Work/Life Connections–EAP offers food for thought for Eating Disorders Awareness Month

By Chad A. Buck, Ph.D.
Vanderbilt Work/Life Connections–Employee Assistance Program psychologist


February is Eating Disorders Awareness Month, and National Eating Disorders Awareness Week runs Feb. 26 through March 4. In response, the Vanderbilt Work/Life Connections–Employee Assistance Program has information to share with you.

The goals of both awareness campaigns are (1) to educate the public about disordered eating and (2) to connect people with potentially life-saving resources. The reality is that eating disorders affect 30 million Americans at some point in their lives and have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. Unfortunately, despite the prevalence of these disorders, they become disorders of shame and secrets, and most people never getting the help they need.

Eating disorders include anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder (BED), avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (AFRID), and other specified feeding or eating disorders (OSFED). People who struggle with eating disorders experience problems in many facets of their lives. For example, relationships are often strained or limited, focus and productivity usually decline, and serious health effects can develop. Common medical complications of eating disorders include heart failure, kidney failure, gastric rupture, gallbladder disease, tooth decay, ulcers, and many other serious conditions. Besides medical complications from binge eating, purging, starvation and over-exercise, suicide is also common among individuals with eating disorders.

In fast-paced, high-demand, high-performance work settings, employees are at higher risk for developing disordered eating behaviors and possibly an eating disorder. For example, in times of higher work demand, people may skip breakfast and/or lunch. Ignoring hunger cues and skipping meals can result in increased hunger later in the day. The restriction of calories and denial of physical hunger and fullness cues are a setup for developing binge eating behaviors. Many employees struggle with poor body image or low self-esteem. The over-consumption or restriction of food may offer comfort, a feeling of power and control, or a sense of protection from the stresses of work and/or home life.

The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) suggests awareness of the following warning signs:

  • Withdrawal from social activities
  • Food rituals
  • Obsessing over appearance
  • Negative self-esteem
  • Hoarding or hiding food
  • Eating in secret
  • Unhealthy exercise habits
  • Disappearing from the room after eating
  • Dangerous dieting or “clean” eating
  • Personality changes
  • Large quantities of disappearing food
  • Hiding wrappers and containers
  • Gastrointestinal distress

If you are concerned about yourself, someone at work or someone at home, it is important to be aware of options for assessment, treatment and recovery. The Work/Life Connections–Employee Assistance Program’s article “Signs, Effects and Recovery Support for Eating Disorders” is a good place to start.

You, a friend or a loved one also can complete a confidential, online screening: Disordered Eating and Negative Body Image Self-Assessment.

While WLC–EAP does not offer ongoing treatment for eating disorders, Vanderbilt employees and spouses can seek brief, targeted support and referrals by calling (615) 936-1327 and making an appointment.