Eating disorders

How to talk to your loved ones about food-related problems

Eating disorders are more than just general problems involving the far-reaching subject of putting food in one’s mouth, chewing and swallowing. For example, a person suffering from Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) will typically be dependent on rituals regarding various aspects of eating (or not eating). In such cases, food is not the cause of the problem, but merely a “pawn” in the game being played, a visible component of the problems being manifested.

In this article, we will look at common symptoms of eating disorders. We will also describe the various types of eating disorders. Finally, we will discuss specific ways to combat the ill effects of this disease, whether it has touched you directly or the lives of your loved ones.

What are Eating Disorders?

Eating disorders (EDOs) can be described as specific disorders characterized by unhealthy eating behaviors. A primary determining factor in such disorders involves conceptions regarding one's weight and appearance.

An important point to understand is that any eating disorder is not a lifestyle choice. An eating disorder is a form of mental illness that typically responds to professional help from doctors and psychotherapists.

A person with an eating disorder is usually preoccupied with his or her weight. The person often  uses sports, grueling diets, and an assortment of medications in order to achieve what he or she believes to be an ideal appearance. At the same time, the person typically suffers from a constant fear of gaining unwanted pounds.

The main danger accompanying eating disorders is the eventual emergence of problems in various systems of the body, such as digestive, endocrine, and so forth. In most cases, depression, anxiety, and substance abuse go hand in hand with eating disorders.

Although such disorders can (and do) affect people of all ages and genders, problems tend to manifest primarily in adolescents and young women. As high as thirteen percent of young people experience at least one eating disorder before the age of twenty.

Studies from as recently as 2017 found that levels of serotonin and dopamine, both of which serve as neurotransmitters (chemical messengers) transferring information to the brain, play a critical role in the development of eating disorders.

Studies also show that certain personality traits contribute to the development of these disorders. For example, neuroticism, perfectionism, and impulsivity are three such traits that are statistically linked to a higher risk of developing an eating disorder.

Types of Eating Disorders

Eating disorder

The American Psychiatric Association (APA) classifies eating disorders into four general types:

1. Anorexia nervosa.

2. Bulimia nervosa.

3. Compulsive overeating.

4. Unclassifiable eating disorders.

The following is a general description of each.

Anorexia Nervosa

This is, by far, the most well-known eating disorder. When most people hear the term “eating disorder”, anorexia is what they usually conjure up in their minds. People with this specific eating disorder, to put it bluntly, think they are fat. They often believe they are severely overweight even when their official weight (the number on their scale) says otherwise.

There are two types of anorexia:

●      the restrictive type,

●      the purging type.

People afflicted with the restrictive type tend to lose weight through such means as dieting, fasting, and exercise.

People with the purging type overeat then purge after eating. This often involves vomiting, taking laxatives and diuretics, and torturing themselves with extreme and brutal exercise.

Bulimia Nervosa

Like anorexia, bulimia tends to develop in adolescence and early adulthood and proves to be far more common in women than men.

Unlike anorexia, however, people suffering from bulimia typically eat large amounts of food in a short period of time. During the time when they are overeating, they find themselves utterly incapable of stopping, or in any way controlling the quantity of food they eat. Each episode of gluttony will usually continue until the person reaches the point of being full to a painful degree.

After a meal, people with bulimia will often try to cleanse their body. They do this to compensate for the calories ingested as well as to reduce the discomfort they feel in their intestines.

Symptoms of bulimia nervosa can be similar to those of the purging type of anorexia, but people with bulimia do not end up losing weight, and they certainly never succeed at maintaining a relatively normal weight.

Compulsive Overeating

People with the affliction of compulsive overeating consume huge amounts of food without ever feeling physically hungry. After they stuff themselves, they often feel shame, guilt, and self-loathing, but they do not ever limit calories or use any of the cleansing methods to mitigate or compensate for their overeating.

Unclassifiable eating disorders

These disorders manifest themselves in a variety of ways, from ingesting inedible items to extreme difficulty in choosing where to eat.

