Anorexia, Bulimia, Binge Eating & Other Eating Disorders
What Is an Eating Disorder?
Google defines an "eating disorder" as: "any of a range of psychological disorders characterized by abnormal or disturbed eating habits."
It is important to note that eating disorders have physical side effects and symptoms but are psychological in nature. Treating only the physical symptoms—without treating the psychological symptoms and unhealthy thought processes that are causing the physical symptoms—will not lead to lasting or complete healing.
By learning to recognize the signs and symptoms of eating disorders, understanding the negative impacts they can have on health and relationships, and knowing what to do in an emergency, you'll be prepared to help those who are struggling with these disorders seek prompt and appropriate help.
Anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorders are dangerous even before they appear dangerous.
How Do People Develop Eating Disorders?
Doctors prescribe medications in order to enact specific changes in a patient's body. Failure to take the medication, taking too much medication, or taking the wrong medication can have disastrous effects.
Food works in much the same way. Scientists, dietitians, and doctors have given us a general prescription for the kinds of nutrients and energy intake we need. Eating too much or too little can wreak havoc on one's body.
However, food is heavily influenced by social, cultural and familial norms. Although many people agree with the statement about using medications as directed, few people think about food the same way.
In today's world, there is a lot of pressure to look a certain way. Many feel that guys are supposed to be lean, toned and muscular and girls are supposed to be obscenely skinny.
In addition, food affects every aspect of our lives. We eat at family gatherings, at religious functions, with our friends, and to celebrate national holidays. Unfortunately, using food to maximize your body’s efficiency and well-being tends to take a back seat to these social, societal, cultural, familial and media pressures. This reversal of priorities predisposes us to unhealthy eating habits and eating disorders.
Clinical Eating Disorders:
There are three main clinical eating disorders:
- Anorexia Nervosa: eating less than one’s body needs to be efficient, accompanied by a fear of gaining weight and either being underweight or a recent, dramatic, unsafe reduction in weight.
- Bulimia Nervosa: binge eating followed by purging or other unsafe methods of preventing weight loss
- Binge Eating Disorder: eating large amounts of food while feeling powerless to stop and feeling distressed during or after the binge
All three of these eating disorders are specialized cases of food no longer being a tool used to optimize the health, fitness, well-being, and efficiency of the body. In each case, either another food-related priority has taken precedence over using food to optimize the body’s performance or power to control food consumption is missing or impaired.
While not officially diagnosable as an eating disorder, many unhealthy food behaviors—such as overeating or eating the wrong balance of nutrients—have many of the same causes and effects. While preventing eating disorders is an important goal, an even more important goal is to seek healthy food-related behaviors and thought processes. Focusing on utilizing food to seek wellness will help prevent a myriad of physical ailments in addition to preventing eating disorders.
Eating Disorders Aren't Just a Teenage Girl Thing
Do You Have an Unhealthy Relationship With Food?
If you’re wondering if you or someone you love is suffering from or at risk of developing an eating disorder, begin by asking yourself this question, “Do(es) you/he/she consciously use food to effectively optimize their body’s performance?"
If you can answer yes, then your relationship with food is healthy and secure and you can go about your business, at least for now. However, keep in mind that priorities, situations, and thought processes change with time. As such, this evaluation should occur frequently enough to accurately reflect these changes in your situation.
Unfortunately, very few Americans can actually honestly respond that we use food this way. Most of us have an unhealthy relationship with food, if not a clinically defined eating disorder. By learning to utilize food to seek wellness we can uncouple eating with other social and psychological pressures, which interrupts the development of an eating disorder or the pathological process of an ongoing eating disorder.
Recovering from an eating disorder or unhealthy relationship with food begins by identifying how your priorities got out of whack, what influences lead to your eating disorder and striving to put your health and wellness back above how you look, your love for food, or whatever else became more important than your wellness.
Recovery from an eating disorder can be nearly impossible alone. Ask your friends and family to check in on your progress. Ask them to ask you what you've eaten so far that day on occasion. If you're tempted to cheat, find ways that someone else will know whether or not you've eaten. For example, eat certain meals with certain people on a regular basis or take pictures of yourself eating to send to someone close to you.
Ban yourself from getting on the scale until your eating is under control again. If you own one, give it away, take it to a second hand thrift store or throw it out. Many people with eating disorders become obsessive over what the scale reads and finding ways to make it go down. It's difficult to convince yourself to get rid of your scale, but once you get used to its absence, it's incredibly liberating.
While well-meaning friends and family can make great support teams, you may need to seek the professional help of a counselor and/or a dietitian depending on the severity of your disorder. They can help you regain healthy eating habits, a healthier body image, and safe thought processes. Unfortunately seeing a counselor has a negative connotation in our society. Don't let this incorrect stigma keep you from seeking the help you need. Seeing a counselor doesn't make someone weak, crazy or bad, it helps them get healthy.
Healing may require you to distance yourself from influences that lead to the development of your unhealthy relationship with food or seek counseling to work through ongoing concerns. Therapists can provide support and encouragement while going through these life transformations, especially at the beginning of your journey, when you hit rough patches, or if you "fall off the wagon" and need to make additional course corrections to get back on your path to wellness. Consider seeking one out early in your journey to wellness.
Have you or a loved one suffered from an eating disorder?
Education About Eating Disorders
While I was struggling with food I referred to calories as "little poisons." If you relate with this thought process, you need to change your view of how you see food itself. Begin by spending some time at myplate and at sparkpeople learning about each of the food groups and what nutrients they give you. Learn which foods belong to what food groups and how much a serving is. Determine how much food and what types of food and nutrients you need each day.
Invest in a food scale and a set of measuring cups and measuring spoons. Use them to measure out your portions while you are healing. Unfortunately, it's really easy to both over and underestimate how much you are eating. By measuring out your portions for a few weeks, you'll become a better judge of how much you are eating as you slowly stop using the measuring tools.
In addition, consider using sparkpeople to track your food, sleep and exercise. Use the graphs to look for unhealthy trends. Share your progress with your dietitian and your counselor and seek their guidance on future changes you need to make.
Getting "Cured" From an Eating Disorder
While there is healing for people who have struggled with eating disorders, there isn't an easy cure. Even once you have recovered both your mental and physical health, you are at risk for "relapsing," or falling back into unhealthy patterns in the future, especially as you transition into new phases of life or encounter stressful periods of time.Work to maintain your healthy outlook on food, life and your body. Have regular self-checkups and honestly evaluate your relationship with food so you can stop any new problems early before they develop and take over your life.
While there is no easy cure, there is health and happiness on the other side of the sometimes difficult and painful journey back to wellness. Journaling, seeking a support group of friends and family, finding a counselor and/or dietitian and setting small measurable and realistic goals along your journey to seeking and maintaining wellness through food, exercise and self-care are all tools you can use to optimize and maintain your health and wellbeing. Try to enjoy the journey along the way and celebrate each success. Best of luck!
Other Resources on Eating Disorders
For more information about eating disorders and how to help those you love who are suffering with an eating disorder see the National Eating Disorders Association's website.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
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