One thing that I’ve learned being in the eating disorder field for a few years now is, people don’t know anything about eating disorders, until they have to know something about eating disorders. As much as that is true for many illness, disorders and diseases, with eating disorders, education and awareness can help them be prevented if we learn about them earlier.
As an eating disorder therapist, something that I am passionate about is bringing awareness to eating disorders/disordered eating and how something like this can develop and be treated. I am passionate about reducing the percentage of people that are struggling with eating disorders in the world.
28.8 million Americans will struggle with an eating disorder in their lifetime and 9% of the global population.
This blog is a snapshot of things to know in order to bring more education and awareness to eating disorders and hopefully reduce this number in the future.
1. Defining Eating Disorders
One main point to understand is: eating disorders do not discriminate, meaning, there is not one single demographic that is unaffected by eating disorders. They are complex and affect people of all ages, genders and backgrounds. There are various types of disorders:
anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge-eating disorder, ARFID and others, each with unique symptoms and challenges.
Most typically what people know about eating disorders are: unhealthy eating habits (restriction, binge eating) and compensatory behaviors (over-exercising, purging, laxatives), however, there are other components to eating disorders. They are also associated with body image and weight concerns and typically cause severe physical, social and psychological concerns. These components come in different combinations depending on the specific disorder and the individual.
A second main point to understand: there is not one single cause to an eating disorder, rather several factors that have been identified as potential triggers. Societal pressures to conform to a certain body type, a history of trauma or abuse, a genetic predisposition and an underlying psychological issue such as anxiety or depression, are all potential factors that can contribute to the development of an eating disorder.
Societally, there has always been an “ideal” body type which gets plastered everywhere in the media. This “ideal” body is impossible to achieve and sustain and can cause someone to be hyper-focused on food and exercise, potentially leading to an eating disorder. A genetic predisposition accounts for a 28-74% risk for the development of an eating disorder. A history of trauma or abuse is a significant factor in an eating disorder which then requires extensive therapy and support. Underlying depression and/anxiety can cause an individual to be more vulnerable to developing an eating disorder.
Eating disorders are complex and extremely individualized, finding “the cause” for each individual takes time in a supportive, therapeutic setting and will allow the individual to use evidence-based treatment to fight their eating disorder and recover.
3. Signs and Symptoms
Eating disorders can manifest in a variety of ways and thrive in secrecy which can make them difficult to detect. Common signs and symptoms to look out for include significant weight loss, unusual food rituals, rules or behaviors, obsessive thoughts or behaviors related to food and weight, distorted body image, a sudden and obsessive interest in cooking or working out, social withdrawal and mood swings. Other warning signs may include physical symptoms such as menstrual irregularities, gastrointestinal problems and fatigue.
Warning signs can be hard to find because they are individualized, however, if anything looks or feels different for your loved one, you can speak to their doctor, school counselor or even reach out to an outpatient therapist.
4. Treatment Options
There are several treatment options available to help those struggling with eating disorders.
Therapy, either one-on-one or in a group setting, is a common treatment approach and can help individuals explore the underlying causes of their eating disorder and develop coping strategies for managing their symptoms. Individual therapy has the potential to include family therapy, where indicated. Trauma therapy can be helpful as well, depending on the individual and their history.
Medications can be prescribed, when warranted, to address co-occurring mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, which may contribute to the development of an eating disorder. A psychiatrist can be an integral part of an individual's treatment team.
Nutrition counseling is an essential part to recovery from an eating disorder. A registered dietitian with a background in eating disorder treatment can help an individual weight restore (when needed), address nutrition deficiency and help the individual gain a better relationship with food through conversation and challenges.
In more severe cases, Hospitalization may be necessary to provide intensive support and monitor other medical conditions that may arise. There is a blog post about the different levels of treatment on our website: Guide on Different Levels of Care.
5. Support Network
Eating disorders can be a tough battle to fight alone, and having a support network can make all the difference in recovery. Whether it's a close friend, loved one or a professional therapist, having people who understand and can offer support is invaluable. It's important to find individuals who have a non-judgmental and compassionate approach and who can help navigate the challenges that come with recovery. Online communities and support groups can also offer a sense of community and a safe space to share experiences and connect with others on a similar journey.
Curating a positive newsfeed on various social media accounts can be an important step in an individual's support network as well. There are so many negative influences online that speaking with your loved one about following appropriate accounts is important.
The best way to prevent eating disorders is to create an environment of acceptance and understanding surrounding food, body image, and mental health. An individual developing a balanced relationship with food by understanding their own eating habits and a physical activity level that works for them, can help reduce the risk of developing disordered eating patterns. It is also important to promote body positivity by challenging societal expectations about beauty and encouraging individuals to embrace their unique physical characteristics.
Finally, it is essential to provide support for those struggling with mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and other mental health issues. By creating a safe space for open dialogue and offering resources for coping and treatment, we can help prevent the development of eating disorders and improve overall mental wellbeing.
My goal with this blog is providing a bit of information about eating disorders that either gets people interested to learn more or interested in getting help for themselves or loved one. Eating disorders are life-threatening and they don't have to be by getting the right type of support.
If you or someone you love is struggling, please reach out for the support you/they deserve.
We are here to help.
Stephanie Polizzi is a licensed psychotherapist (LMHC) in Scarsdale, NY at Peaceful Living Mental Health Counseling, serving clients living in NY, NJ and FL.