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Specialists raise awareness during eating disorder week 

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Mark Moran

(Iowa News Service) Millions of people suffer from eating disorders, which range from mild to lethal.

Experts are spreading knowledge and information during National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, and calling for additional education, funding and research to combat the problem.

Researchers have not been able to pin down exactly what causes eating disorders, which can range from an unhealthy relationship with food to a lethal obsession with overeating, under-eating, or both; often at the same time.

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Lauren Smolar, vice president of mission and education for the National Eating Disorders Association, said the illnesses can show up in a variety of ways, including someone abruptly eating drastically greater or lesser amounts of food than they typically do. 

"It could also mean that they are not interested in eating meals with other people anymore," Smolar pointed out. "Drastic changes in shape or weight can be a warning sign of an eating disorder. But even cause for concern can be just changes in mood and shifts in attitudes; the way that they're talking about foods."

One thing researchers agree on is eating disorders are a mental illness, not a choice, and while people often assume young, white females are most frequently afflicted, anorexia and bulimia nervosa, along with a host of other eating disorders, do not discriminate and are common in both genders of varying ages and ethnic groups.

Smolar noted the pandemic heightened awareness of eating disorders and other mental health issues, but added, despite some progress, there is still precious little research, funding and social acceptance of eating disorders as lethal mental illnesses the way, for example, cancer is accepted as a deadly disease. 

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"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 observed. "There is still a lot to be learned about brain chemistry and rewiring of brains and how mental health works, and it's much more normalized to talk about it, but there's just a lot more education that needs to be done."

Smolar said because health care workers are not required to learn about eating disorders as part of their training, 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 only opioid addiction.