Understanding eating disorders at the workplace

Have you heard about eating disorders at work? Most likely you haven’t. Most employers don’t have it on their radar as something to educate about or help their employees with. But it is an important topic that we should be talking about.

“Eating disorders can affect anyone. High-performing, dedicated employees may struggle with disordered eating … impairing otherwise excellent performance. As with many illnesses, eating disorders have serious health effects that, gone untreated, may lead to lost productivity and long-term medical problems.” — Eating disorders in the workplace toolkit, National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA)

I am bringing up the issue of eating disorders this month for a few reasons. First, National Eating Disorder Awareness Week is the last week of February. Second, I am in recovery myself, and continue to feel challenged even though I’m currently doing well. And third, I have worked with many employees in health coaching sessions throughout the years that struggle with disordered eating patterns, even if they are not diagnosed with an eating disorder.

In this blog, I am going to define both eating disorders and disordered eating, and provide us with ways we can help employees.

Statistics on eating disorders

  • 30 million people from all ages and genders suffer from eating disorders.
  • Every 62 minutes someone dies from complications from an eating disorder.
  • Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.
  • One in five people who suffer from anorexia commit suicide.
  • Thirteen percent of women over the age of 50 engage in eating disorder behaviors.

Source: ANAD

These are the statistics on eating disorders that have been reported. However, many people do not report their eating behaviors, so these statistics are likely under-representing the issue.

Health complications of eating disorders

Eating disorders can contribute to a number of health issues. In addition to affecting someone’s energy, vitality, and sense of well-being, the following medical complications can emerge:

  • Weight loss or weight gain;
  • Gastro-intestinal conditions (mouth, throat, stomach, and intestines);
  • Electrolyte imbalance;
  • Muscle loss and weakness;
  • Osteoporosis;
  • Heart disease and heart failure;
  • Type 2 diabetes; and
  • Gallbladder disease.

Eating disorders

When someone is diagnosed with an eating disorder, it means that the mindset and behaviors regarding eating and their body have become obsessive, compulsive, addictive, and they feel a lack of ability to control them. Like any addiction, it feels as if the eating disorder is in control of the person, rather than the person being in control of their mindset and behaviors.

Ironically, most people with eating disorders say that they engage in the behaviors as a means to feel like they are in control of their body and/or their eating, especially if other areas of their life are feeling out-of-control.

There are many types of eating disorders. The most commonly mentioned are anorexia, bulimia, and binge-eating disorder. Anorexia is where someone severely restricts their eating and loses a significant amount of weight, many times to the point of being underweight. Bulimia is where a person repeatedly overeats and then purges the food through vomiting, laxatives, or over-exercising. And binge-eating disorder is where the person repeatedly compulsively overeats to the point of being uncomfortably full. However, it is important to note that someone with an eating disorder can also have a variety of these behaviors that cross over categories.



Disordered eating

Disordered eating is more prevalent. People with disordered eating patterns (e.g., restrictive eating, binge-eating, or purging), are doing similar behaviors to those with eating disorders, but their mindset has not become obsessive and compulsive about it. The person feels as if they still have control over the behaviors. They may feel upset about their behaviors, but they don’t feel overtaken by them. 

Although we don’t have statistics on disordered eating (as separate from eating disorders), it is clear that many people struggle with their eating behaviors.

If we include common practices like overeating, mindless eating (eating without paying attention to what we are eating, how we are eating, how much we are eating, or how we are feeling when we are eating), or eating when we are not hungry (i.e., eating when bored or stressed) as forms of disordered eating, then most of the population struggles.

How worksite weight loss programs may contribute to developing eating disorders

With good intent, employers have been trying to help their employees improve their health through weight management efforts. They may offer something like a “Biggest Loser” campaign and make it a contest based on how much weight people can lose. However, these efforts can often backfire.

These efforts are focused on weight, not wellness or self-care, and we are classifying employees as unhealthy or healthy, or bad or good, based on their weight. This can be emotionally damaging.

Judging ourselves on our body compared to any sort of standards can lead to self-worth issues. When we judge ourselves against a physical ideal, we often feel like we are failing. Even if we attain the ideal, the obsession continues out of fear that we will lose it, or fear that we are still not good enough. This is one of the foundations for developing eating disorders.

When we focus on weight, we are focused on the outcome rather than the determinants (what’s causing the weight), including how social systems (like the employer or society) might be contributing to it with our environment and social practices.

How food at work may be challenging for those with disordered eating or eating disorders

Vending machines, candy dishes, and treats at work are especially challenging for those who struggle with disordered eating or eating disorders.

How an employer can help

If you’d like to help your employees with eating disorders and disordered eating, I would also suggest the following:

  • Switch the focus from weight loss to “health at every size” and mindful eating.
  • If you use incentives for wellness, be sure to reward participation rather than weight loss.
  • Minimize candy dishes and treats brought in to the office, if possible.
  • Download and read the NEDA’s “Eating Disorders in the Workplace Toolkit.”
  • Observe National Eating Disorder Awareness Week at your worksite this February.
  • Consider encouraging employees to do a private eating disorder screening.
  • Write an article about eating disorders in your employee newsletter.
  • Put posters up about eating disorders and how to get help on your bulletin boards.
  • Promote your health benefits, and your employee assistance program (EAP).
  • Be sure that eating disorder treatment is a covered benefit in your health plan.

Finally, reassess your vision, mission, and goals for your wellness program. Aim to help your employees with their overall wellness and well-being through holistic worksite wellness programming.

Stay tuned for next month’s blog post! March is National Nutrition Month. I will be writing about more ways that employers can encourage and support healthy eating.

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