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It's Not About the Food

Each year, thousands of teens develop eating disorders, or problems with weight, or body image. Eating disorders are more than just going on a diet to lose weight. In fact eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia involve much more than the food itself. Some people suffering from eating disorders may use food to compensate for overwhelming emotions. Others control their food intake in order to feel in control or cope with painful feelings. These destructive behavior patterns can become part of an ingrained and self-perpetuating cycle, resulting in considerable risk to the person’s health. If left untreated, eating disorders can be fatal.

The most common eating disorders are anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. But other food-related disorders, like binge eating, body image disorders, and food phobias, are growing in numbers as well.


People with anorexia have a real fear of weight gain and a distorted view of their body size and shape. As a result, they can't maintain a normal body weight. Many teens with anorexia restrict their food intake by dieting, fasting, or excessive exercise. They hardly eat at all — and the small amount of food they do eat becomes an obsession. Others with anorexia may start binge eating and purging — eating a lot of food and then trying to get rid of the calories by forcing themselves to vomit, using laxatives, or exercising excessively, or some combination of these.


Bulimia is similar to anorexia. With bulimia, someone might binge eat (eat to excess) and then try to compensate in extreme ways, such as forced vomiting or excessive exercise, to prevent weight gain. Over time, these steps can be dangerous both physically and emotionally and even lead to compulsive behaviors. People with bulimia eat a large amount of food (often junk food) at once, usually in secret. Sometimes they eat food that is not cooked or might be still frozen, or retrieve food from the trash. They typically feel powerless to stop the eating and can only stop once they're too full to eat any more. Most people with bulimia then purge by vomiting, but may also use laxatives or excessive exercise. Although anorexia and bulimia are very similar, people with anorexia are usually very thin and underweight but those with bulimia may be a normal weight or can be overweight.

Physical Effects of Eating Disorders

With anorexia, the body goes into starvation mode, and the lack of nutrition can affect the body in many ways: a drop in blood pressure, pulse, and breathing rate,hair loss and fingernail breakage,loss of periods,lanugo hair (a soft hair that can grow all over the skin), lightheadedness and inability to concentrate, anemia, swollen joints, brittle bones.

With bulimia, constant vomiting and lack of nutrients can cause these problems: constant stomach pain, damage to the stomach and kidneys, tooth decay (from exposure to stomach acids)"chipmunk cheeks," when the salivary glands permanently expand from throwing up so often, loss of periods, loss of the mineral potassium (this can contribute to heart problems and even death)

The complexity of eating disorders

Our relationship with food is remarkably complex. On one hand, food supplies our bodies with nutrition, which is a basic need. On the other hand, our connection to food goes considerably deeper, providing comfort during stressful times, and evoking memories of family traditions. The current scientific understanding of eating disorders is that it originates through interplay of genetic and environmental factors. It may help to view eating disorders through the addiction model. An alcoholic or a drug addict drinks or takes drugs as a self-soothing measure. Ingesting them can take the edge off a tragic loss, a blow to one’s confidence, or even a bad day. This behavior is comparable to that of an anorexia patient, who often suffers from severe anxiety. Not eating is the one thing that makes the anxiety go away. Whereas most people feel pleasure when they eat, the anorexic feels uncomfortable.” Instead of taking something in order to reduce anxiety, as the alcoholic might, the anorexic’s self-soothing trick involves not taking the substance, or not eating.

Another way to think of an eating disorder is in the context of various fears or phobias, such as fear of flying, fear of public speaking etc. The way to overcome such fears is to make oneself face them, over and over. You might say there is an “exposure component” to treating eating disorders - “you’re asking a patient to do something incredibly uncomfortable,” which is eating. Repeated exposure to the fear, in this case food, makes the patient’s anxiety and discomfort level come down. So the food becomes the medicine. In other words to make an eating-disordered person better, involves a lot of hard work, fear, pain and suffering since the recovering revolves around food.

Make peace with your inner demons.

Treatment for eating disorders involves much more than food. While medical intervention may be required in order to stabilize the condition of a person with a severe eating disorder, recovery is dependent on the individual working through the issues causing the eating disorder in the first place. Eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia require specialized treatment in order to address the underlying causes of these serious illnesses. For a person battling an eating disorder, her/his fears are attached to food. But an eating disorder really isn’t about food at all. It’s about feelings of un- acceptance and disapproval. These feelings get the eating disorder going, if someone thinks she can be more approved of or more acceptable, then the control measure is to binge or to over-exercise. The relationship with food is just a manifestation of those feelings.

Try to picture that your worst fear is a rattlesnake; and your favorite meal is your mom’s mashed potatoes and pot roast. Now imagine your mom’s great meal in front of you, and at the same time you see that rattlesnake coiled up on your plate. You are assured that the moment you touch it, it’s going to turn into mashed potatoes. Then you take a bite, and the snake is still there, but on your fork is the mashed potato. Now you are going to eat that and enjoy it while watching the snake coiled up in a strike position.” The therapy is to distance yourself from your eating disorder. By naming the eating disorder it helps to recognize that it’s an identifiable character that’s separate from you when it takes control. So instead of identifying with the rattlesnake to the extent that you become the rattlesnake, you separate yourself by accepting the existence of the rattlesnake without feeding it. You learn to live in peace with each other while building on your self-worth and self-perception. This approach is similar to that of a depression in which case the person also identifies him/herself with thoughts and feelings to a degree where they become almost real. Likewise the treatment would be to detach oneself from the drama they create by acknowledging that they are not reality but merely a product of the mind.

Holistic treatment of eating disorders

Therapy or counseling is a very important part of getting better — in many cases, family therapy is one of the keys to eating healthily again. When one person in the family suffers, everybody suffers and because of that the relationship is often damaged between the person with the eating disorder and other family members, who may find the eating disorder frustrating, stressful, and difficult to understand. Therefore it important to rehabilitate everybody in the family in order for them to provide the ultimate support the child needs to regain weight, or to accept the body shape that their culture, genes, and lifestyle allows for.

There are many benefits to attending eating disorder rehabilitation facilities. Not only will the person with an eating disorder receive expert medical supervision and treatment, but they will also be introduced to others suffering from the same condition. It is especially helpful for individuals with an eating disorder to realize that they are not alone. Peers can offer a special understanding and provide additional support and encouragement towards a successful recovery. Learning to be comfortable at your healthy weight is a process. It takes time to unlearn some behaviors and relearn others. Be patient… you can learn to like your body, understand your eating behaviors, and figure out the relationship between feelings and eating — all the tools you need to feel in control and to like and accept yourself for who you are.

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