Eating disorders basics

An eating disorder (ED) is a serious illness affecting as many as one in ten women in North America and men are thought to make up 10-15% of all the people who struggle. Many people mistakenly think someone with an eating disorder should just eat – or conversely, stop eating so much! –  and then all would be well. But, believe it or not, eating disorders are NOT really about food and weight – they just seem to be, because the person struggling with an eating disorder talks about little else!

While fears about food, weight and appearance are involved in this illness, it’s important to know that eating disorders really indicate that there are deeper problems (such as low self-esteem, fear of failure, and a need for control). Often, eating disorders function as a coping mechanism – a way for someone who feels overwhelmed to try and cope with (or avoid) their problems and their feelings.

Eating disorders are not about the things the person talks about (food and weight). Eating disorders are really about the things the person doesn’t want to talk about (feelings, conflicts, fears, etc).

ED basicsContrary to some beliefs, ED’s are not a normal developmental phase that a person will just “grow out of”, nor are they completely the fault of the media and superthin models. Eating disorders are a very complex mental illness – and like many illnesses, an eating disorder can be fatal if untreated. In fact, it’s estimated that as many as 20% of all people who develop an eating disorder will die from it!

You should know that people with eating disorders come in a range of sizes and shapes (in fact, more often than not, a person with an eating disorder does NOT look underweight) and that you can’t tell whether or not someone is sick just by looking at them. Often, by the time someone looks sick on the outside, a tremendous amount of damage has already been done on the inside. This is why it’s so important to get treatment as soon as possible! Also, eating disorders are equal opportunity illnesses – that is, they affect men and women, young and old, and every race, religious affiliation and economic class.

There are three main kinds of eating disorders: Anorexia which is characterized by severe restriction of food, weight loss, intense fear of fat, and severe body image distortion. Often these patients will refuse to eat certain types of foods (like fats or carbs) or dramatically reduce their intake; get quite thin; hide under bulky clothes; and become secretive about their eating. The second, and more common type of eating disorder, is bulimia which is characterized by periods of bingeing and purging (with or without periods of restricting); secretive eating; and body loathing. These individuals may appear “normal” weight or be heavier or thinner than they once were. The third kind of eating disorder is called compulsive overeating (also called binge eating disorder) and consists of periods of bingeing without purging; followed by feelings of shame or self-loathing; and possibly periods of ongoing dieting.

Unfortunately, no one knows exactly what causes an eating disorder. We think that genetics, biochemistry (like hormones and brain chemicals), environment and culture, and individual traits all play a role. Even though we can’t define the cause,  we do know some things about effective treatment, and we also know what DOESN’T help. Read on to learn more about both of these, and the services I offer in southern Ontario.