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What Causes an Eating Disorder and How Do You Treat It?

(This content is being used for illustrative purposes only; any person depicted in the content is a model)

Author: Shernide Delva

Over the weekend, I watched the movie To the Bone starring Keanu Reeves and Lily Collins. The film took us inside the life of Ellen, a 20-year-old woman who has consistently struggled with an eating disorder.  She enters a residential treatment program with several other women struggling with eating disorders.

The film received a plethora of controversy as many thought it was triggering.  However, after watching the movie, I felt it did an excellent job of allowing the viewer to understand the urgent and severe nature of an eating disorder. Often, films only focus on how little the patient is eating or how much weight they have lost. Yet, this is only a small component of having an eating disorder. Eating disorders go much deeper psychologically, and weight is simply part of the problem.

While the movie does an excellent job explaining what it is like to have an eating disorder, it does not explain what causes eating disorders in the first place. Eating disorders are complex with a broad range of variables.

Treatments for eating disorders vary in efficacy. There is no one size fit all treatment. This is elaborated in the movie as we watch Ellen transfer from one treatment center to another. Finally, she ends up at a treatment center she connects to and has a great therapist played by Keanu Reeves.

Often patients deny the severity of their condition at first. The lack of seriousness only progresses the disorder further. For example, in To the Bone, the women struggle to understand why their eating behaviors are considered abnormal. In fact, they believe that their compulsive eating behaviors are necessary to their survival. The idea of eating any other way is difficult to grasp.

Furthermore, patients lie about the severity of their condition which hampers their treatment options.

Most clinicians agree eating disorders stem from a variety of factors:

These factors range from:

Biological Contributors:

It is possible there is a genetic link that causes eating disorder. Significant studies on depression and anxiety allow reason to be hopeful.  Many people had anxiety and depression prior to the development of their eating disorder. Eating disorders can be a reaction to mental illnesses, in an attempt to manage symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Anxiety can be controlled through food restriction and purging. Symptoms of an eating disorder can elevate the mood as sufferers rely on their weight to fit in with society. Since depression and anxiety have a genetic component, there could also be a clear genetic connection to eating disorders.

Neurobiological Contributors:

Neurobiology is a branch of biology concerned with anatomy and physiology of the nervous system. When it comes to eating disorder, individual ones like anorexia nervosa over activate the inhibition control networks and under activate the reward systems. When looking at bulimia nervosa, there seems to be a dysregulation of both the inhibition control networks and reward pathways. These abnormalities are common among eating disorder patients. However, it is uncertain whether these abnormalities are the result of eating disorder behaviors, or if these abnormalities were present prior to the development of an eating disorder.

The Psychology of Eating Disorders

Needless to say, there is a strong psychological component to eating disorders. Most of what we read regarding eating disorders discusses the psychological component. Psychological elements of an eating disorder range from familial, relational, cultural and social. Most researchers agree that eating disorders and psychological disorders are co-occurring.

Some treatment processes focus on behavior and cognitive changes. These treatments include Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT,) Family Based Treatment (FBT,) and others.  However, there is more research needed on how to treat the behaviors rather than solely focusing on the cause. In addition, families need to understand the root of eating disorders in order to understand how to best respond to them.

Overall, the reality is there is so much to be learned when it comes to eating disorders. Eating disorders are a result of a variety of factors. Furthermore, just like addiction, eating disorders are not a choice. People with eating disorders need treatment. If you are struggling with an eating disorder, mental illness or addiction, please call now. You do not have to do this alone. 

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Spread Awareness: This Week is National Eating Disorders Awareness Week

Spread Awareness: This Week is National Eating Disorders Awareness Week

(This content is being used for illustrative purposes only; any person depicted in the content is a model)

“Her body
Layers upon layers of flesh
Her body
Lacking nourishment
Craving Rest

Her Body
As vast as an ocean
Her Mind
Too shallow to appreciate the depth”

Eating Disorders Awareness Week: February 21-27 2016

Above is an excerpt from a poem I wrote called “Her Body.” The poem really delves deep into the seriousness of eating disorders. Personally, I believe it is critical for people to understand and learn about the complexity of eating disorders. Eating disorders can cause great harm if left untreated.

That being said, in case you missed it, this week is National Eating Disorders Awareness (NEDA) Week. Throughout the week, NEDA and its supporters aim to bring awareness about the seriousness of eating disorders and increase access to treatment for those in need. Struggling with an eating disorder can be very daunting, and often those who have them are not even aware of the problem. Eating Disorders Awareness Week’s goal is to spread the message to both those who suffer and the loved ones around them.

This year’s theme for NEDA week is “3 Minutes can Save a Life: Get Screened. Get Help. Get Healthy.” The website offers a 3 minute survey that can help determine if you may have symptoms of an eating disorder. While the results are NOT an official diagnosis, it can help determine if you should seek professional help.

Eating disorders involve dark destructive behaviors in the effort to attain an ideal body image or seek control over one’s life. Eating disorders can cause depression and obsessive compulsive behavior. If left unaddressed, eating disorders can be incredibly damaging both psychologically and physically.

Types & Symptoms of Eating Disorders

From personal experience, I know how destructive eating disorders can be.  Eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder involve extreme emotions, attitudes, and behaviors surrounding weight and food issues.

Here are just a few disturbing statistics regarding eating disorders:

General Eating Disorder Stats

  • Nearly 50% of people with eating disorders meet the criteria for depression.
  • Only 1 in 10 men and women with eating disorders receive treatment.
  • Up to 30 million people of all ages and genders suffer from an eating disorder (anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder) in the U.S.
  • Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.
  • 25% of college-aged women admitted to bingeing and purging as a weight-management technique.
  • 20% of people suffering from anorexia will prematurely die from complications related to their eating disorder.

As you can see, these statistics are startling. With the influences of the media, the desire to be a certain size and look a certain way is continuing to affect people in a negative way.

Before we delve any further, let’s quickly define some of the more commonly known eating disorders:

Anorexia Nervosa

  • Severely limiting calories, leading to low body weight
  • Intense fear of gaining weight, obsession with the scale

Bulimia Nervosa

  • Eating large quantities of food, followed by behaviors to prevent weight gain such as throwing up, using laxatives of excessive exercise
  • Feeling out of control and desperate because of unrealistic body image goals

Binge Eating Disorder            

  • Eating large amounts of food, yet not engaging in behaviors to prevent weight gain
  • Strong shame or guilt regarding binge eating
  • Eating to the point of discomfort and eating when not hungry
  • Eating alone because of shame

Other Types of Eating Disorders

  • Orthorexia– extreme or excessive preoccupation with eating food believed to be healthy.
  • Purging disorder- purging without binge eating
  • Night eating syndrome- excessive nighttime food consumption

There are multitudes of eating disorders out there, some less commonly known, however the one thing they all have in common is that they interfere with a person’s well-being and relationship with food.  Fortunately, the media has taken steps to prevent the onset of eating disorders. Fashion models even have guidelines they must follow to maintain a healthy body weight.

Still, having an eating disorder can be very depressing for many and lead to self-harm. This week, take time out of your day to examine your eating patterns and self-worth. Do you struggle with disordered eating behaviors? Perhaps it’s time for you, or someone you know,  to get on the right path to self-love.

It is so important for people to learn and understand eating disorders so they are able to help someone who is struggling. It is even more important to know when you are struggling with something yourself and need to get help. Do not be afraid to admit that you have a problem. If you or someone you love is struggling with substance abuse or addiction, please call toll-free 1-800-951-6135.

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