Eating is one of the great human pleasures. Preparing food, sharing a meal and eating are means of nourishing yourself and others, bonding with friends and family, and experiencing delight. For others, however, food is not a pleasure; eating or not eating can be a tool of self-harm, a coping mechanism, an obsession and even an addiction. These types of relationships with food are often indicative of an eating disorder.
While food and eating seem like simple things to most of the population, an eating disorder is serious and warrants immediate attention. Of all mental illnesses, more people die as a result of an eating disorder than any other condition.
These are a few of the more prevalent eating disorders:
Anorexia. Anorexia nervosa is characterized by a pathological fear of gaining weight. Sufferers will often severely restrict caloric intake, exercise compulsively and/or abuse laxatives or other drugs in an attempt to be as thin as possible. Anorexia and depression are often linked.
Binge Eating Disorder. This condition is characterized by bouts of uncontrolled eating, also known as binging. These episodes may be sporadic and finite, and the individual may not be otherwise obsessed with food or eating. The periods of binging are often followed by intense feelings of guilt, shame and self-disgust.
Bulimia. Defined by episodes of binging and purging, those struggling with this condition are often of normal weight but have an abnormal relationship with food and eating. Some will eat in excess (binge) and then purge to rid the body of the food by vomiting, while others may eat normally but still practice purging after any food is ingested.
Compulsive Overeating. Also referred to as food addiction, a compulsive overeater will consistently eat in excess with bouts of binging interspersed. The individual is often obsessing about food and feels little to no control in stopping his or her food-related behaviors despite a strong desire to do so.
Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS). Many times, disordered eating patterns do not fit neatly into the above categories. Other disordered eating and body image conditions may include orthorexia (an obsession with “healthy” or “clean” eating), pathorexia (disordered appetite), compulsive exercise and other obsessive/compulsive behaviors around food, eating, exercise, body weight and body image. Individuals may also experience more than one disorder or condition at the same time, or they may switch between eating disorders at different points in their lives.
While a cultural obsession with beauty and thinness is often blamed as the cause of eating disorders, this explanation is incomplete. Eating disorders are a mental health condition. In the same way that we cannot always pinpoint the root causes of depression, anxiety or obsessive-compulsive behaviors, the explanation for why a person is faced with the battle of an eating disorder is not always a simple one.
Life experiences, childhood environment, trauma, abuse, genetics and other biological factors can all be contributing factors in the development of an eating disorder. In order for the individual to experience recovery, these deeper, underlying historical and psychological causes must be addressed.
Some people may experience eating disorders in conjunction with alcohol and drug addiction. When this happens, it is referred to as dual diagnosis or co-occurring disorders. Specialized treatment programs can help you to work through a dual diagnosis so that you may enjoy broad-spectrum recovery and a return to mental and physical health.
While eating disorders are sadly common (approximately 24 million Americans suffer), they are treatable. If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, it is important to know that help is available and it is possible to get well.
Effective treatment may take place at inpatient or outpatient centers and will focus on establishing a healthy relationship with food and body in a controlled and supportive setting. Individual and group therapy is focused on helping you discern and work through the underlying emotional causes of the disordered eating patterns while providing the tools you will need to continue living in recovery following treatment.