First Steps to Understanding and Addressing Eating Disorders

Eating disorders are intricate mental health conditions that disrupt a person’s relationship with food. The World Health Organization 2019 report stated that 14 million individuals globally, including 3 million children and adolescents, were living with an eating disorder. 

Both genetic and environmental factors can contribute to these conditions. Early and appropriate treatment is crucial to prevent them from worsening. Without intervention, eating disorders can lead to severe physical and psychological complications.

What Are Eating Disorders?

Eating disorders involve abnormal eating habits and intense preoccupations with food, body weight, and shape. An eating disorder is a mental health condition where a person uses food to manage their emotions and situations. The three most common eating disorders are:

  1. Anorexia Nervosa: Characterized by severe food restriction, excessive exercise, and/or laxative use, leading to significant weight loss. People with anorexia nervosa often have a distorted body image, seeing themselves as overweight even when they are dangerously underweight. This disorder can lead to severe malnutrition, bone density loss, heart problems, and even death if untreated.
  2. Bulimia Nervosa: Involves cycles of binge eating followed by compensatory behaviours like vomiting, excessive exercise, or laxative use to avoid weight gain. Unlike anorexia, people with bulimia might maintain a normal weight, but the cycle of binging and purging can cause serious health issues such as electrolyte imbalances, gastrointestinal problems, and severe dental erosion.
  3. Binge Eating Disorder: Recurrent episodes of eating large amounts of food, accompanied by feelings of shame and a lack of control. Unlike bulimia, binge eating disorder does not involve purging behaviours. This can lead to weight gain and associated health risks like diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease. Emotional distress and feelings of guilt and shame are also prevalent.

Early Identification of Eating Disorders

Recognizing the early signs of eating disorders is essential for timely intervention. Symptoms can sometimes be mistaken for healthy behaviours like dieting and exercise for health benefits, making it challenging to identify the disorder. Here are some general warning signs:

  • Obsession with food, dieting, and body weight: Constantly thinking about food, calories, and body size. This preoccupation can dominate a person’s daily life and conversations.
  • Rapid weight fluctuations: Sudden and unexplained weight loss or gain can be a red flag. It’s important to note that not all eating disorders result in noticeable weight changes.
  • Avoidance of social events involving food: Preferring to eat alone or avoiding social situations where food is present. This behaviour stems from a desire to hide eating habits or avoid judgment.
  • Excessive exercise: Exercising compulsively, often to the point of exhaustion or injury, as a way to burn off calories consumed.
  • Concealing eating habits: Hiding food, eating in secret, or lying about food intake. This can include making excuses for not eating or disappearing after meals.
  • Physical symptoms: Experiencing dizziness, gastrointestinal issues, changes in skin and hair, or feeling cold all the time due to malnutrition and other health impacts.

If you notice these signs in yourself or someone else, it may be time to seek help.

Steps to Seeking Treatment

Feeling uncertain about what to do next is natural, but early action is critical. Here are some steps to guide you:

  1. Acknowledge the Problem: Recognizing and admitting there is an issue is the first crucial step. This can be particularly challenging for those affected, as denial and resistance are common. Acceptance is often the hardest part, but it’s essential for initiating recovery.
  2. Seek Professional Help: Start with a general practitioner (GP), who can provide referrals to specialized services. The type of treatment will depend on the severity and specifics of the eating disorder. Professionals such as psychiatrists, psychologists, dietitians, and counsellors can provide comprehensive care.
  3. Build a Support System: Involving friends and family can provide significant emotional support. Establish a reliable and open line of communication with them. Additionally, consider joining support groups or seeking peer support from individuals who have faced similar challenges. Support systems play a crucial role in maintaining motivation and providing a sense of belonging.
  4. Educate Yourself: Both the individual and their support network should learn about the eating disorder. Understanding the symptoms, impacts, and treatment options is crucial for effective recovery. Education helps in demystifying the condition and reducing stigma, making it easier to seek and accept help.
  5. Pursue Therapy: Various therapies have proven effective for treating eating disorders. According to the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), specialized therapies conducted by professionals, such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Eating Disorders (CBT-ED), Maudsley Anorexia Nervosa Treatment for Adults (MANTRA), Specialist Supportive Clinical Management (SSCM), and eating disorder focused variations of family therapy, are recommended. Therapy addresses the psychological roots of the disorder and equips individuals and families with coping strategies.

Building Healthy Habits

Developing a healthier relationship with food and body image is a critical aspect of recovery. Here are some ways to foster these habits:

  • Balanced Eating: Work with a nutritionist to create a balanced meal plan that meets your nutritional needs without triggering disordered eating behaviours. This can help establish regular eating patterns and reduce anxiety around food.
  • Mindful Eating: Practice mindful eating techniques to become more aware of hunger and fullness cues. This can help individuals tune into their body’s natural signals and reduce overeating or restriction.
  • Positive Self-Talk: Challenge negative thoughts about body image and food. Reframe these thoughts with positive affirmations and realistic perspectives. This can improve self-esteem and reduce the compulsion to control food intake as a way to manage emotions.
  • Stress Management: Develop healthy ways to cope with stress that don’t involve food. This could include activities like yoga, meditation, journaling, or engaging in hobbies. Learning to manage stress effectively can reduce the reliance on disordered eating behaviours as a coping mechanism.

The Importance of Ongoing Support

Recovery from an eating disorder is an ongoing process that requires continuous support and vigilance. Here are some ways to ensure long-term success:

  • Regular Check-Ins: Schedule regular follow-up appointments with healthcare providers to monitor progress and address any emerging issues. Ongoing professional support is crucial for maintaining recovery.
  • Support Networks: Stay connected with support groups or peer networks. These groups provide a safe space to share experiences, gain insights, and receive encouragement from others who understand the journey.
  • Education and Advocacy: Continue to educate yourself and others about eating disorders. Advocacy can help reduce stigma and increase awareness, creating a more supportive environment for those in recovery.
  • Self-Care: Prioritize self-care practices that promote overall well-being. This includes getting enough sleep, engaging in physical activity that you enjoy, and maintaining social connections. Self-care is essential for sustaining recovery and preventing relapse.

Moving Forward

Recovering from an eating disorder is challenging but possible with patience, persistence, and support. It is essential to recognize the problem, seek professional help, and build a supportive network. 

Whether you are struggling with an eating disorder or know someone who is, taking these first steps is crucial for reclaiming health and well-being. Remember, recovery is a journey, not a destination. It requires continuous effort, but with the right resources and support, it is achievable.

Contributed by Dr Erlend Slettevold 

The Oak Tree Practice