Eating Disorders 101

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Eating disorders are real, complex illnesses that can cause serious harm. Eating disorders are characterized by a disturbance in an individual’s eating and food behaviors or self-perception. Common warning signs of eating disorders are extreme weight changes, altered eating behaviors, or an intense fixation on food and body talk. Eating disorders are biologically-based brain illnesses that are affected by environmental, social, and psychological factors. This means that illness is not caused by one specific factor, but rather by a series of factors in an individual’s unique life experience.

Types of Eating Disorders

Due to the complexity of eating disorders, the DSM-5 divides eating disorders into the following five categories:

Anorexia Nervosa. Anorexia is noted by extreme food restriction that causes dramatic and prolonged weight loss. It often presents with body dysmorphia and a genuine fear of food.

Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID). ARFID includes feeding or eating disorders that involve a lack of interest in or an avoidance of certain foods that result in a failure to meet nutritional needs. ARFID, unlike anorexia, does not include a drive for thinness.

Binge Eating Disorder (BED). BED denotes repeated episodes of excessive and uncontrollable food consumption without the compensatory behaviors seen in bulimia. Those with binge eating disorder also experience extreme negative emotions such as guilt or shame following binges.

Bulimia Nervosa. Bulimia is characterized by food consumption and purging. After eating, food is expelled by self-induced vomiting, laxatives, diuretics, or other methods. Like anorexia, those with bulimia often fear weight gain.

Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder (OSFED). OSFED includes eating disorders that cause significant distress or disturbance but do not meet the criteria for AN, ARFID, BED, or BN.

Warning Signs and Symptoms

Eating disorders affect individuals of all ages, races, sexualities, and any other demographic categorization. Eating disorders thrive in secret and affect an individual’s physical, behavioral, and psychological health. Due to their secretive nature, eating disorders are often hard to spot in the early stages, which is why it is essential to be educated on the warning signs and symptoms. Research shows that the longer an individual lives with an untreated eating disorder, the more challenging and time-consuming recovery can be. Common warning signs of an eating disorder include:

  • Dramatic weight gain or loss
  • Frequently talking about food, weight, or body image
  • Excessive exercising or use of compensatory measures to “offset” food intake
  • Purging, restricting, or compulsive eating
  • Abuse of diet pills, diuretics, or laxatives
  • Denial of disordered eating despite concerns of those around them
  • Isolating during meal times, eating in secret, or hiding food
  • Medical complications such as amenorrhea, fainting, hair loss, osteoporosis, dental problems, heart problems, or other serious symptoms due to nutritional deprivation

It is important to know that boys and men struggle with eating disorders, too. Research shows that between 10 and 25 percent of individuals suffering from an eating disorder are male. In addition to the warning signs and symptoms listed above, men often also discuss wanting to lose body fat and gain muscle mass as a way to explain their distorted behaviors. Restricted nutritional intake, extreme “clean” eating, and excessive exercising are common symptoms of males with eating disorders.

How to Address Eating Disorder Concerns

Eating disorders are insidious, so it is often challenging for friends and family to know what is going on. If you are worried that someone you know is struggling with food and body image, but are not quite sure, we suggest answering these questions.

  1. Does it seem that the individual has lost control over how they eat?
  2. Do they ever make themselves sick after eating?
  3. Do they believe they are fat, even when those around them do not?
  4. Do thoughts about food and body dominate their life?
  5. Is eating together difficult due to their behaviors or comments?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, it is likely that the person is struggling with an eating disorder. If that is the case, the most important thing you can do is talk to them. Eating disorders thrive and worsen in secret, which is why it is essential to confront them as soon as possible. We suggest using “I” statements during this conversation, such as, “I’m concerned because you are skipping lunch.” It is common that an individual will deny having a problem with food or body, and in that case, we suggest being prepared to continue having the conversation. You can start by discussing why they feel as if they don’t have an issue and asking if there is anything that they are concerned about.

If your child denies engaging in disordered eating, but you still find their eating behaviors problematic, ask if there are certain changes they would be willing to make. For example, if a loved on skips breakfast every day, explain to them why this worries you and ask if they would be willing to start eating something for breakfast every day. If they say no, talk to them about why they said no and start a dialogue. Be sure to let the person know you are there for them.

If your friend or family member admits they are struggling with disordered eating, thank them for confiding in you. Ask if they want support in finding help and treatment resources. If so, calling The Emily Program is a great first step. By calling The Emily Program, you can learn more about eating disorders, take an eating disorder assessment, and discover what treatment options you or your loved one have.

What to do if you have an Eating Disorder

It is a huge step to admit that you are struggling with food and body image. And, you are not alone! Around 30 million individuals in the United States suffer from disordered eating. Despite the challenges eating disorders cause, full recovery is not only possible, it is probable with the proper care. If you find yourself living with an eating disorder, it is important that you seek help as soon as possible. Research has shown that those who enter eating disorder care early in their illness are able to recover at a faster pace. If you are not sure where or how to start your recovery, call The Emily Program at 1-888-364-5977 and an admissions specialist can talk through your concerns and recommend appropriate treatment options.

Eating Disorder Recovery

Recovery is possible. The first step to starting lifelong recovery is seeking eating disorder specialty care. This process may look like setting up an appointment with your primary care doctor to begin the referral process or by calling an eating disorder center directly. While a physician or therapist is a great place to start recovery, eating disorder specialty centers are able to offer a higher level of personalized care that primary providers are often unable to provide.

Once you connect with an eating disorder treatment center, you can expect to go through an eating disorder assessment. During this, a specialist will gather information about your history and current concerns. From there, you will talk with a professional to learn more about your recommended treatment options. Depending on your experience and symptoms, different levels of care may be recommended. Levels of care range from outpatient care to residential care. An eating disorder specialist will be able to offer the correct level of care to you for your specific signs and symptoms.

Eating disorder treatment varies from individual to individual. Often, those who start recovery sooner into their eating disorder can experience a shorter and easier road to recovery. While this is commonly the case, those who have suffered for extended periods of time are also able to fully recover from their eating disorder, however, treatment may take slightly longer due to the disordered behaviors being present and reinforced for an extended amount of time. The most important thing to remember is that full recovery is possible for everyone.

Eating disorders are confusing and isolating. By talking openly about eating disorders, we believe we can break the stigma around the illness and help individuals reach recovery sooner. If you or someone you love is struggling with disordered eating, it is important to reach out for support as soon as possible. No matter where you are in your eating disorder, full recovery is possible. Call The Emily Program at 1-888-364-5977 for more information.

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