment options all across the country and also train volunteers who can offer support via phone. We also have a click-to-chat function on our website. So for those who are concerned about themselves or someone they care about, they can reach out and talk to someone."

Eating disorders include anorexia nervosa, which Mysko said is characterized by restricting food intake and can result dangerous weight loss and malnutrition; and bulimia nervosa, characterized by bingeing on foods and then purging. Then there is also binge eating disorder, which is characterized by recurring bouts of bingeing on food and is the newest eating disorder to be officially categorized in the fifth edition of the "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders." It also affects the largest number of people, according to Mysko.

One study found that around 4 percent of people suffering from anorexia will die from the disorder, while the mortality rate for bulimia was 3.9 percent, according to the National Eating Disorder Association website.

"Then there are a lot of people that fit into the sub-threshold category, where they might not fit the diagnostic criteria for anorexia, bulimia or binge eating disorder, but their thoughts and behaviors around food and weight are really causing a lot of problems in their lives," she said. "That is really part of the goal of this year's National Eating Disorders Awareness Week; it's to get people to reach out for help at that early point."

Eating disorders can develop at any time of life, according to Mysko, and a person in middle age is no more immune than an adolescent.

"We are hearing from more and more people in middle age. Some of them have been struggling since they were young, and other times certain major life events can be triggers for eating disorders — divorce, children leaving the home for college, caring for older parents," she said. "As people get older, sometimes the pressure around facing mortality and not having age valued at all in our culture can sometimes contribute disordered eating."

Many times, an eating disorder will have its roots in a perceived attempt to be healthy, according to Mysko: Dieting is one of the major risk factors for developing an eating disorder, especially in a culture that so highly values photogenic fitness. She hopes the three minute screening during National Eating Disorders Awareness Week will help people discover if they have crossed the threshold into unhealthy behaviors and seek help.

"We live in a culture where thinness and perfection are really glorified. The cultural messages really reinforce the idea that the 'perfect body' — the thin, fit body — is the answer to all of our problems," she said. "All of those different factors combine to really make eating disorders an epidemic in this country."



More information

Three minutes can save a life: Get screened for risk factors for developing an eating disorder with this short and confidential assessment from the National Eating Disorder Association, available at

More information on eating disorders can be found online at, while those seeking support or referral to help can call the National Eating Disorder Association Helpline at 800-931-2237.