SIOUX CITY, Iowa (KCAU) — In the last week of February each year, the National Eating Disorder Awareness Week and everyone from the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) to the Eating Disorder Coalition of Iowa (EDCI) are encouraging people to know the signs of an eating disorder.

According to Iowa Eating Disorder Coalition President Sara Schwatken, there can be a fine line between disordered eating and socially accepted eating and dieting practices.

“We also know from the research that often dieting can lead to the development of eating disorders. Thus, it can be difficult for the individual to understand how their food behaviors may be more harmful than they realized,” Schwatken said.

Unlike dieting behaviors, eating disorders are more severe, have medical complications and can interrupt a person’s functioning. Though EDCI stresses that regardless of if someone has an eating disorder, they deserve to have a healthy relationship with food and their body image.

Common symptoms of eating disorders are dramatic or sudden weight gain and weight loss without explanation, distorted body image, and feeling distressed about food. Sensitive teeth and an upset stomach, abdominal pain, or gastrointestinal issues without a known case can also be signs of eating disorders.

“It is important to be aware of the signs and symptoms of eating disorders and talk to your physician or a health care professional if signs are being observed in yourself, a friend, or a family member,” said Tony Green, interim director of The Division of Behavioral Health for the Nebraska DHHS.

According to Schwatken, the key difference between disordered eating and just normal dieting is severity of the dieting that is undertaken. The Nebraska DHHS said that eating disorders are not a choice. Eating disorders are, instead, mental illnesses that require treatment.

There are numerous eating disorders but, according to DHHS, the three most common eating disorders are Binge Eating Disorder, Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa.

According to the EDCI, Binge Eating Disorder, the most common eating disorder, is when a rapid amount of food is eaten over a short period of time without any behaviors to compensate for eating the food. Binging behaviors with an attempt to compensate for the food eaten through methods such as weight loss, laxative use or excessive exercise is Bulimia Nervosa.

Anorexia Nervosa involves an obsessive interest in weight, restriction of food that leads to low body weight and a disturbance in how one’s body shape is perceived. Some with Anorexia may also binge and purge or may exercise excessively.

EDCI also said that someone can have an eating disorder without meeting any criteria for an established eating disorder, or they can meet all but one or two criteria of a recognized eating disorder. In that case, they may be diagnosed with either Other Specified Feeding and Eating Disorder or Unspecified Eating Disorder.

According to a proclamation signed by President Joe Biden, eating disorders affect approximately 1 in 10 people at some point in their lifetimes.

“My Administration is taking action to address eating disorders. Through the National Institute of Mental Health, we are working to develop better therapies and interventions,” Biden said in his proclamation.

Schwatken said she encourages parents and caregivers to approach the situation with compassion but should be timely about it. If a caregiver does need to have a conversation, they should have the conversation as soon as they notice symptoms. Early intervention can often result in better outcomes, she explained.

According to Schwatken, it is not just up to caregivers to provide treatment and a way forward for the affected person. Instead, a team including physicians, therapists, and dieticians can approach the problem together to help treat the eating disorder.