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National Eating Disorders Awareness Week is February 23 – March 1st, 2016 in the United States. This topic is one that gets written off or swept under the rug by many, but in reality is a serious health condition that demands our respect and attention.
Introduction and Basics
In our image-obsessed culture, many in our society have a strained relationship with their bodies and food. In a recent survey, the following statistics were found….
- 71.5% of respondents reported being preoccupied with the desire to be thinner
- 71.5% reported being “terrified” of being overweight
- 64.5% were preoccupied with fat on their body
- 52% reported being preoccupied with food
- 46% reported feeling guilty after eating
- 39% stated that food concerns virtually controlled their lives
Understanding what eating disorders are and what they are not is very important. They do not arise from a desire to be thin or a figment of one’s imagination. Eating disorders—such as anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder—include extreme emotions, attitudes, and behaviors surrounding weight, body image, and food issues. These complex disorders are serious emotional and physical problems that have life-threatening consequences. The major types of eating disorders are described below.
- Inadequate food intake leading to a weight that is too low.
- Intense fear of weight gain, obsession with weight and persistent behavior to prevent weight gain.
- Self-esteem overly related to body image.
- Inability to see the severity of the situation.
- Binge Eating/Purging Type involves binge eating and/or purging behaviors during the last three months.
- Restricting Type- intake of food is severely restricted; does not involve binge eating or purging.
Binge Eating Disorder
- Frequent episodes of consuming very large amounts of food but without behaviors to prevent weight gain, such as self-induced vomiting.
- Out of control feeling during the binge eating episodes.
- Feelings of intense shame or guilt regarding the binge eating.
- Indications that binge eating lacks control, like eating when not hungry, to the point of discomfort, or eating alone due to intense feelings of shame.
- Frequent episodes of consuming very large amount of food followed by behaviors to prevent weight gain, such as self-induced vomiting or the use of laxatives or extreme exercise
- A feeling of being out of control during binge-eating episodes.
- Self-esteem overly related to body image.
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Contributing Factors and Prevention
Eating disorders arise from a combination of behavioral, biological, emotional, psychological, interpersonal and social factors. While eating disorders are sometimes associated solely with food and weight preoccupations, they are complex diseases with a variety of causes. People suffering from eating disorders use food and the control of food to cope with feelings and emotions that would otherwise be overwhelming. Dieting, bingeing, and purging may begin as a way to cope with painful emotions and to feel in control of one’s life. Ultimately, though, these behaviors damage a person’s physical and emotional health, self-esteem, and sense of competence and control.
Scientists and researchers are still learning about the underlying causes of these emotionally and physically damaging conditions. In general, however, there is agreement around some issues that contribute to their development.
Psychological Factors that Can Contribute to Eating Disorders:
- Low self-esteem
- Feelings of inadequacy or lack of control in life
- Depression, anxiety, anger, stress or loneliness
Interpersonal Factors that Can Contribute to Eating Disorders:
- Troubled personal relationships
- Difficulty expressing emotions and feelings
- History of being teased or ridiculed based on size or weight
- History of physical or sexual abuse
Social Factors that Can Contribute to Eating Disorders:
- Cultural pressures that glorify “thinness” or muscularity and place value on obtaining the “perfect body”
- Narrow definitions of beauty that include only women and men of specific body weights and shapes
- Cultural norms that value people on the basis of physical appearance and not inner qualities and strengths
- Stress related to racial, ethnic, size/weight-related or other forms of discrimination or prejudice
Biological Factors that Can Contribute to Eating Disorders:
- Scientists are researching biochemical or biological causes of eating disorders. In some individuals with eating disorders, certain chemicals in the brain that control hunger, appetite, and digestion have been found to be unbalanced. The meaning of this is still under investigation.
- Eating disorders often run in families. Current research indicates that there are genetic contributions to eating disorders.
As with other medical conditions, understanding some of the causes of eating disorders can help us develop prevention strategies. Prevention efforts may involve reducing negative risk factors, such as body dissatisfaction, depression or basing self-esteem on appearance. Another strategy increases protective factors, such as a non-appearance-oriented self-definition and replacing dieting and body shaming with intuitive eating and appreciation for the complex and amazing functions of the human body.
