Sometimes, we know the truth, even if it’s hard to face or we don’t know where to turn. With so much focus in society on weight gain, weight loss, and model-perfect images in social media and on magazine covers, it’s no wonder problems with eating disorders often are overlooked—and sometimes dismissed.
But, if you feel certain behaviors are harming your health, and loved ones or friends express concern about these behaviors, it might be time to consider treatment.
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) defines eating disorders as “serious medical illnesses marked by severe disturbances to a person’s eating behaviors.
Obsessions with food, body weight, and shape may be signs of an eating disorder.
These disorders can affect a person’s physical and mental health; in some cases, they can be life-threatening.”
NIMH clarifies that anyone can suffer from an eating disorder, regardless of gender, body weight, ethnic or racial background, or age. At any time in life, someone can develop an eating disorder, and there are many contributing risk factors, including biological, genetic, psychological, behavioral, and environmental.
The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) estimates 20 million women and 10 million men have experienced eating disorders. Someone struggling with an eating disorder has a health condition which NIMH categorizes as biologically-influenced. It’s also quite common for these conditions to be co-occurring disorders with other mental health issues or substance abuse.
Anorexia nervosa involves actions such as eating extremely small quantities of food, avoiding food, eating miniscule quantities of certain foods, and restricting food in a severe manner. There’s also a misconception about body image: many sufferers feel they’re grossly overweight when they’re often underweight to the point of compromising physical health.
This condition includes two subtypes: restrictive, which is when people limit the kind or amount of food they eat to an extreme level; and binge-purge, which includes restriction as well as behavior that involves laxatives, vomiting, and diuretics as a form of food elimination.
Common symptoms of anorexia nervosa include, but aren’t limited to:
- A heightened fear of weight gain, including refusal to maintain a normal weight for body type and style
- Intense thinness, often to the point of emaciation
- Patterns of excessive exercise and food restriction
Initially, anorexia nervosa causes mild health problems such as brittle nails and hair, constipation, and constantly feeling cold. A prolonged condition of starvation weakens muscles, compromises heart function, manifests brain damage, and can result in failure of major organs. NIMH reports anorexia has a greater death rate than any other mental health condition.
Bulimia nervosa is defined by eating excessively large quantities of food and not having control over this behavior. Quite often, sufferers maintain a normal weight or may be overweight. They also follow patterns of food elimination similar to anorexia nervosa, in addition to a tendency to exercise too much.
Frequent symptoms and health concerns of bulimia include one or more of the following:
- Gastrointestinal issues and acid reflux
- Side effects of laxative abuse, such as intestinal problems
- Inflammation and swelling of the throat, neck glands, and jaw
- Teeth issues, including loss of enamel, sensitivity, and decay
- Serious dehydration and electrolyte depletion from purging or intense exercise
- Heart attack or stroke brought on by excessive binging and purging
Binge-eating disorder is different from bulimia nervosa in that sufferers may still binge, but they don’t exercise, purge, or use other methods for food elimination. Consequently, they’re often obese or morbidly obese.
Binge-eating is classified by three or more recurring symptoms:
- Eating excessively in a short timeframe, such as one or two hours
- Consuming food quickly during one of these episodes
- Eating even when not hungry or when feeling full
- Experiencing intense digestive issues
- Brain fog and confusion
- Stealing or hoarding food
- Hiding during episodes like these, or the evidence of the amount of food consumed
- Experiencing feelings of shame, guilt, stress, or embarrassment about this behavior
Once someone develops a pattern for binging, it becomes a compulsion, similar to alcohol or drug abuse. Additionally, people with bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorders are at greater risk for medical complications and suicide.
Getting Help for Eating Disorders
To help determine if you have a problem, NEDA provides a screening tool and a guide on how to start a conversation with a mental health professional about treatment.
Causes for eating disorders vary considerably, so an individualized approach is a must. There is a range of options available to address the underlying reasons for a condition, such as:
- Acceptance and commitment therapy
- Cognitive behavioral therapy
- Dialectical behavioral therapy
- Interpersonal psychotherapy
- Family-based therapy
- Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)
- Body-oriented applications such as yoga, somatic experiencing, and biofeedback
Levels of care that may be recommended include:
- Inpatient treatment, if an individual suffers with medical complications, testing reveals acute risk factors, or symptoms are rapidly worsening
- Residential treatment, if someone doesn’t require serious medical treatment but may have a psychiatric impairment
Partial hospital treatment, if a person’s health is stable but they are having trouble functioning in daily life, such as working or going to school; or are still engaging in potentially harmful behavior such as fasting, purging, or binge eating
- Intensive outpatient treatment, if an individual is psychiatrically and medically stable, doesn’t require monitoring, and doesn’t have compromised daily functions
The intent of eating disorder treatment is to help someone regain a healthy relationship with food, a more realistic perspective of body image, and stronger emotional and mental balance.
Eating Disorder Treatment at Cottonwood Tucson
To help people suffering from eating disorders, our facility provides specialty treatment so they may change their relationship with food from an additive concern to one aspect of a healthy lifestyle. Learn more here.
By Tracey L. Kelley