What is An Eating Disorder?
Eating disorders are characterized by a persistent disturbance in eating behaviors which impairs the consumption and absorption of food. That, in turn, has a profoundly negative impact on your physical health and psychosocial functioning.
In other words, eating disorders cause people to eat excessive amounts of food, starve themselves, or adopt a distorted and unhealthy attitude towards food and bodyweight.
Conditions like binge eating, bulimia, or anorexia are not just ‘bad’ eating habits. These problematic behaviors and attitudes toward food can interfere with our day-to-day life and – in the absence of proper treatment – can cause severe health issues.
Signs of an Eating Disorder
Although each type of eating disorder has a specific set of symptoms, there are some common signs which may point toward problematic eating behaviors:
- Chronic dieting, despite having a healthy body-mass index.
- Constant weight fluctuations.
- Counting calories and eliminating fat from all food consumed.
- The presence of eating rituals such as eating alone, cutting food into small pieces, or even concealing food.
- Depression or lethargy.
- Obsessive thoughts and rigid behaviors related to food, recipes, and cooking.
- Constant variations between excessive eating and fasting.
But in order to understand how problematic eating behaviors manifest in our daily lives, we need to take a closer look at the three main categories of eating disorders.
Binge Eating Disorder represents the inability to stop eating, which results in the consumption of unusually large amounts of food. This behavior is often accompanied by intense feelings of guilt and embarrassment linked to excessive eating.
Unlike bulimics, people who struggle with binge eating do not take compensatory measures (e.g. vomiting, laxatives). As a result, many who suffer from binge eating disorder may be overweight and at risk of developing numerous medical conditions such as cardiovascular disease.
Bulimia Nervosa is characterized by frequent episodes of fast consumption of large amounts of food, followed by compensatory behaviors (e.g. laxatives, vomiting, extreme workouts, fasting). This vicious cycle of consuming excessive amounts of food and taking preventive measures to avoid weight gain is done in secret, often generating shame and guilt.
Anorexia Nervosa is characterized by extreme limitation of food intake coupled with cleansing rituals (e.g. laxatives, vomiting, diuretics). People with anorexia are obsessed with body weight, counting calories, and extreme dieting. The core of this condition is a distorted body image that prompts the person to engage in all sorts of extreme eating behaviors that often lead to severe health problems.
How are Eating Disorders Treated?
Eating disorders are complex conditions that require the involvement of specialists from different fields - counselors, psychotherapists, psychiatrists, nutritionists, and physicians. In other words, there aren’t any set-in-stone treatment options that can be applied by a single specialist.
Since we’re dealing with complex disorders that often lead to unique complications for each case, the scientific literature is relatively limited on this topic. However, there are several approaches that experts believe are highly effective in dealing with eating disorders:
Counseling and psychotherapy: Counseling and psychotherapy are the most common approaches that experts use to treat eating disorders. By exploring the source of the problem and discussing potential strategies to overcome unhealthy eating behaviors, mental health professionals can help the patients/clients change their relationship with food.
Nutrition counseling: Because of unhealthy eating habits (extreme dieting, fasting), people who struggle with eating disorders are often dealing with vitamin and mineral deficiencies. With the help of nutrition experts, they can gradually adopt healthier eating habits, thus avoiding medical complications.
Psychiatric medication: Since eating disorders are often accompanied by anxiety, depression, and other severe psychological symptoms, some experts believe medication should be a vital part of the treatment plan. Once medication begins to take effect, patients can get a handle on the severe psychological consequences of eating disorders, and that will significantly speed up recovery.