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Three Facts That Prove Eating Disorders Don’t Have an “Easy Fix”

Eating disorders, which range from restrictive types like anorexia nervosa to purging types like bulimia nervosa, all the way to those which result in weight gain, like binge eating disorder, affect millions of Americans of all genders, ethnicities, and socioeconomic backgrounds. There is an entire subset of psychiatric treatment devoted to recovery from eating disorders– and yet they are still often misunderstood. Some people still believe that an “eating disorder cure”is as simple as “showing the willpower to stop disordered behaviors or “just eat more.”

This attitude is misleading and potentially counterproductive, as it reduces a series of deeply complex disorders to a simple fix – a reduction that can cost lives. Eating disorder treatment centers that take the complexity of the disorder seriously are well-practiced in providing appropriate treatment for these disorders, however. These facts, gleaned from decades worth of experience, prove that while there’s no simple eating disorder solution, there is hope for people who want to get help.

Relapses Are Common, and People Often Need More Than One Treatment Stay

According to a 2005 study by Scientists on the clinical side of eating disorder research, relapse rates for women with anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa have extremely high rates of relapse. For the people with anorexia nervosa, 36 percent of women who had received professional treatment fell back into disordered behavior patterns, and for women with bulimia nervosa, 35 percent began to binge and purge again. This means that more than one in three people who have received treatment return to their old eating patterns.

The difficulty in treatment lies in the fact that the brain is rewired by the eating disorder to perpetuate itself. By the time most women begin to receive treatment, their disordered thought and behavior patterns are deeply ingrained – and like every part of a person’s developed psyche, it’s not easy to completely leave it behind. In some cases, more than one stay at a residential or outpatient facility may be necessary. Even for successful residential treatment stints, a continued care program including regular outpatient therapy is recommended. While the medical symptoms of an eating disorder can be treated in-house, the psychological ones take longer. There’s simply no magic pill that can completely stop an eating disorder; a commitment to maintaining recovery and an ability to overcome urges work much better.

Eating Disorders Are Caused by a Variety of Factors, and They All Need Treatment

Unlike purely medical diseases, like, for example, chicken pox being caused by a specific virus, there is no single, easily identified cause of eating disorders.  Over time, the professionals working at eating disorder facilities and clinical research studies have shown that normally, eating disorders are caused by a combination of several factors.

These factors include genetic factors (parents who have eating disorders tend to pass them down and siblings with eating disorders are more likely to share these traits with their other siblings), biological factors (women are more prone than men to develop an eating disorder), and various social factors including media and peers influencing a person’s self-image negatively. An important note regarding sex and gender – while cisgender women are more likely to have eating disorders than cis men, trans people, in general, have much higher rates of body dysmorphia and disordered eating than any cisgender people. Gay men and women also tend to suffer eating disorders more often than straight people.

Because of the disparate causes and contributing factors of an eating disorder, any program that treats them must be designed specifically for the person being treated. Designing an eating disorder treatment program is a complex process; the specific causes of an eating disorder must be addressed as comprehensively as the physical symptoms, and that takes time and dedication on the part of the client and their treatment team. Among the treatments most commonly used in eating disorder treatment are behavioral modification therapies like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, mindfulness exercises like yoga and guided meditation, and nutritional education that helps repair the person’s relationship with food and eating.

Treatments for the Body, Mind, and Soul Are All Necessary

At virtually every modern, accredited eating disorder treatment facility, the staff takes a multidisciplinary approach to promote recovery for anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, and other disorders like ARFID< orthorexia nervosa and diabulimia.  Naturally, any serious medical complications must be immediately addressed.  Eating disorders left untreated are the most physically dangerous mental health disorders, resulting in malnutrition, bone and liver disease, and in some cases even death. People with eating disorders are also at the highest risk for self-harm and suicidal ideation. These factors must be addressed through therapy and in some rare cases, medication. Only eating disorder treatment centers that provide the highest levels of care can safely assist these cases – residential is necessary.

However, simply dealing with the physical symptoms is like closing the barn door after the horses ran away – it doesn’t solve the problem.  That’s why the emotional and spiritual causes of eating disorders must also be addressed once the medical symptoms are stabilized.  This can involve programs that promote a more objective way of perceiving one’s self-image, mindfulness exercises, talk therapy in group and individual settings, and other methodologies that have been proven effective over the years.  Additionally, family therapy, mindful movement classes, and nutritional education are also recommended. The best facilities will take their time to develop a unique program for each client, proving that there is no “easy fix” or anything as complex as an eating disorder.

“No Easy Fix” Doesn’t Mean You Should Lose Hope

This can all sound very discouraging, but it shouldn’t.  After all, the majority of people who get treatment do eventually find a balance. There may be no single cure but there is a wide variety of possible treatments, and facilities are creating integrated, evidence-based programs for recovery every day.  If you or a loved one is suffering from an eating disorder or simply wants to find out more, don’t be nervous. While it might not be simple, there is an eating disorder solution for you.

Melissa Spann, PhD, LMHC, CEDS-S

Melissa Orshan Spann, PhD, LMHC, RTY 200, is Chief Clinical Officer at Monte Nido & Affiliates, overseeing the clinical operations and programming for over 50 programs across the U.S. Dr. Spann is a Certified Eating Disorder Specialist and clinical supervisor as well as an accomplished presenter and passionate clinician who has spent her career working in the eating disorder field in higher levels of care. She is a member of the Academy for Eating Disorders and the International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals where she serves on the national certification committee, supervision faculty, and is on the board of her local chapter. She received her doctoral degree from Drexel University, master’s degree from the University of Miami, and bachelor’s degree from the University of Florida.
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