The main distinguishing feature of unclassifiable eating disorders remains an unhealthy attitude toward food.

Symptoms: How to Recognize an Eating Disorder

Eating disorder

Eating disorders are not always identifiable by the outward appearance of the person afflicted. Many people with eating disorders may look perfectly healthy to a casual observer. The determining factor is the person's relationship with food, that is, how do they eat and how do they behave relative to the general matter of eating. This personal relationship to food and eating can be (and often is) hidden for a long time from others within the person’s orbit.

It can sometimes be difficult to tell if a friend or loved one is developing an eating disorder. That being said, there do exist certain specific signs to look for in making such a determination.

If the person in question:

●      has lost weight drastically or to a noticeable degree,

●      lies about the quantity of food he or she eats and/or lies his or her weight,

●      often hurries to the bathroom after eating and comes back with a flushed face,

●      exercises excessively or obsessively,

●      avoids meals whenever other people are involved in the dining experience,

●      cuts food into tiny pieces or eats extremely slowly,

●      wears loose or baggy clothing to hide weight loss or weight gain.

If you suspect someone fits the description of having an eating disorder, talk openly and sympathetically with him or her about your health concerns. If he or she acts frightened or threateningly, you may find it wise to visit together a specialist for help.

This is an important point: if you suspect someone (or even you, yourself) is suffering from a form of eating disorder do not self-medicate! Instead, see a doctor. A doctor, with relevant experience, has the best chance of knowing exactly how to restore the person’s health and peace of mind. All forms of eating disorder represent a progressive disease, which has the potential to be fatal over time. Therefore, taking concrete action and supplying meaningful help can literally save the person’s life.

How to Talk to Others about Eating Disorders

Approaching others regarding matters such as eating disorders can prove extremely difficult. This may be true even in the case of the person closest to you in your daily life. For that reason, we have assembled a few tips from the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) so you can effectively engage in dialogue about eating disorders in a way that will ultimately be both friendly and beneficial.

Prepare ahead of time

Knowing all relevant facts will help you discuss with your friend any inaccurate ideas he or she may hold. Such ideas may be fueling unhealthy or destructive behavior.

Rehearse your main talking points

Do not be hesitant (or embarrassed) to do this. Taking the time beforehand, in the privacy of your own space, to rehearse exactly what you want to say, in detail, will reduce your anxiety and apprehension about approaching your friend. Furthermore, such a rehearsal will serve to clarify for yourself the finer points of the general subject matter.

Allocate a personal time and place for the conversation

No one wants his or her personal problems discussed in front of a crowd. Make certain you secure a time and place where you can comfortably discuss these matters with your friend. Pay special heed to his or her own personal tastes and preferences when you select a location.

Be honest

The old saying, “Honesty is the best policy,” holds true when discussing personal matters such as an eating disorder. Talk to your friend honestly and openly. If appropriate, add your own personal experiences and perspectives. Make sure that whatever you say, it comes from a place within you of integrity.

Use "self-talk"

You might find it easy to blame your friend. Don’t. You might be tempted to phrase your message as such: "You're not eating!” or “You exercise too much!” or “You're hiding something!".

Restrain yourself from speaking in such a tone. Phrases such as these serve only to discourage the person to whom you are speaking. Most importantly, they do not work. They do not produce the positive result you seek. Use a different approach.

In your speech, focus on the behavior you have personally observed and how you feel about what is happening. Speak always from a position of caring and concern. For example: "I've noticed that you don't eat lunch with us anymore," or "It bothers me that you often lock yourself in the bathroom after eating."

A “self-talk” manner of speaking will not only allow for a more productive interaction, but also for better and more positive results.

Stick to the facts

Anytime you voice a concern about someone’s potential eating disorder, you risk stirring up a great deal of emotion. Stick to the facts as you know them and do your best to not let your friend take total control of the conversation. 