One prevention strategy is called losing the 3Ds. The “3Ds” are dieting, drive for thinness and body dissatisfaction—unhealthy actions and ideals that have been communicated and internalized from a young age. Once internalized, we inadvertently perpetuate the cycle by passing those same ideals onto others—including children, friends, family and communities. This harmful cycle needs to be stopped before disordered thinking turns into disordered eating. Combating the 3Ds and encouraging a happy and healthy relationship with your body are vital tools in eating disorders prevention.
Once an eating disorder has started, it can create a self-perpetuating cycle of physical and emotional destruction. Successful treatment of eating disorders often requires professional help.
Eating disorders are some of the most frustrating and difficult-to-treat conditions anyone can face. They affect girls and boys, women and men, and people of all races and backgrounds. Because of stigma or misperceptions, people may not seek help.
Confronting an eating disorder is the first step. If you are suffering with an eating disorder, it is important to first admit this to yourself and have the courage to seek help. For many, this is the most painful and difficult part of the process, but it is essential for recovery to begin. By reaching out for help and confiding in others you trust about your struggles, you are taking a giant step towards conquering your eating disorder. Talk with your family and friends. Asking for help is usually the hardest aspect of initiating recovery and a treatment plan for eating disorders. If at all possible, start by opening up and speaking in confidence to your family and friends. Do not underestimate the value of family in the treatment process.
If you have a loved one suffering from an eating disorder or you are worried about their eating behaviors or attitudes, it is crucial to communicate your concerns in a caring, loving and supportive way. This should occur in a private and comfortable setting and be expressed in a non-confrontational tone. This necessary step may spur them toward getting the help and treatment they deserve.
Overcoming an eating disorder requires working with a team of health professionals who have expertise in treatment, such as a general physician, a psychiatrist, psychologist, or counselor, and a registered dietitian. Treatment occurs in a variety of settings: outpatient treatment, residential treatment and also inpatient or hospital treatment. Many different types of therapy can also be used, such as – art therapy, dance/movement therapy, behavioral therapy, family therapy, individual counseling and medical nutrition therapy. Support from close friends and family is also helpful. Meeting with others to talk over anxieties, concerns, and difficulties can greatly aid in getting through tough times in the recovery process.
Negative Body image can be one of the first triggers of an eating disorder and one of the final and toughest stages of recovery. The following tools can be used daily to practice improving your body image.
Changing Your Thinking
- Examine your own attitudes, beliefs, prejudices and behaviors about food, weight, body image, physical appearance, health and exercise. Identify any unhealthy attitudes derived from dieting, drive for thinness and body dissatisfaction. Try to change these attitudes in your everyday life—for example, if you edit photos of yourself before posting them on social media, consider why you do so, how you feel when you do it, and what message you’re communicating to yourself and others. Honestly examining your thoughts and feelings is the first step to replacing unhealthy attitudes with healthy ones.
- Mindful eating and healthy physical activity is part of a well-rounded lifestyle. Assess your eating and exercise habits; strive for balance and moderation over extreme measures.
- Encourage balanced eating of a variety of foods in moderation. Don’t treat food as a reward or punishment; this sets food up as a potential weapon for control. The idea that a particular diet or body size will lead to happiness and fulfillment needs to be banished. Encourage eating in response to hunger.
- Don’t constantly criticize your own shape. This type of self-criticism implies that appearance is more important than character. Promote and celebrate body positivity.
- Develop a value system based on internal values. Understand the importance of equating personal worth with care and concern for others, wisdom, loyalty, fairness, self-care and self-respect, personal fulfillment, curiosity, self-awareness, the capacity for relationships, connectedness and intimacy, individuality, confidence, assertiveness, a sense of humor, ambition and motivation. Model this value system; examine, explore, and modify any appearance expectations you have.
Walking the path of an eating disorder is undeniably a difficult existence and the road to recovery from an eating disorder is often difficult and challenging. The greatest hope lies in finding freedom from the grip of an eating disorder and experiencing freedom from this illness. The eating disorder treatment process may be ongoing and extensive, but the recovery journey is priceless. It allows you and your loved ones to gain your life back – along with your joy and freedom. Nothing is more valuable than your own life and well-being.