What is an Eating Disorder?
“Eating disorders — such as anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder – include extreme emotions, attitudes, and behaviors surrounding weight and food issues. Eating disorders are serious emotional and physical problems that can have life-threatening consequences for females and males.” –National Eating Disorder Association
When a person has a preoccupation or obsession with what they eat, food and their body they have a problem. Some examples are: anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder. Any disturbed or abnormal behavior needs to be addressed. Secrecy is a powerful ingredient to an eating disorder. Simply beginning therapy and breaking that silence by talking about these issues with a therapist, has a positive effect.
Do I technically have an eating disorder? How is that diagnosed and does it matter?
I work with people who have eating disorders and others who, while struggling with healthy eating habits and body image issues, are not clinically diagnosed with an eating disorder. Clinical diagnoses are listed in the DSM-V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual) and while this can be helpful for treatment because you can match your symptoms with a somewhat objective source, it is not always necessary.
Disordered eating includes many types of eating behaviors and suppression that, by themselves, do not meet the criteria necessary to be a clinical eating disorder according to the DSM-V. However, people with disordered eating are experiencing great pain and suffering. This is just as real, intense and heartbreaking as a fully diagnosed eating disorder.
Do you have a food addiction? Sugar, Fat, Salt
Particular, to Portland, Oregon (think maple walnut bacon cupcake), but really all over our country (McDonald’s), we are experiencing an epidemic called a food addiction. Recent research is now quite clear that a person can be addicted to food, usually certain food combinations. What does that mean? Experiments are proving again and again that the same reward and pleasure ‘pavillions’ in the brain that are targeted by cocaine and heroin are also ‘hit’ by food, most especially the combination of sugar, fat and salt.
This mix: sugar, fat, salt trigger dopamine release in the brain so that we feel good temporarily. The problem is that our tolerance increases, so that we needed greater amounts of food to release the same amount of dopamine. Weight gain, even obesity and destructive elements in relationships ensues.
What are the top five signs of a food addiction?
Do you have trouble stopping eating particular foods?
Do you eat to the point of feeling ill or uncomfortable?
When certain foods are not nearby do you go out of your way to procure them?
You think about food A LOT and get really excited to eat.
You don’t have other fulfilling areas of your life and most relationships are disappointing to you.
Remember, even watching a show about cooking, and seeing food that is titillating, can literally ‘make your mouth water’ just like hearing someone open a fresh can of Coca-Cola can creates a change in your brain and soon you find yourself wanting one too. It’s the sound of refreshment! But not really, a can of Coca-Cola has ten cubes of sugar so it’s most likely to make you feel quite positive initially and then crash and feel very low and even depressed. It is true: sugar is an addiction.
All of our senses link to memories in the brain and we are hard-wired to want to feel good.
How do I know if I have disordered eating?
Disordered eating might be lifelong restrained eating, compulsive eating,binge eating with or without vomiting.Disordered eating could entail irregular; chaotic eating patterns like not eating all day then having one meal late at night, ignoring physical feelings of hunger and fullness, which become skewed as one suppresses the appetite;use of diet pills;eating for comfort. Disordered eating is most often present with another problem like feeling depressed or blue or anxious and worried about a certain event or just generally anxious about life. It may be something you learned as a child that helps to soothe you.
It is critical to assess the situation. During therapy a detailed and thorough inventory of a person’s life detects raw spots or areas in the past or currently, that are associated with eating habits, food, stress and feelings. How can you self-soothe today in a way that is a healthy coping skill?
Who is affected by Eating Disorders and Disordered Eating? Who do you treat?
Maybe you are in college and you are an athlete. You have a lot of pressure on you to compete in your sport? Maybe you are a teenage girl and you are suffering from the pressure at school and our society to be thin because clothes like better on a hanger? Or you have struggled on and off for most of your adult life with this issue? Remember, with an eating issue, you cannot simply eliminate all food. Since you cannot avoid food altogether it is a challenge to form new neuropathways in the brain. Food cannot be avoided. It is everywhere. You must learn new healthy habits and learn moderation. Accountability is a must. For people with this issue, that is particularly challenging because there are extremes, such as “I won’t eat all day and then I can binge on whatever I want at night” or perfectionism. Or “I need to eat only salad and tofu at each meal.” Neither approach works are you are left with the feelings you were trying to avoid in the first place. People use eating as a SDB (self-defeating behavior). They may engage in their SDB and feel better for the short-term but they feel worse in the long-term. Their health declines, they are tired, their brain is being starved –literally. Ultimately, they break promises to themselves and others, the shame and guilt, secrecy and lies builds up and self-respect erodes.
Plenty of high achieving, extremely successful women in their thirties, forties and fifties are struggling with this issue. If that is you, you are not alone.
You may not even consider or accept that you are active in the eating disorder until I start digging for some deeper information and understanding. Plenty of people tell me they don’t see it as a problem, it is more of a release from unpleasant feelings. Behaviors such as vomiting, over-exercising, taking laxatives, diuretics are ways people manage or numb the pain. Vomiting actually release endorphins, a feel good chemical in the brain, so that in the moment you feel much better. But it is a trick your body is playing on you, because it is only momentary, a fleeting positive feeling, and soon enough the original shame, guilt, sadness and other negative emotions will return with an extra layer of emotions about the self-defeating behaviors you engaged in.
Self-defeating behaviors work in the moment – that is why we do them. They make your life worse in the long-term.
If you connect with any of these descriptions, it is time to seek help and support. Treatment begins with individual therapy, and I specialize in this area. I work with many people who are suffering with disordered eating, eating disorders, eating for comfort, food addiction, body image and shame. I will help you work through this issue and uncover what is at the root of it. I will probably encourage you to join a support group as well, to learn about other people’s similar struggles with these problems. Once the secrecy is over, you can begin to heal and find yourself again.