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.
WHEN TO SEE A MENTAL HEALTH PROFESSIONAL
Mental health issues are real, common, and treatable. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) 1 in 5 adults experience mental illness and 20% of those are considered serious. 17% of 6-17 year olds experience a mental health disorder. So the first thing to remember is this: You are not alone.
If you feel that you are suffering from a mental illness, and particularly if those issues are preventing you from living life to the full or feeling yourself, you may want to consider professional help which can make an enormous difference.
And to be clear, you don't need to be going through a crisis in order to justify getting help. In fact, it can be advantageous from a treatment perspective to identify and deal with issues early and before they have a major impact on your life. Either way you should feel encouraged and able to seek help however you are feeling.
Mental health professionals such as licensed therapist can help in a range of ways including:
- Help you identify where, when, and how issues arise
- Develop coping strategies for specific symptoms and issues
- Encourage resilience and self-management
- Identify and change negative behaviors
- Identify and encourage positive behaviors
- Heal pain from past trauma
- Figure out goals and waypoints
- Build self-confidence
Treatment for mental health issues, and psychotherapy (sometimes known as 'talk therapy') in particular, frequently helps people to feel better, manage, and even get rid of their symptoms. For example, did you know that over 80% of people treated for depression materially improve? Or that treatment for panic disorder has a 90% success rate?
Other treatment options include medication which, in some cases, can be highly effective when administered in combination with psychotherapy.
So what is psychotherapy? It involves talking about your problems and concerns with a mental health professional. It can take lots of forms, including individual, group, couples and family sessions. Often, people see their therapists once a week for 50 minutes to start with and then reducing frequency as time goes on and issues subside. Treatment can be as short as a few weeks or as long as a few years depending on your particular situation and response.
Never think that getting help is a sign of weakness. It isn't. In fact, it can be a sign of strength and maturity to take the steps necessary to becoming you again and getting your life back on track.
WHEN TO GET EMERGENCY HELP
Are you in distress? If so, or if you think that you may hurt yourself or attempt suicide, call 911 or your local emergency number immediately.
Also consider these options if you're having suicidal thoughts:
- Call your mental health specialist.
- Call a suicide hotline number — in the U.S., call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255).
- Seek help from your primary doctor or other health care provider.
- Reach out to a close friend or loved one.
- Contact a minister, spiritual leader or someone else in your faith community.
If a loved one or friend is in danger of attempting suicide or has made an attempt:
- Make sure someone stays with that person.
- Call 911 or your local emergency number immediately.
- Or, if you can do so safely, take the person to the nearest hospital emergency room.