We live in a world where good looks can be a ticket to fame, fortune, popularity, and ultimately happiness. Unfortunately, the pressure of staying in tip-top shape can be so intense that some of us end up dealing with eating disorders.
Even though the feminist movement has managed to bring some changes to society’s perception of beauty, we can’t help but feel a bit uncomfortable every time we pass a giant billboard that advertises this year’s swimsuit collection.
But while many of us can quickly shake off that annoying inner voice whispering Your body’s a mess, there are those who simply can’t ignore it.
Regardless of the cause, eating disorders are always fueled by a set of irrational beliefs we hold about ourselves. The constant negative self-talk, coupled with impossible beauty standards and a distorted body image, can result in unhealthy eating habits that threaten our physical and mental health.
What are Eating Disorders?
Food represents a considerable part of our lives, and it’s not just about satisfying a basic need. Sometimes, we use food to comfort ourselves after a bad day, deal with unpleasant emotions, or celebrate an accomplishment. In short, eating holds a complex meaning that extends far beyond necessity.
Unfortunately, there are times when this everyday behavior gets entirely out of hand, causing severe health problems.
Eating disorders represent a classification that includes conditions characterized by a persistent disturbance of eating behaviors which can significantly affect your physical and mental health.
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the three most common forms of eating disorders are bulimia nervosa, anorexia nervosa, and binge eating disorder. 
If left untreated, your unhealthy eating habits can lead to severe medical and psychological problems that threaten your health and well-being.
Stats: How Many Suffer from Eating Disorders
To gain a better understanding of this condition, let’s take a quick look at some stats on eating disorders.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health: 
- The prevalence of binge eating among U.S. individuals is 1.2%
- Bulimia affects 0.3% of the U.S. population while the incidence of anorexia is 0.6%
- Regarding co-morbidity, people who struggle with eating disorders are likely to develop anxiety disorders.
- Among adolescents, the prevalence of eating disorders is 2.7%
- Women seem to be twice as likely to develop this problem than men
- Lastly, nearly half of the people diagnosed with an eating disorder received treatment for emotional problems at some point in their lives.
What Causes Eating Disorders?
Although experts in mental health have been studying this issue for decades, no one can put their finger on the exact cause of eating disorders. As in the case of any other mental health condition, there’s a multitude of factors contributing to the onset and development of eating disorders.
But what we do know for sure is that body image plays a crucial role in anorexia, bulimia, binge eating, and other similar conditions. Showing constant discontentment towards your body (or certain parts of it) is one of the main triggers of eating disorders.
As long as you keep trying to achieve impossible body standards, you are bound to engage in unhealthy eating habits that will worsen your condition.
Aside from negative body image, other factors that may cause (or contribute to) eating disorders are:
- Trauma and abuse
- Prolonged exposure to stress
- Low self-esteem
- Obsessive and intrusive thoughts
- Social and cultural factors
People who struggle with eating disorders are often in a state of denial, refusing to admit that their eating habits present a life-threatening risk.
Signs and Symptoms of Eating Disorders
Although each type of eating disorder has its own set of diagnostic criteria, as presented by the DSM-5, there are several symptoms which are defining for the entire spectrum.
Have you experienced any of the following over the last several weeks?
- Constant weight fluctuations
- Persistent mirror gazing (with a focus on the perceived negative aspects)
- Engaging in rituals such as eating alone, cutting food into small pieces, or hiding ‘forbidden’ foods.
- Social withdrawal
- Extreme dieting, despite having a healthy body mass index
- Being obsessed with food, recipes, cooking, and eating
- Counting every calorie that goes into your body
- Getting on the scale several times a day to see how much you’ve gained or lost.
If you’ve experienced at least four of the above symptoms, perhaps you should address a mental health professional.
Example Case of an Eating Disorder
Mary is 17 and has recently moved to an uptown school.
Ever since she began classes there, her mother noticed that Mary’s habits had changed significantly. She spends two hours a day exercising, barely eats anything and is always tired. She has lost a lot of weight over a period of just five weeks but continues to follow a rigorous diet routine.
Although Mary says there’s nothing wrong with her and that she’s just trying to stay “healthy and fit,” her constant mirror-checking and relentless obsession with good looks indicate otherwise.
After many heated debates with her parents, Mary finally agrees to see a doctor who recommends her to a therapist. The clinical evaluation reveals that Mary is struggling with anorexia. The constant pressure of looking “at least as good as other girls from my school,” coupled with her low self-esteem and negative body image has determined Mary to engage in risky eating habits.
To overcome this problem, Mary is encouraged by her parents to begin therapy. Furthermore, she needs to see her physician regularly to make sure she doesn’t encounter other complications that might derive from anorexia.
How to Deal/Coping With Eating Disorders
Dealing with eating disorders isn’t easy. Depending on the severity of the condition, people who engage in life-threatening eating habits might even require hospitalization.
Without proper care, problems like binge eating, bulimia, or anorexia can cause severe physical and mental damage.
Medical complications are a relatively common consequence of eating disorders.
For example, people with anorexia are often way below a weight level that would be considered reasonable based on their age, gender, height, and other variables. The lack of essential minerals and vitamins can cause muscle cramps, heart, and gastric problems, hair loss, anemia, cognitive decline. In women, anorexia can also cause menstrual problems and infertility.
As for bulimia, the story goes relatively the same. From chronic fatigue, muscle cramps, gastrointestinal problems, and infertility to dizziness, dry hair, and heart complications, this condition can trigger a whole array of medical and psychological conditions.
