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Frequently Asked Questions About Eating Disorders

Even though eating disorders can affect people of all ages, genders, and races, they usually first appear during the teenage years and young adulthood. Parents and other people close to an individual with an eating disorder can easily miss the signs and symptoms, especially if they have not experienced one of these disorders before.

Because of this, families searching for the best eating disorder treatment centers should take great care to understand the different types of eating disorders and the treatment options available. The good news is that there are personalized, modern eating disorder treatment programs available for almost every case. Keep reading to learn more about common eating disorders and eating disorder recovery options.

What Exactly Are Eating Disorders?

Eating disorders are mental health conditions that cause changes in the way a person eats, exercises, and views themselves. Disordered eating behaviors affect people’s wellbeing in emotional, medical, and psychiatric aspects. The most well-known eating disorders include anorexia nervosa and nervosa. Despite not being as well known, the most common eating disorder is binge eating disorder, which can be just as dangerous as the others although it does not involve weight loss. People who have an eating disorder often develop obsessive or otherwise distorted relationships with food and eating and experience distorted and negative body image. If left untreated, eating disorders can quickly become very serious and even life-threatening.​

Who’s at Risk for an Eating Disorder?

There is a perception that only young white women have eating disorders, which is unfortunate because it leads to misdiagnoses and underreporting of eating disorders among people in different demographics. The truth is, people of all genders, every race, and nearly any age can develop an eating disorder. In fact, research has shown that children as young as 5 or 6 years of age can begin showing symptoms of an eating disorder. Although girls and women are more commonly diagnosed than males and people often begin showing signs of an eating disorder in adolescence, many people develop eating disorders later in adulthood.

Eating disorder treatment is important for people of all ages and backgrounds. Current studies suggest that up to 7 percent of women in the US have had bulimia nervosa at some point in their life. Additionally, anorexia nervosa is the 3rd most common chronic illness among teen girls and binge eating disorder affects anywhere from 0.7 percent to 4 percent of the general population, a figure that ranks in the millions. Binge eating disorder also affects a higher percentage of men than other eating disorders do, as well as being more common in older people.

Although research is still limited on the subject, evidence indicates that LGBTQ people are at higher risk for developing an eating disorder. This may be to increased trauma and stress due to bullying and family acceptance; trauma is one of the most common causative factors in virtually every mental health disorder. Body image distortions and negative self-image, which are also powerful triggers for disordered eating and exercise behaviors, are also common in trans people, who are at much higher risk for developing an eating disorder than the cis population.

Is There a Cure?

There is no simple cure for eating disorders – no pill, no single talk session, no magic panacea. Eating disorder recovery is an extended journey. On the other hand, many people with eating disorders can enjoy a successful and long-term recovery. The essential factors for giving them this chance are early intervention and securing a personalized, appropriate treatment program. This should include stipulations for the individual’s specific type(s) of eating disorder, their medical needs, and their cultural, ethnic, and religious needs.

It is also important to keep in mind that individuals who have been through an eating disorder recovery program may need extensive aftercare. This may entail a “step-down” program of individual and group sessions following residential or intensive outpatient care. It could also include less-formal meetings and group chats with other graduates of residential programs. Even more crucial to avoiding relapses and maintaining a long-term recovery is the presence of a family and friend support system. People close to an individual in treatment often attend their own therapy sessions to educate them on how to support their loved one after treatment ends.

What Are the Signs of Bulimia Nervosa?

Bulimia nervosa is a disorder wherein a person regularly binge eats (eating a large amount of food in a short time) and then purges the food they’ve just eaten. Any type of purging following a binge eating episode or a meal, whether that means fasting, self-induced vomiting, or laxative use – indicates that disordered thoughts and actions have arisen surrounding their body, weight, and self-esteem. If they are purging after a meal with others it’s even more likely they are purging more consistently when alone, as well. Evidence of vomiting or efforts to hide it, such as always carrying mints or gum, frequent flushing, dental problems, and swollen glands are symptoms of bulimia nervosa and should be causes of concern.

What Are the Signs of Binge Eating Disorder?

Although it’s officially a recognized mental health disorder in the DSM-V, binge eating disorder is still very misunderstood. Laypeople often confuse this compulsive disorder with simple overeating. Most people will overeat every now and then, especially during the holidays. However, people with binge eating disorder binge face uncontrollable urges to binge eat. This usually consists of eating a very large amount of food in a very short amount of time, often when they aren’t physically hungry. Their binges are also accompanied by feelings of shame, guilt, anxiety, and disgust. People with binge eating disorder often engage in strict diets and calorie counting and are dissatisfied with their body weight. Despite dieting, binge eating disorder patients don’t usually lose significant amounts of weight, although fluctuations are common.

What Are the Signs of Anorexia Nervosa?

Anorexia nervosa is what most people first think of when they hear the term “eating disorder.” It’s a mental health disorder that causes people to have body image distortions – specifically seeing themselves as fat or overweight. To counteract this, people with anorexia nervosa restrict the amount of food they take in and count calories obsessively. Normally, severe weight loss results and the individual may have difficulty maintaining viable body weight. Extreme weight loss (in the absence of another medical factor) is a clear sign of this disorder, as is a refusal to eat. People with anorexia nervosa tend to excessively or compulsively exercise as well, beyond the point of pain or injury and often to the detriment of their social lives.

What Are the General Signs of an Eating Disorder?

People with eating disorders tend to feel a sense of shame about their disordered eating behaviors and try to hide them, although this is not always the case. This makes an informal diagnosis very difficult. Instead of looking for a specific sign of anorexia nervosa, binge eating disorder, bulimia nervosa, or other eating disorders, the family and friends can look out for a few general signs. Many of these are related to body image. If a person routinely complains about their body or weight or is always on a diet, it’s a sign that they are experiencing body dysmorphia, a central component of many eating disorders. Being uncomfortable at group meals, hiding food or eating in secret, or wearing baggy clothes to hide the body’s shape are all also signs that something could be amiss. Family can also look for hoarded food, lots of empty food wrappers (often also hidden), or laxative or enema wrappers in the trash.

How Are Eating Disorders Treated?

Eating disorders can be treated on both a residential and outpatient (day treatment) basis. Usually, medications are not used, although certain co-occurring disorders such as bipolar disorder or OCD may require medications. Generally speaking, a set of different therapeutic techniques takes precedence. These include individual and group therapy sessions with psychotherapists, nutritional education and meal planning, mindfulness techniques and meditation, and cognitive retraining and processing techniques like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT). The latter is especially useful in helping individuals with PTSD process their trauma in a productive way. Residential treatment usually starts at 28 – 30 days but can last months or longer. The process to a full recovery can take years, however; recovery is a long path.

Discover How to Get Help from an Eating Disorder Treatment Center

At modern eating disorder treatment centers, the focus is on providing adolescents with the tools they need to enjoy a successful eating disorder recovery. They should understand that teenage eating disorders treatment should be approached from emotional, medical, and psychiatric perspectives to ensure that young people can properly navigate the challenges of life after completing treatment. If You think your daughter may be developing an eating disorder, or are simply looking to learn more, don’t hesitate. Contact an eating disorder center today and get started on a lifelong recovery.

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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