Eating Disorders - Freedom from Food and Body Obsession
Eating disorders and issues surrounding food and body image seem to be growing in today’s culture for women and men. Indeed, the “typical” demographic of eating disturbances is that there is no typical demographic anymore. Eating disorders stretch across race, cultural, and economic lines. With the prevalence of the “thin ideal,” increasing number of people are struggling with food related problems now more than ever. But if we are all exposed to the same cultural influences, how come not all of us struggle with eating and body image problems?
For starters, like all mental illnesses, eating disorders are complex. They are a complicated mixture of biological, experiential, and cultural forces that have to align for an eating problem to ignite. The one thing almost all eating disorder incidents share though, is that they start with dieting. Anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, and orthorexia usually start with a seemingly harmless diet. For some, that perfect storm of confounding factors leads down a path where the individual finds she or he can’t seem to stop dieting, counting calories, overeating, purging, or needing to eat the “perfect” diet. The thing that was used to take control of one’s body, takes control of the person’s life.
Myths about eating disorders:
Eating disorders are for teenage girls
Truth: Eating disorders affect all age groups, all genders, and all economic backgrounds.
People with eating disorders are severely underweight
Truth: Eating disorders come in all shapes and sizes. A person can be both anorexic and overweight. People who binge eat can be thin. Most people with bulimia tend to be a normal weight or overweight. Often for men, eating disorders present as a desire to be more muscular, though not for all. On the surface, Binge Eating Disorder (binge eating without compensatory behaviors to rid the body of the food eaten), does not appear to be about thinness, but body image problems are prevalent with this disorder, and like the others, it often begins with a diet.
Eating disorders can be cured by “just eating” and gaining weight
Truth: Eating disorders are more than just restricting, purging, or overeating food. If an underweight individual returns to a healthy weight, the obsession with food, exercise, and body weight may still be robust. Because people with Bulimia tend to be average weight, they are often able to hide their disorder from loved ones. Sometimes people with eating disorders downplay the severity of their problem because they feel they would look “sicker” if they really had a problem. Weight is not an indication of mental or physical health.
Eating disorders are about control
Truth: Eating disorders and their causes vary as much as individuals do. Generic assumptions about the root of an individual’s eating problem is not fair to the person and her or his unique experience.
Purging helps people lose weight
Truth: Purging, whether by vomiting, laxatives, exercise, or diuretics, is not an effective tool for weight management and often causes weight gain. In addition, purging by vomiting is extremely dangerous and can lead to tooth decay, slowed metabolism, esophageal tears, electrolyte imbalances, heart arrhythmia, or death. Laxatives are addictive and can permanently impair the body’s ability to rid itself of waste properly.
For people who have an eating disorder, recovery is often a long process. The person wants to be free of the pain of the eating disorder, but also wants to remain as thin as they want to be. Recovery is a process of trust and letting go, relearning to eat and listening to their bodies, as well as facing the problems the eating disorder masked. Recovery means that food, dieting, and eating obsessions give way to make room for coping skills that are more effective in managing life’s ups and downs. Food can be pleasurable again and meals can be enjoyed without anxiety or calorie counting. Most importantly, food can be used to nourish the body, and then food can be forgotten about until the body gets hungry again.
Treatment for eating disorders usually incorporates cognitive behavioral therapy to address the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors surrounding food, weight, and body image. Journaling, mindfulness, learning new ways to cope and reduce anxiety are also important tools in eating disorder recovery. Addressing the individual needs of the person and creating a trusting relationship with the mental health clinician are also key components to recovery.
Beginning the journey through recovery can be scary, but recovery is possible. And it is so worth it. There is freedom from food and body obsession, and there is life waiting for you on the other side.