Eating disorders are one of the most widely misunderstood mental health conditioners out there.
For someone who is going through an eating disorder, or has had one in the past, they understand just how all-consuming it can be.
Food is unavoidable. It’s one of the most integral parts of being human. It nourishes us, sustains us, connects us with the Earth and the people around us, defines cultures, expresses love, and so much more.
When someone’s relationship with food becomes distorted, it ripples out into every area of their life.
An estimated nine percent of people globally are affected by an eating disorder. Eating disorders are amongst the most life-threatening of mental health disorders, second only to opioid addiction.
They are often accompanied by other psychological disorders like depression, anxiety, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. Other research has found a high prevalence amongst women with eating disorders who also have ADHD or Autism.
Types and Causes of Eating Disorders
The most common eating disorders are:
- Anorexia Nervosa: People with this disorder may often see themselves as overweight, despite what their weight is. They may greatly restrict their calories, avoid eating certain kinds of food, and hyper-fixate on their weight. It’s not uncommon for them to have a disordered body image and have a fear of gaining weight.
- Bulimia Nervosa: People with bulimia tend to eat large amounts of food in a short period (binge) followed by purging through self-induced vomiting, laxatives, or excessive exercising. Unlike anorexia, people with bulimia tend to maintain a relatively normal weight.
- Binge Eating Disorder: People with binge eating disorder typically consume a large amount of food in a short time, and may feel like they don’t have control over their binges. These people do not engage in purging behaviors.
Someone can experience symptoms of more than one kind of eating disorder. Much of the time, these eating disorders develop during adolescence and continue into adulthood, until someone gets proper treatment.
It’s difficult to determine the exact cause of an eating disorder because it’s different for everyone. Even in one person, there’s probably a variety of factors compounding that contributes to someone developing an eating disorder.
Genetics has shown to have a strong connection with someone’s chance of developing an eating disorder, along with certain personality traits like perfectionism, neuroticism, and impulsivity.
Western ideals of thinness that are spread through pop culture and media influence the prevalence of eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia.
A Fine Line
There’s often a fine line between someone who has a “full-blown” eating disorder and someone who has somewhat of a distorted relationship with food.
Although not yet recognized in the latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), orthorexia is a condition where people have a hyper fixation on healthy eating that interferes with their daily life.
The fact of the matter is if your relationship with food is interfering with your ability to live a happy life, then seeking treatment might be the right option for you. Even if you don’t neatly fit into any of the definitions of various eating disorders, humans are nuanced individuals. If you think you need help or support in this area, then by all means we urge you to get it.
What Treatments Actually Work?
The most effective treatments for eating disorders depend not only on the type of eating disorder, but the individual affected.
For people in need of immediate intensive care, they will typically go into either outpatient or inpatient treatment.
People in outpatient care are medically stable, do not need constant monitoring, are making progress in recovery, and are able to function in social, work, or school settings.
Those in inpatient care have unstable vital signs or are at an acute health risk or are psychiatrically unstable.
There are also residential and partial hospital programs for people who fall into a grey area of the criteria listed above.
These programs are just the beginning. Recovery can be a long journey that is supported by figuring out different ways to support your body and wellbeing in the long term.
In some cases, people may be put on psychological medications like antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications.
Long-term healing comes from not just treating the symptoms, but getting to the underlying cause, which is often much deeper than food.
Tools and modalities that can help with long term healing include:
- Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT): This technique teaches people how to regulate their emotions and healthily cope with life’s stressors.
- EMDR: This is used to get to the root of traumatic events and untangle them from the nervous system, helping to regulate it.
- Somatic Therapy: This combines talk therapy with somatic (physical) tools like dance, massage, yoga, and deep breathing.
While words can’t heal all, there were some words of wisdom I heard during my eating disorder recovery that helped put things into perspective and bring me to a new point of healing.
“Food is all the love languages in one.”
“You are worthy of feeling at peace in your body.”
If you are struggling with an eating disorder, there is hope. Please do what you need to to support yourself on your healing journey. There are brighter days ahead.
Natasha (she/they) is a full spectrum doula, reproductive health content creator, and sexual wellness consultant. Her work focuses on deconstructing the shame, stigma, and barriers people carry around birth, sex, and beyond, to help people navigate through their lives with more pleasure, softness, and sensuality. You can connect with Natasha on IG @spectrumoflovedoula.