Considering the extent to which eating disorders can affect our minds and bodies, experts sometimes resort to drastic approaches such as hospitalization.
Although the data is not 100% accurate (it never is), experts believe mortality rates rise to 4% for anorexia, 3.9% for bulimia, and 5.2% for other eating disorders. 
In fact, some experts believe that anorexia has the highest mortality rate of all mental disorders. Furthermore, suicide rates seem to be alarmingly high among those struggling with bulimia.
On a brighter note, there are several treatment options which have proven to be effective in helping people manage and prevent eating disorders.
Eating Disorders Treatment
Possible Medications for Eating Disorders
Although there are no drugs explicitly designed for binge eating disorder, anorexia, bulimia, or other eating disorders, mental health professionals often use psychiatric medication to treat the underlying symptoms of eating disorders.
For example, in the case of anorexia, a psychiatrist could prescribe antidepressants to treat co-occurring conditions like anxiety and depression. There are also situations when specialists recommend a mix of antipsychotics and behavioral interventions.
But aside from psychiatric treatment, some forms of eating disorders might require the use of drugs that induce weight gain.
In severe cases, hospitalization is the only solution to prevent a potential tragedy that might result from putting your body through extreme dietary habits.
Once admitted to the hospital, the first step is helping the patient restore his/her physical health. For example, a patient with anorexia will undergo nutritional restoration, medication for weight gain, and psychotherapy.
Rehabilitation centers provide a healing environment where people with unhealthy eating habits can find the professional guidance and emotional support they need to overcome their problem.
For those who’ve struggled with a severe form of eating disorder, this step usually comes after a period of hospitalization.
Through individual and group therapy, people with eating disorders can develop healthy coping mechanisms that allow them to handle unpleasant emotions without resorting to food. Furthermore, they learn how to cultivate a healthy relationship with food thus improving their overall health and well-being.
Insurance Coverage for Drug and Alcohol Addiction
In many cases, the health risks associated with eating disorders are aggravated by problems such as alcohol and drug addiction. Just as food, the use of alcohol or other substances represents an unhealthy way to cope with ‘bad’ feelings.
When seeking treatment, one of the issues that many of those struggling with eating disorders are concerned about is insurance coverage.
Whether the treatment is covered or not depends mostly on your insurance plan. Some of the most common reasons why your insurance company might deny benefits include:
- Lack of progress in treatment
- Weight – that’s not low enough to be considered risky
- Inconsistent attendance
- Failure to restore weight
Eating Disorder Culture
With eating disorders becoming a growing issue, especially in First World countries, many organizations have begun to promote and implement various programs to raise awareness and offer support to those in need.
Pro-ana is a controversial movement which aims to provide support to people who struggle with anorexia by promoting behaviors related to this eating disorder.
The entire philosophy behind this movement is that anorexia (and other forms of eating disorders) are not medical conditions but lifestyle choices.
But it’s not reserved exclusively for people with anorexia.
Organizations, online groups, and Facebook pages that promote this movement often advertise to bulimics as well. People on these groups share tips on how to lose weight, extreme diets, and even advice on how to refuse food without being suspected (veganism is the most popular excuse).
Sadly, these online groups are often the only form of support that people with eating disorders find.
Thinspiration (or thinspo) is another “pro unhealthy eating habits” movement that has caught root in the vast and fertile ground of the online environment.
The focus of this movement is to help people achieve thinness. The only problem is that what members of this community advertise as “a thin body” often relies on impossible and unhealthy body standards.
In a way, thinspiration is almost like a cult to thinness, where members share tips on how to get and stay thin.
How to Find a Therapist
Eating disorders represent a serious issue with potentially devastating effects on both physical and mental health. If you feel like you’re eating habits have gotten out of control, perhaps it’s time to consult a mental health professional.
What Should I be Looking for in an LMHP?
A licensed mental health professional is a trained specialist who’s accredited by a higher authority to provide you with adequate treatment.
Finding a counselor, psychotherapist, or psychiatrist who can evaluate your situation and suggest a treatment plan represents the first step in getting a handle on your unhealthy eating habits.
Although some healthcare professionals are specialized in eating disorders, any therapist or psychiatrist possesses enough training to at least assist you in finding the help you need.
The best way to find an expert on eating disorders is by looking for a clinic in your area or word-of-mouth recommendations.
Questions to Ask a Potential Therapist
Once you’ve found a specialist you want to consult, pick up the phone and ask a few questions before you set up an appointment.
- What’s your academic and training background?
- For how long have you been working in mental health?
- Have you ever treated clients/patients with eating disorders?
- What is your approach to this condition?
Eating Disorders Resources and Support Helpline
Since eating disorders have become a severe mental health issue, many clinics and centers offer helplines where people can receive useful information and support.
There are also online support groups and chat rooms where people share their experiences and help each other overcome this condition.
One platform where you can find the help you need is ThriveTalk. There you will find plenty of licensed professionals who can assist you anytime, anywhere. By getting professional help, you will be able to keep your unhealthy eating habits in check and learn to accept and love yourself.
Meta description: Eating disorders can be extremely challenging to overcome. Fortunately, there are plenty of viable solutions to help you regain your health and enjoy a balanced life.
A. P. Association., Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.), Arlington: American Psychiatric Publishing, 2013
n.a., “Eating Disorders,” National Institute of Mental Health, November 2017. [Online]. Available: https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/eating-disorders.shtml
n.a., “health consequences,” National Eating Disorders Association, [Online]. Available: https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/health-consequences