With so many pressures on us to match the so-called ideal standards of beauty expected by society, it’s hardly surprising that many people develop a distorted idea of their weight and size, and consequently develop eating disorders.

Contrary to the widely accepted myth, eating disorders are not restricted to teenage girls. In fact, 10% of cases affect men, and eating disorders often do not develop until middle age. In a famous recent case, John Prescott, the deputy Prime Minister, blew the stereotypes apart by revealing that he had Bulimia.

So what constitutes an eating disorder, and what help is available?

This article on eating disorders and their treatment is written by Jackie Griffiths, a freelance journalist who writes health, medical, biological, and pharmaceutical articles for national and international journals, newsletters and web sites.

Eating disorders

Eating disorders generally fall into three categories:

  • Anorexia – in which people literally starve themselves in the pursuit of losing weight, eating far too little food and developing a distorted view of their actual size
  • Bulimia – in which people gorge themselves on large quantities of food, then make themselves sick, or purge with laxatives in an attempt to avoid the consequences of their binge
  • Binge eating – in which people use food as an emotional crutch, often eating excessively, leading to obesity, which then causes further emotional problems and leads to a destructive spiral of eating behaviour

Most eating disorders have a psychological or emotional root, and need to be treated using a combination of therapy, counselling, and nutritional advice.

Getting help

As with any addictive behaviour, the hardest part is admitting the problem in the first place. Many people with eating disorders are in denial that they have a problem. Even when their weight has become dangerously low they will still see themselves as ‘fat’ and feel guilty about their food. Often it takes the concerned eye of a friend or family member to spot the symptoms of eating disorders and help the victim to see what’s happening.

Facing up to the problem and wanting to get help are a crucial part of the process if the treatment is to succeed.

The first step

In most cases, the first concern is to fix the damage that the eating disorder has done to the body. Your GP or specialist may recommend vitamin supplements or calcium tablets to restore levels of these vital elements within the body and the bones.

In severe cases, the patient may be admitted to hospital to address issues such as dehydration and chemical imbalances, medical complications such as heart problems, and to fight the symptoms of malnutrition through intravenous feeding.

Identifying the cause

Once the body has been stabilised, eating disorder treatment can move on to address the psychological and emotional causes of the eating disorder. This can take the form of several different types of therapy, including:

  • Cognitive Behavioural Therapy – in which the patient talks one-to-one with a therapist about how emotions and feelings affect food choices
  • Interpersonal Therapy – in which the patient talks about their relationships in general, how they see themselves, and how they think others see them
  • Family Therapy – eating disorders will have a huge impact on other family members, particularly concerned parents who feel out of control of their child’s eating. Family therapy helps bring everyone together to help each other
  • Group Therapy – sharing experiences with others in a similar situation can often make the problem seem easier to deal with and less isolating

Often these therapies will focus on finding the triggers for the eating disorder and establishing new ways for the patient to deal with those situations. In some cases, therapy is supported by anti-depressant or anti-psychotic drugs.

Moving forward

The final stage of eating disorder treatment involves nutritional therapy. This involves re-educating the individual about the value of food and teaching them how to eat a balanced diet. This will help them to develop a new, more positive relationship with food by helping them to effectively manage their weight without constant dieting.

Recovering from an eating disorder can be a long and arduous process as a whole series of behaviours has to be adjusted, and a new mindset established. As many as 30% of patients who appear to have recovered will relapse in the first year. However, like any addiction, admitting the problem in the first place will have been a huge positive step, and subsequent treatments will be easier and more effective.

Family support

From helping the individual to see that they have a problem in the first place, assisting them to overcome their negative behaviours on a day to day basis, to helping them regain their self-confidence and self-esteem, the support of friends and family is essential for someone with an eating disorder.

There are many websites, forums and support groups that can help families to cope with the pressures this brings. The individual is not on his or her own with their problem, and neither are their families.

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