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Recovery From Disordered Eating

What is an Eating Disorder

Simply put, an eating disorder is a set of abnormal behaviours around food and eating that have a negative impact on a person’s mental health and physical well-being. They are characterised by an obsession around food and body weight, or body composition. These behaviours are indicative of trying to manage inward turmoil with external factors. It is a set of disorders characterised by the need to control.

Eating disorders take on many different forms, even two people with the same psychiatric diagnoses may express their disordered behaviour in vastly different ways. The easiest way to explain what an eating disorder is, is that it is a set of toxic and faulty thinking patterns. This may include body dysmorphia. This is when a person will fixate on a perceived flaw in their appearance. This “flaw” may, in reality, be insignificant, non-existent, or even a completely normal feature, but to the person suffering it is the root of all insecurity. For example, a person of a healthy weight may perceive themselves as being over weight or even obese.

Who is Affected and how

There is a misconception that young women are the only group of people who experience eating disorders, but this is not the case. Men make up a large portion of those seeking help. Eating disorders are present in all age groups across all genders and all races and cultures. To effectively help those people we need to set aside these stereotypes and prejudices.

There is also a misunderstanding that a person with an eating disorder can be diagnosed by their weight, but this is not the case. People with eating disorders may be underweight yes, but may also be overweight, or a normal healthy weight. They may be athletic, muscled, lean or unfit. The way a person looks is not an accurate way to diagnose or determine their disorder. 

The image that many people have in their head of a person with an eating disorder is someone who presents with anorexia nervosa. This sub-category of eating disorders only accounts for about 3% of people entering treatment. These preconceived notions of eating disorders and the way they present physically are stopping people seeking help.

Symptoms and Signs – Physical, Behavioural and Emotional

Like addiction and alcoholism, a person with an eating disorder experiences a wide array of symptoms and side effects, both emotional and physical. These symptoms are not always related directly to drugs, alcohol or food.

Symptoms include, but are not limited to:

  • Constant obsession with body weight and/or food
  • Discomfort when eating in front of other people
  • Eating too little or not at all
  • Eating too much
  • Rapid weight loss or weight gain
  • Dental problems, such as increased cavities
  • Obsessive calorie counting and measuring of food
  • Eating in secret, hiding food
  • Compulsive exercise
  • Loss of muscle mass and weakness
  • Fatigue
  • Misuse of laxatives
  • Misuse of insulin
  • Self-induced vomiting
  • Dizziness and fainting
  • Stomach cramps, acid reflux and other gastrointestinal complaints
  • Confusion and struggling to concentrate
  • Erratic heartrate
  • Increased infections and illness
  • Feeling of being cold all the time, even in warm weather
  • Extreme mood swings
  • Withdrawal from friends, family and usual activities

Disordered Eating and Addiction

Part of the reason why many rehab centres, Crossroads Recovery Centres included, treat eating disorders alongside addiction and alcoholism is because there is a high instances of these co-occurring . In one test group 50 % of the people who were in treatment for their eating disorder also had substance use issues. Another group of addicts and alcoholics who were in a rehabilitation process were assessed, 35% of these persons also struggled with some form of eating disorder.

Many people who suffer from both eating disorders and addiction will tell you that both these problems spring from the same source. These behaviours themselves are not the problem, but rather the need to control inner dissatisfaction through external means. The manifestations and nuances of the obsession may differ but in the end it is all rooted in the mind and spirit of the individual. Though the problem with food and body image are key to unravelling and treating an eating disorder, long term recovery should be focused on personal growth and development, not unlike long term recovery from addiction and alcoholism.

Treatment and Hope

For a person suffering from an eating disorder the first point of contact should always be a medical doctor. Eating disorders present with the highest mortality rate of any mental illness and thus the effect it can have on the human body should not be taken lightly. After medical intervention, a period of monitoring is recommended. This is best done at an inpatient facility as access to food can be monitored. This ensures that clients are eating appropriately while not being able to binge. It also makes it significantly more difficult for clients to act on behaviours like purging or compulsive exercise.

As with addiction, removal of the problematic behaviour is not enough, a process of recovery is needed to sustain abstinence from destructive behaviours. Through counselling and group therapy a person may learn new coping strategies, improve their self-worth and self-esteem, and gain insight and perspective into their disorder. This process of growth and self-improvement is vital to any person wanting to recover from an eating disorder. The aim of this process is not to just remove the problem but to be in a better position than one was before the process was entered.

Every person with an eating disorder has a risk of relapse. And for that reason, a sustained, lifelong recovery journey is always the best option. This can be done through 12 step meetings and fellowships such as Overeaters Anonymous  and Eating Disorders Anonymous .

Crossroads Recovery Center Pretoria hosts a weekly EDA meeting, alternatively if you are looking for a meeting in your area please see the following webpages.

No person needs to suffer alone and in silence from a destructive relationship with their body and food. Help is out there, and freedom is possible.

By Charlie van de Erve

www.crossroadsrecovery.co.za

+27 012 345 1186 Pretoria

+27 010 597 7784 Johannesburg

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