For most people, understanding eating disorders means taking a trip way out of what seems logical and reasonable and entering a world where food means more than just the nutrients necessary for survival. Eating disorders are an illness, an addiction of sorts, that creates a very different view of food and its purpose in life. As a recovering anorexic, I have lived and seen some of the strangest food behaviors. As a person who lives in the world of health, I understand how difficult it can be for someone without an eating disorder to understand what to do, how to help, and where to turn when someone they know and love is in the grip of an eating disorder.
Most people believe there are two basic eating disorders, anorexia and bulimia. There is a third that most people overlook, in fact the medical community is just now recognizing it as an eating disorder. The third is chronic binging, without the purging. Eating disorders are typically associated with weight loss instead of weight gain, which is why it has take so long for the medical community and the psychological community to recognize chronic binging as an eating disorder.
Chronic binging is typically an eating disorder that stems from depression and a desire to seek comfort, while anorexia and bulimia stem for other issues which include but are not limited to stress relief, control factors, and coping skill problems. Most anorexics respond to stress, pressure, and expectation through self starvation. Most bulimics binge and purge when they are over stressed or are seeking methods of coping with loss, tragedy, or confusion. While some people are more susceptible to developing an eating disorder, anyone can develop one under the right circumstances.
Crash dieting in America is very popular. We want our women to look thin and youthful regardless of how many children they’ve had or how old they are becoming, and our society rewards thin and youthful people. Obese individuals make less money for performing the same job as thin people. As the pounds begin to pile up, or innocent comments from athletic coaches begin to rumble around a teenager’s mind, eating less and exercising more is actually a normal response. The basic idea of weight loss is to reduce intake of calories and increase caloric output. An anorexic begins to lose weight and begins to feel really good about the weight they lose. Over time, the crash dieting becomes a lifestyle, and before you know it, the caloric intake is down to between 300 and 500 calories a day while the caloric output is up to about 2000-2500 calories per day. And yes, someone with an eating disorder can not only tell you the caloric content of a candy bar, but also the caloric usage of a 3 mile jog.
Whether you are talking anorexia or bulimia, the victim of an eating disorder starts to feel more powerful, more in control, and even superhuman as they realize that they are “not like everyone else.” They “do not require food to function like normal people.” A release of chemicals in the brain makes the first and dangerous stages of an eating disorder easy to fall into. The brain releases chemicals that allow the anorexic or bulimic to function at a highly intensified level without food. As a bonus, they’re slimming down and are starting to notice that everyone appreciates their more slender body. Nobody will notice how unhealthy they are becoming until after they have lost at least 14% of their healthy body weight. By then, despite the initial search for control, the victim of an eating disorder really doesn’t have any control and can’t stop their food behaviors without professional help.
Bulimia is very much like anorexia behind a veil. Anorexics will go to great lengths to hide food, sneak food into the trash or into the dog’s mouth, and to pretend their eating. A bulimic will ingest enough food to keep people’s suspicions at a minimum, but they have the upper hand, because they can secretly discharge the food. Having food in the stomach feels like lead to a bulimic. It feels tainted and nasty and like the weight of the world just went from their shoulders into their gut. It has to come out. Food feels like poison inside their bodies, and just like all poisons it just might kill them if it stays inside their stomach.
An anorexic will turn to bulimia if they are forced to eat before they are ready. Anorexics tend to show tremendous willpower and refuse to put anything into their body especially if it might mean gaining weight. Bulimics may very well binge on the yummy and fattening foods that everyone craves but then need to expel it from their bodies, although this is not always the case.
Both anorexics and bulimics will go to great lengths to keep their disorders a secret when they are in a state of un-health. However, a recovering or struggling victim of an eating disorder tends to be very honest and quite frank about their food issues often to the point that they scare people who do not understand what it means to have an eating disorder.
It can be very frustrating for someone who doesn’t understand an eating disorder to deal with someone who does. There is something rather insulting about having to listen to a stick thin individual perpetually complain about how fat they are. There is something very confusing about listening to someone’s stomach growl with hunger pangs but listen to them lie to you about not being hungry. It should be simple. If you’re hungry, you eat. Unfortunately for someone with an eating disorder, it just isn’t that simple.
Eating disorders were once thought to be a disease which inflicted teenage girls, particularly from affluent homes. This is not longer the case. A small percentage of eating disorder victims include boys and men. Women in their late twenties and earlier thirties who had an eating disorder in their teens and experienced a full recovery are now once again relapsing into a fresh and harsh reminder of their past disorder. Women into their fifties are now developing eating disorders. An eating disorder is not age, gender, race, or socio-economically biased.
If you are concerned that someone you know has an eating disorder, confronting them rarely works unless it is in the beginning stages, a relapse, or the desperate stage. The desperate stage means that there are health factors which can no longer be ignored occurring. By the time an anorexic or a bulimic reaches the desperate stage, there has been tremendous stress placed on their life, your life, and relationships. It is best to get an eating disorder victim help prior to this time.
Whether you have a great understanding of eating disorders or not, counseling can still be received before the desperate stage erupts. Usually, a teenager or a partner has exhibited other symptoms of depression, and there is more arguing than usual going on. Suggesting therapy without being directive about concerns over eating can be done. Most eating disorder victims respond better to being confronted in therapy (after several visits and there is a therapeutic relationship building) than they do being confronted outside of a therapeutic environment.