Get rid of potential stigma

Remind your friend that there is no shame in admitting to an illness. In that sense, an eating disorder is much like any other affliction. Neither this illness (nor any other) is cause for guilt or shame. Make sure this non-stigma attitude permeates every aspect of your conversation.

Avoid oversimplified solutions

Do not use simplified phrases such as: "Just stop" or "Just eat." Such statements will not help. Instead, they will come off as demeaning and judgmental. Ultimately, they will cause your friend to feel frustrated, defensive, and misunderstood. Catch yourself before you utter any such phase and make sure to avoid anything sounding like a simple solution.

Be prepared for negative reactions

Some people with an eating disorder react with gratitude that someone noticed their struggles. Others, however, may become angry and hostile, insisting that you are the problem. Such individuals may dismiss your concerns or minimize the potential dangers. All of these reactions are normal. Do not be shocked or put off your game should you hear negative comments aimed back at you. Stick to your message and your facts. Let your friend know you care and leave the conversation open.

Support the idea of seeking help

Remember that people with eating disorders need professional help. Suggest to your friend that he or she attend a meeting where they discuss their struggles. Suggest that he or she locate a doctor or therapist. Never lose sight of the fact that timely and effective treatment dramatically increases a person's chances for recovery. 

 Possible Causes of Eating Disorders

Eating disorder

Eating disorders are found in people of all ages, genders, ethnicities, weights, and sizes of clothing. Genetics do play a role in the development of eating disorders. Numerous studies show that a person whose family has had a history of eating disorders is more likely to become afflicted than a person whose family has never experienced any sort of eating issue.

Scientific studies involving twins also confirm the hereditary factor. In addition, abnormal levels of certain hormones, especially serotonin, can contribute to eating disorders.

Another critical factor involves social interaction. In particular, anorexia and bulimia are far more common in industrialized cultures, where thinness is associated with notions of beauty. Our current mainstream media relentlessly pounds this notion into the minds of all who consume its onslaught of messages. And that is certainly not the fault of any one individual.

Finally, eating habits acquired in childhood, even as early as two years old, play an important role in shaping one's relationship with food.

How to Protect Yourself from Eating Disorders

To date, one single, all-encompassing cause of eating disorders has not been found. Causes appear to be related to a variety of factors: genetic, cultural, social, behavioral, psychological, and biological. However, and this is an important point to keep in mind, eating disorders are not caused by these factors.

As a result, there exists no precise instruction that will infallibly prevent you (or anyone you know) from ever becoming afflicted with an eating disorder.

That being said, however, it is undeniably true that a harmonious relationship with yourself and others, good health, and a good sense of well-being will reduce the chance of developing any form of eating disorder.

 Here are a few recommendations for physical and psychological well-being:

  • Take frequent walks in nature

Strive to make your walks leisurely. Attempt to take such walks daily, whenever possible.

  • Exercise

A short, ten-minute exercise, done daily, will produce a positive effect on your mood and your well-being. Exercise will greatly increase your resistance to any sort of eating disorder.

  • Eat a healthy and varied diet

Make sure your body receives necessary nutrients of all types, including vitamins and minerals.

  • Take care of yourself

Do not overwork yourself. Take care to treat yourself like a special person, because you are! Do what you like to do, far more often than doing what you dislike.

  • Avoid negative communication

Attempt to surround yourself with individuals who support and respect you. Positive feedback has a deep impact on your self-image, and thus serves as a great antidote to eating disorders.

  • If possible, give up bad habits

Honestly confront your behavior. If you notice unhelpful or destructive habits, root them out with determination. A better life awaits you.

Unfortunately, there still exists no one method of treatment that will succeed with certainty to heal people suffering from eating disorders. The disease represents a difficult and complex problem, associated with both psychology and physiology. However, the more we know about the disease, and the sooner we get rid ourselves of its prejudices, the sooner we can move forward to find lasting solutions.

Hope rests in knowledge. And in combating eating disorders, either individually or societally, accurate knowledge is key.

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