Deadliest Mental Health Disorder: Eating Disorders

Deadliest Mental Health Disorder: Eating Disorders
February 4, 2016 Kim Goldman

Did you know that eating disorders have nothing really to do with food or weight?  At their core, eating disorders involve distorted, self-critical attitudes about weight, food, and body image.

People with eating disorders use food to deal with uncomfortable, stressful or painful emotions. Some restrict food intake to feel in control, others may overeat as a temporary solution to soothe sadness, anger, or loneliness and purging is used to combat feelings of helplessness and self-loathing. Over time, people with eating disorders lose the ability to see themselves objectively and obsessions over food and weight come to dominate everything else in life.  It’s these negative thoughts and feelings that fuel the damaging behaviors.  So you can see, it is far more complicated than just talking about dietary habits.

Millions of people across the country suffer from eating disorders, but by increasing awareness and access to resources, we can encourage early detection and intervention. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental disorder, so early intervention can mean saving lives.  (Click here to get screened)

Understanding Common Myths about Eating Disorders:

Myth #1: You have to be underweight to have an eating disorder.

People with eating disorders come in all shapes and sizes. Many individuals with eating disorders are of average weight or are overweight.

Myth #2: Only teenage girls and young women are affected by eating disorders.

While eating disorders are most common in young women in their teens and early twenties, they are found in men and women of all ages.

Myth #3: People with eating disorders are vain.

It’s not vanity that drives people with eating disorders to follow extreme diets and obsess over their bodies, but rather an attempt to deal with feelings of shame, anxiety, and powerlessness.

Myth #4: Eating disorders aren’t really that dangerous.

All eating disorders can lead to irreversible and even life-threatening health problems, such as heart disease, bone loss, stunted growth, infertility, and kidney damage.


Types of eating disorders:

The most common eating disorders are anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder.

  • Anorexia – People with anorexia starve themselves out of an intense fear of becoming fat. Despite being underweight or even emaciated, they never believe they’re thin enough. In addition to restricting calories, people with anorexia may also control their weight with exercise, diet pills, or purging.
  • Bulimia – Bulimia involves a destructive cycle of bingeing and purging. Following an episode of out-of-control binge eating, people with bulimia take drastic steps to purge themselves of the extra calories. In order to avoid weight gain they vomit, exercise, fast, or take laxatives.
  • Binge Eating Disorder – People with binge eating disorder compulsively overeat, rapidly consuming thousands of calories in a short period of time. Despite feelings of guilt and shame over these secret binges, they feel unable to control their behavior or stop eating even when uncomfortably full.

 Common eating disorder warning signs:

  • Preoccupation with body or weight
  • Obsession with calories, food, or nutrition
  • Constant dieting, even when thin
  • Rapid, unexplained weight loss or weight gain
  • Taking laxatives or diet pills
  • Compulsive exercising
  • Making excuses to get out of eating
  • Avoiding social situations that involve food
  • Going to the bathroom right after meals
  • Eating alone, at night, or in secret
  • Hoarding high-calorie food

What parents can do:

  • If there is a concern that a child may be restricting certain foods, food groups or portion sizes, it is wise to first consult a medical doctor to rule out physiological problems.
  • Create a healthy eating lifestyle at home and expect your child to comply with the family’s eating patterns. Offer your child healthy foods, prepare or oversee at least three nourishing meals a day, and be sure to eat those meals together with your child and family as often as possible. Your child learns by imitating your behaviors. As nourishing as a family dinner is the sharing and comradery that accompanies it.
  • Never skip meals. Remember that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Know what healthy eating is, that it involves eating three meals daily… diverse, balanced and nutritious meals, consisting of all the food groups and consumed without fear. Healthy eating is not fat-free eating.
  • Keep your own lifestyle active and expect your child to do the same. If children are too sedentary, turn off the television and encourage a walk with the dog or biking to the library.
  • Spend quality time with your child. Listen to what they say and to how they feel. Know what their concerns are.
  • Encourage your child to become aware of her feelings and to express them freely. Communicating through the use of words diminishes the odds that anxious feelings will be expressed through food-abusing behaviors.
  • Be aware that girls typically reach puberty as young as age 9. Explain to them that it is normal (and essential) that they gain weight at the onset of puberty in order to stimulate a healthfully functioning reproductive system that will allow them to bear their own children one day.
  • Become aware of your own personal attitudes about eating, body image, and weight control. Do you encourage your son to eat so that he can grow big and strong, yet caution your daughter against becoming fat?
  • Never force your child to “clean her plate,” giving her a sense of not being in control of her own food. The parent should determine the menu and the child should determine the amounts of food consumed.
  • Do not criticize your own or your child’s weight, shape or size.
  • Don’t tolerate casual derogatory comments about other people’s weight and physical appearance. Children take to heart and personalize what you say.
  • Remember that too much of a good thing is no longer a good thing. Don’t allow your child to overdo athletics or dance activities; to shop too much or to watch TV or Facebook too much; to talk on the phone or play video games too much; to eat too much or too little, to study too much or too little, to sleep too much or too little, etc. Moderation and balance in life reflects a healthy lifestyle.

If you are a teen with an eating disorder:

Eating disorders are complicated diseases that can leave you stuck in a trap of hopelessness and despair.  When you are living in an eating disorder, it is easy to believe that you are okay without help or that you can make it alone.  The reality is much darker though, and the truth of the matter is that you will need the help and support from your parents to pull you away from the death grip of your disorder.  By confiding in them, you are taking the most essential step towards pursuing recovery and receiving the care you need to get your life back.

How exactly can you talk to your parents about an eating disorder?  Here are some helpful tips for communicating with your parents:

  • Arrange a time and place to talk:  Having their undivided attention in a comfortable setting will help you feel at ease when speaking with them.  Choose a place that is calm and quiet and where you can have a discussion without interruptions.
  • Share your concerns and needs: Be open and honest in communicating what you are feeling, what you may be worried about, or what you might need from them.  Phrases that might be helpful to share with them include, “I feel sad and scared about a health problem I am struggling with”, or “I have tried to overcome this on my own but feel that I need help”, or even “I am struggling with an eating disorder and would like your support and guidance to find treatment and overcome this challenge.  Will you please help me?”
  • Be receptive of their response: Understand that your parents may have an emotional response to what you share with them.  They may feel shocked, frightened, or confused by your openness of your struggle with an eating disorder, but know that you are not responsible for their emotional state.  Give yourself positive reinforcement by reminding yourself of the courage you have to take these important steps towards getting well.

If you are concerned about yourself or someone you know, you can take a 3 minute confidential survey. Click here

To find an eating disorder treatment specialist in your area:

  • Ask your primary care doctor for a referral.
  • Check with local hospitals or medical centers.
  • Ask your school counselor or nurse.
  • Call the National Eating Disorders Association’s toll-free hotline at 1-800-931-2237 (Mon–Fri, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. PST).



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