Eating Disorders

The Complexity of Eating Disorders

By Laura Vraney, PsyD

A common misunderstanding of eating disorders is that sufferers “just want to lose weight.” It’s true that the expectations of “appearance” have intensified over the years. From the abundance of unhealthy weight loss programs to the number of “likes” on social media, the pressure to appear a certain way seem countless. While the methods have expanded, the message remains the same – if you look a certain way, you are more valuable. So yes, weight is a component – it’s true that Western society has coupled thin with more desirable, but the core meaning of losing weight to someone with an eating disorder is much deeper. However, this is only the surface. Eating disorders are about obtaining a false sense of control via food intake or lack thereof. The goal is to control one’s feelings, sense of self-worth, desirability, uncontrollable thoughts, family dynamics, and much more. However, this sense of control is actually false – it’s only a perceived sense of control because while food is something a person can tangibly manage, it’s not a reliable method to change how we feel, how we think, how we hope others will perceive us, etc. Needless to say, eating disorders are complex!

Here are suggestions if you think you may be struggling with an eating disorder-

  1. Get a medical check-up. Eating disorders have the highest death rate among psychiatric disorders because the entire body is negatively impacted (i.e. heart, brain, kidneys, etc.). Your system will begin to shut down when malnourished! Even if you “look” and “feel” fine, medical complications can be silent.
  2. Meet with a therapist. A therapist will help you explore the function of your food intake (or lack thereof) while building a healthier sense of self. It is central to identify habits, warning signs, and triggers. On your own, begin tracking your patterns throughout the day. Ask yourself these questions: “Do I eat past the point of discomfort? When I have little control over a situation, do I turn to food? Do I eat certain foods only if I plan to workout after? Have I used supplements, laxatives, diet pills, and/or diuretics to help regulate my weight? Have I restricted my food intake throughout the day in order to eat something less healthy later? Do I eat when feeling sad, mad, frustrated, etc.?” Remember- an eating disorder is not really about food but more about what one wishes to control.
  3. Meet with a dietician. A dietician will help individuals make more balanced food choices while bolstering their awareness about eating disorder behaviors. Although not limited to the following, sessions can include weight management, meal planning, meal dining, grocery shopping, etc. Therapists collaborate closely with dieticians in order to provide comprehensive support.
  4. Meet with a psychiatrist or psychiatric nurse practitioner. Depending on the type of eating disorder, medication can help decrease certain urges. Also, depression and anxiety will most likely overlap with an eating disorder and medication can help alleviate symptoms. When someone is malnourished, the brain is not functioning to its full potential. It becomes difficult for individuals to make rational decisions, especially when it comes to knowing how to manage symptoms. Medication helps improve mood, while psychotherapy further provides the understanding and tools for continued symptoms management.
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