If you care about someone who has an eating disorder, you know how baffling and frightening these conditions can be. You might feel frustrated or confused about your loved one’s eating rituals. You may even feel hopeless at times as you watch them repeating the same self-destructive behaviors again and again.
Mood disorders, anxiety disorders and substance abuse are common among people with eating disorders, making the situation even more complex.
When you’re dealing with someone who has an eating disorder — whether it’s you or a loved one — it’s important to realize that these behaviors are uncontrollable. With personalized professional treatment, there’s hope for a healthy, stable life. Learning about eating disorders and their treatment can empower you to take the next step in the recovery process.
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How Do Eating Disorders Begin?
Our culture is filled with contradictions. Food is so widely available in the United States that we spend much of our time trying to figure out what to eat, when to eat and where to have our meals. We have a dazzling array of choices available when it comes to shopping, dining out or snacking — in fact, the wealth of food choices is overwhelming. We use food not only to nourish our bodies, but to entertain and comfort ourselves. Many of us overeat as a way to deal with painful emotions or stress. With so much food at our fingertips, and so much pressure in our daily lives, it’s no wonder that approximately two-thirds of adults in the US are overweight, according to the Weight-Control Information Network.
At the same time, the American media places a great emphasis on a physical ideal that very few “average” people could hope to attain. The ideal body portrayed on television, in movies and in magazines is thin or even underweight, perfectly toned and free from bulges, bumps or ripples.
On one hand, we’re faced with an abundance of food; on the other, we’re constantly confronted with the message that we’re eating far too much to achieve the perfect body.
Eating disorders like anorexia nervosa, binge eating and bulimia are most common in countries where food is abundant and cultural expectations of health and fitness are high. But there are many other factors that contribute to these complicated emotional disorders:
- Heredity. Research shows that there is a strong genetic factor in eating disorders. The Alliance for Eating Disorders Awareness reports that heredity is responsible for 50 to 80 percent of your risk of developing anorexia, bulimia or another eating disorder. Eating disorders are often seen in sisters, twins, and in mothers and daughters.
- Gender. Although eating disorders affect both males and females, they are more common among girls and women. In our society, females experience more pressure to reach an ideal body weight and achieve a certain physical appearance. Teenagers and young women, in particular, tend to base their self-esteem on their weight and size.
- Age. Eating disorders are most common in teenagers and young adults under the age of 25; however, they are becoming more widespread in other age groups, notes the Eating Disorder Foundation. Adults between the ages of 30 and 50 are now more likely to show symptoms, as are younger children. The number of 10-year-old girls on a calorie-restricted diet is as high as 46 percent.
- History of abuse. Dysfunctional eating behavior may arise from the pain of physical, emotional or sexual abuse. A study published in the Journal of Clinical Nursing found that childhood neglect or abuse were strong predictors of eating disorders later in life. Children who don’t receive adequate treatment for traumatic experiences are more likely to express their emotional pain through their eating behaviors.
- Transitional experiences. Stressful events in life, such as puberty, divorce, death or relocation, can trigger an eating disorder in some individuals. When life feels out of control, exercising rigid control over your eating behavior may temporarily relieve the stress of change.
- Criticism and bullying. Children and young adults are often subject to criticism of their bodies from parents, siblings, teachers and peers. Kids who are bullied or criticized for being overweight have a greater chance of developing unhealthy eating patterns as a result. A simple diet can turn into anorexia or bulimia if it’s taken to extremes.
Do Diets Cause Eating Disorders?
Most eating disorders don’t begin with a desire to become dangerously thin, to exercise to the point of heart failure or to malnourish the body. They usually begin with an ordinary calorie-restricted diet that turns into a compulsive condition. This doesn’t mean that diets directly cause bulimia or anorexia. However, strenuous dieting can take a dangerous turn if the restrictions become too extreme.
The effects of self-starvation, purging and excessive exercise may cause chemical changes in the brain that contribute to the pathology of eating disorders. Malnutrition can also lead to fatigue and depression, increasing the risk of isolation and suicidal thoughts.
Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that 17 percent of American children and teens can be considered obese. With obesity, type 2 diabetes and high cholesterol on the rise among young people, it’s natural for parents to be concerned. But while kids should be encouraged to maintain a healthy body weight and eat a balanced diet, any attempt to restrict calories or begin an exercise program should be monitored carefully.
See More on: Healthy Diet and Exercise | Women’s Health | Men’s Health
Common Eating Disorders
Eating disorders are not always easy to identify. People who struggle with eating disorders will often take elaborate measures to keep them hidden from others, such as hiding their weight loss, hording food or purging in secret. Parents, teachers and friends may be unaware that a teenager or child has an eating disorder until he or she develops serious health problems. If you’re aware of the most common eating disorders and their signs and symptoms, you may be able to save yourself or someone you love from their life-threatening consequences:
The Most Common Eating Disorders
- Anorexia nervosa. Extreme weight loss, severe calorie restriction, compulsive exercise and an obsession with being thin are the classic signs of anorexia, an eating disorder that has become one of the most common chronic illnesses among adolescents.
