Self-Image & Self-Harm

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What are Eating Disorders?

Eating disorders are a group of mental health conditions associated with an unhealthy relationship with food and body image. According to the American Psychiatric Association, individuals with eating disorders experience severe disturbances in eating patterns that involve food restriction, fasting, avoidance of large amounts of food, excessive exercise, extreme dieting, binge eating, or combinations of any of these behaviors.

eating disorders

How common are eating disorders?

In the United States, eating disorders affect 20 million women and 10 million men in the general population. The three most common eating disorders are anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder. The distress caused by eating disorders can negatively affect an individual’s quality of life and mental and physical well-being and impair their daily functioning.

While eating disorders may be present among people of all ages, the onset of eating disorders typically occurs during adolescence or young adulthood and is more prevalent among young women. With the highest mortality rate of any mental health illness, eating disorders are serious medical conditions and can have long-term medical complications if left untreated.

Types of Eating Disorders

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) is used by experts to diagnose mental disorders. Although the DSM-5 doesn’t cover every type of eating disorder, it lists the most common types and their diagnostic criteria: 

  • Anorexia nervosa: Anorexia is associated with extreme weight loss due to exercise and extreme dieting, including food restriction, avoidance of food, and fasting, often until the point of starvation. Although a seeming lack of interest in food is a common myth among individuals with anorexia, they typically experience low self-esteem, a distorted body image, a preoccupation with body weight, and an intense fear of overeating. Anorexia can lead to numerous health problems, including malnutrition, electrolyte imbalance, low blood pressure, infertility, organ failure, bone loss, low weight, and in extreme cases death. 
  • Bulimia nervosa: Bulimia involves extreme overeating, known as binge-eating. Excessive food intake is followed by purging or other behaviors, including the use of laxatives, enemas, diet pills, diuretics, and excessive exercise, to compensate for bingeing. Individuals with bulimia often experience embarrassment or feeling a lack of control over consuming food. Because individuals with bulimia are typically an average weight, it can be difficult to diagnose sufferers by physical appearance.
  • Binge-eating disorder: Like bulimia, binge-eating disorder is characterized by frequent episodes of eating significant amounts of food and a sense of loss of control when eating. For many young adults, binge-eating is linked to emotional eating. Individuals with binge-eating disorder do not engage in compensatory purging behavior for overeating. Sufferers of binge-eating disorder may experience weight gain, high blood pressure, and obesity if the condition is left untreated.
  • Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID): Individuals with ARFID do not eat enough food to obtain their daily nutrition and energy needs. Although ARFID rarely involves an obsession with body weight, the condition often leads to weight loss. Orthorexia, a form of ARFID, is characterized by perfectionistic behavior and an aversion to unhealthy food in pursuit of a healthy diet.
  • Rumination disorder: Rumination involves the compulsive regurgitation of food. After purging food, an individual may chew and swallow food again or spit the food out. 
  • Pica: Pica is a rare condition. Pica eating behaviors include consuming substances that are not food, such as soap and paper. Individuals may be drawn to consuming non-food substances due to their textures and flavors.

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Treatment Options for Eating Disorders

Treatment plans utilize a team approach involving a therapist, nutritionist, and a medical provider. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, treatment varies depending on the severity and type of disorder, and the patient’s individual needs.

Outpatient treatment is recommended for individuals with eating disorders who are medically stable and able to function in day-to-day life. During outpatient treatment, patients attend treatment at a center or private practice and regularly meet with health professionals such as dietitians and nutritionists. To help patients successfully exit treatment and practice healthy eating patterns, meal plans, and relapse prevention are essential.

Individuals are admitted to inpatient programs when they are mentally or medically unstable and in poor physical health. Inpatient programs involve hospitalization and provide 24-hour medical care. Like outpatient treatment, inpatient treatment involves therapy, wellness classes, and nutrition counseling.

What should you look for in an eating disorder therapist?

The most effective approaches to treatment are holistic and target the different aspects and complexities of the disorder, as well as the physical, mental, and social functioning of the patient. Because psychotherapy plays a critical role in treatment, it’s important to find a therapist specializing in the treatment of individuals with eating disorders.

Therapy can help individuals learn to normalize their eating habits to achieve a normal weight, monitor eating and mood, avoid feelings of shame toward eating, develop problem-solving skills, and learn healthy ways to cope with stressful situations and anxiety symptoms.

If you’re thinking about seeking professional help for an eating disorder, consider reaching out to a therapist or mental health professional through WithTherapy. WithTherapy’s unique service will match you with a mental health professional that you feel comfortable with, regardless of your personal preferences and requirements. A qualified therapist will help you find the underlying cause of your eating disorder and create a plan to normalize your eating habits and develop a healthy relationship with food.

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