Up to 30 million Americans suffer from an eating disorder. According to the National Eating Disorder Association, anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any mental disorder. Understanding this epidemic is the first step to getting help–either for yourself or for someone you care about.
Everywhere we look we see ads, movies, tv shows, billboards, and models all flaunting perfect bodies: skinny legs, impressive thigh gaps, flat tummies, chiseled abs, massive biceps. With social media at our fingertips, it is easy to compare our body to what we see in the media. Other times, social comparisons are not at the root of an eating disorder–it may be that you are watching you parents go through a divorce, or you did not make the cut onto the Varsity team, so you look for an outlet to feel some sort of control over your life. When controlling your food intake becomes extreme or obsessive, it is called an eating disorder.
Eating disorders are very serious; many young women and men die each year from complications associated with their disorder. Both genders can develop an eating disorder, although rates among women are higher than among men. Eating disorders frequently appear during the teen years or young adulthood but may also develop during childhood or later in life.
Eating disorders are psychological conditions with both physical and emotional symptoms. The three most common eating disorders include anorexia nervosa (voluntary starvation), bulimia nervosa (binge-eating followed by purging), and binge-eating disorder (binge-eating without purging). Today, we will take a deeper look at each of these three types of eating disorders and discuss how to overcome them.
Those with anorexia nervosa see themselves as overweight, even when they are dangerously underweight. People with anorexia nervosa weigh themselves repeatedly, severely restrict the amount of food they eat, and eat tiny quantities of a small variety of foods. They relentlessly pursue thinness–it consumes their life. Common symptoms seen in those with anorexia is an intense fear of gaining weight, distorted body image, low self-esteem (one that is heavily influenced by perceptions of body weight and shape), and a denial of the seriousness of his/her low body weight. The long-term effects of anorexia include but are not limited to infertility, thinning of the bones, anemia, muscle weakness, brittle hair and nails, severe constipation, low blood pressure, damage to the heart, brain damage, and multiorgan failure.
The next eating disorder I would like to discuss is bulimia. This is where the individual eats excessively large amounts of food and then purges by vomiting, excessive use of laxatives or diuretics, fasting, excessive exercise, or a combination of these behaviors. Unlike anorexia nervosa, those with bulimia nervosa usually maintain a healthy or relatively normal weight. Their binging and purging behavior gives them a feeling of control. Some of the negative symptoms include an inflamed sore throat, swollen salivary glands, worn tooth enamel (plus increasingly sensitive and decaying teeth as a result of exposure to stomach acid), acid reflux disorder, gastrointestinal problems, intestinal distress and irritation from laxative abuse, dehydration from purging of fluids, and electrolyte imbalance (which can lead to stroke or heart attack).
Like the other types of eating disorders, binge-eating disorder involves a person completely losing control over his/her food intake. Unlike bulimia nervosa, periods of binge-eating are not followed by purging, excessive exercise, or fasting. Thus, those with binge-eating disorder often are overweight or obese. Binge-eating disorder is the most common eating disorder in the United States. Symptoms include eating unusually large amounts of food in a specific amount of time, eating even when he/she is full or not hungry, eating fast, eating until he/she is uncomfortably full, and eating alone or in secret to avoid embarrassment.
An eating disorder is considered a process addiction, meaning the person is dependent upon a behavior– instead of a substance– for power, control, or satisfaction. I have worked with many patients who struggle with various types of addiction, and I know that recovery is possible. When a mental illness (such as depression or anxiety) is present along with the eating disorder, medication may be needed. Lasting recovery for eating disorders may also include regularly working with a dietician in order to establish and maintain a personalized, healthy goal for caloric intake. These actions, coupled with regular counseling from a qualified therapist, will address the physical and emotional factors of the eating disorder, and can lead to a full recovery.
The earlier an eating disorder is detected and the sooner help is sought, the greater the chance for a full recovery. If you or someone you care about struggles with an eating disorder, now is the time to make a change. Health, happiness, and recovery is possible, and I am here to help. Please contact me today or click here to set up your first session.
Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.
- Cluff Counseling: “Addiction 101: The Analogy of the Driver’s Seat”
- Cluff Counseling: “Choosing the Right Therapist for You”
- Esquire: “Most People Will Never Understand My Eating Disorder”
- Mirror Mirror: Eating Disorder Help: “Eating Disorder Statistics”
- NEDA (National Eating Disorder Association): “Warning Signs and Symptoms”
- NIMH (National Institute of Mental Health): “Eating Disorders Overview”
- Psychology Today: “What Are Eating Disorders?”