Eating disorders affect an estimated 30 million Americans

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March 1 marks the end of the annual National Eating Disorder Week, but what is an eating disorder?

An eating disorder might be much broader in scope than you think and includes avoiding eating, binge eating and other unhealthy behaviors.

Eating disorders are a type of mental illness. Getting a diagnosis is the first step toward being free of the bonds of the compulsive behavior. The chance for recovery is better when an eating disorder is detected early, so knowing the warning signs is important.

Go to the National Eating Disorders Association website for some excellent general information and suggestions for friends and family of persons suffering from an eating disorder.

Treatment of an eating disorder must address symptoms, medical consequences and the psychological, biological, interpersonal and cultural forces that push an individual toward the behavior. There is often a strong link between an eating disorder and an unrealistic body image. For example, athletes are vulnerable to obsessing over their bodies, and this overemphasis can lead to unhealthy eating patterns.

As with other mental illnesses, eating disorders are equal-opportunity diseases, impacting persons of many ages, income levels and ethnic groups. Eating disorders can strain personal relationships, so treatment for the disease is often more successful when family and/or friends are included in counseling.

The National Eating Disorders Association has a live chat line for support, resources and treatment options. Helpline chat hours are Monday through Thursday from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. You may also phone the Helpline at 800-931-2237 from Monday to Thursday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p,m.

Ann Cochran is the health navigation coordinator in the Dallas County Public Health Department.

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