- Bulimia nervosa. Like anorexia, bulimia centers around an obsession with weight gain. But this disorder is known for its destructive cycle of binge eating and purging. Bulimics may force themselves to vomit, exercise to the point of exhaustion or starve themselves for periods of time in order to compensate for binging on high-calorie foods. Bulimics may be underweight or overweight, but in most cases, their body size remains average in spite of their attempts to reach an unrealistic physical ideal.
- Binge eating disorder. Regular episodes of compulsive overeating, or binges, are the characteristic sign of this disorder. Unlike bulimia, binge eating disorder usually does not involve purging behavior. As a result, binge eating can quickly lead to obesity.
- Orthorexia. Orthorexia is an eating disorder that restricts the diet to foods that are perceived as “healthy.” A person with orthorexia may attempt to live on a diet of fruits and vegetables, for instance, at the expense of grains, dairy products, lean proteins and other nutritious foods. The result is a severely imbalanced diet that can cause serious health complications.
- Night eating syndrome. Night eating syndrome is characterized by the consumption large quantities of food after the traditional dinner hour but before breakfast. People with night eating syndrome consume most of their calories after dark and will often get up in the middle of the night to snack. They may also have trouble sleeping. This eating disorder is often linked with stress and depression.
- EDNOS. Many of those who struggle with dysfunctional eating patterns don’t meet all of the diagnostic criteria for an eating disorder. For instance, a high school student may diet her way down to an abnormally low body weight without meeting all the official criteria for anorexia. A young professional woman who binge eats and purges occasionally may feel tormented by her behavior, but she might not qualify as a bulimic according to the standards of the mental health profession. Does this mean that these people don’t need help? Absolutely not. The phrase “eating disorder not otherwise specified” (EDNOS) is just the clinical term for people who don’t necessarily reflect the medical portrait of anorexia or bulimia.
Risks and Warning Signs
Eating disorders can have a negative impact on all aspects of your life. Constant dieting, compulsive exercising, binging and purging can damage the body. Malnutrition, dehydration, self-induced vomiting and laxative abuse can ravage your vital organs. You may be subject to chronic conditions like obesity, diabetes, cancer, heart disease or arthritis. The shame, guilt and stress of hiding an eating disorder from others can undermine relationships, interfere with work and lead to social isolation. Your self-esteem may suffer as you fail to meet unrealistic physical standards over and over again. If you’re like many of those who suffer from anorexia, bulimia or binge eating disorder, you may use alcohol or drugs to numb your emotional pain. The warning signs of an eating disorder should always be taken seriously. According to Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, early detection and treatment of eating disorders can make a big difference in whether or not recovery is successful. If you notice that you or someone else in your life has started to display the signs below, it’s important to seek help as soon as possible:
Signs of An Eating Disorder
- An unhealthy preoccupation with dieting, weight loss products or exercise
- An excessive interest in complying with the dietary instructions of an athletic coach, ballet instructor, modeling agent, etc.
- An obsession with celebrities who are thin or who have recently lost weight
- Constantly looking in the mirror or stepping on the scale
- Limiting food choices to only a few specific items
- Hoarding food or spending a lot of money on food that disappears very quickly
- Using over-the-counter weight-loss pills, laxatives, diuretics or enemas
- Disappearing into the bathroom after meals
- Refusing to eat meals with the family or participate in social activities where food is involved
- Exercising strenuously at the expense of all other activities
- Losing or gaining a large amount of weight in a short period of time
- Uncharacteristic mood swings or emotional outbursts
- A defensive or angry attitude when questioned about eating habits
- Expressions of hopelessness, despair, a lack of interest in life or a desire to commit suicide
The more you know about the signs and symptoms of eating disorders, the more likely you are to get help for someone you love before serious harm occurs.
Eating Disorder Treatment
At one time, eating disorders were considered to be relatively minor behavioral health issues. But the mental health community now recognizes that eating disorders are serious psychiatric conditions that require intensive, multidimensional treatment. Treatment requirements may be even more complex if you are also diagnosed with a mood disorder or if you are fighting drug and alcohol addiction. Like addiction, an eating disorder is a chronic condition that can recur throughout your lifetime unless it’s consistently managed.
A treatment plan for an eating disorder usually includes several key components:
- Medical evaluation and monitoring
- Restoring a body weight that’s normal for your age and height
- Nutritional supplementation and dietary counseling
- Medication to address the eating disorder or co-occurring mood disorders
- Individual psychotherapy
- Peer support groups
- Family therapy
- Complementary therapies like hypnotherapy, acupuncture or massage
Finding the right treatment facility for eating disorders requires a careful comparison of your options. There are a lot of addiction rehabilitation centers that offer treatment plans for bulimia, anorexia or binge eating disorder, but not all facilities have a fully developed eating disorders program. Your facility should be staffed by mental health professionals who specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of these complicated psychiatric conditions. For clients with a second concern such as alcohol abuse or depression, dual diagnosis resources should be provided.
Futures has a treatment program in place that treats substance abuse issues but also one that treats drug and alcohol abuse along side co-occurring disorders such as eating disorders.
Some services listed may not be included in our core program. An admissions counselor will be able to provide you a complete list of core services. Information provided for educational purposes. Premium services or programs may be arranged through your therapist or case manager.