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“Help! I know someone with an eating disorder. Now what do I do?”

by Suzanne Rogers, Marketing Intern

In the United States, as many as 11 million people are suffering from anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa. Millions more are suffering from binge eating disorder. Nearly half of all Americans know someone with an eating disorder. Wanting to help your loved one recover from the eating disorder may not be as easy as you think it is. You may assume that the first step in helping your loved one to recover is to confront them and attempt to talk them out of having an eating disorder. While this mistake is commonly made, it is important to realize and accept that this method will NOT “cure” the one suffering from disordered eating. If someone has been diagnosed with diabetes, they can’t choose for it to go away; remember that those suffering from an eating disorder cannot just choose for it to disappear. The first step on the path to helping your loved one recover is to educate yourself. This will benefit the both of you. There are many excellent and up-to-date resources available; it’s just a matter of knowing where to find them. At the end of this blog I will list a few of the many resources that are available.

Eating disorder statistics are staggering! Let’s begin by recognizing some of these facts and statistics*. Eating disorders are more common than Alzheimer’s disease in the United States. Despite the prevalence of eating disorders, there is inadequate research funding. Eating disorders are the third most common chronic condition among adolescent girls along with obesity and asthma. Anorexia nervosa has the highest premature mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder. The majority of deaths are due to physiological complications. More than 50 percent of eating disorder cases are chronic. Keep these facts in mind as you continue to walk down the path of recovery with your loved one. Remember that eating disorders are potentially life-threatening, but there is help available and recovery is possible.

Next, I want to address the different types of eating disorders. Anorexia nervosa (AN) is a serious, potentially life-threatening eating disorder. It is characterized by self-starvation and excessive weight loss. Symptoms include loss of menstruation (the starvation state suppresses sex hormones) and feeling “fat” despite dramatic weight loss. Bulimia nervosa (BN) is a serious, potentially life-threatening eating disorder characterized by cycles of bingeing and compensatory behaviors such as self-induced vomiting or the use of laxatives. The compensatory behaviors are designed to undo or compensate for the effects of binge eating. Symptoms include eating beyond the point of comfortable fullness and repeated episodes of bingeing and purging. Eating disorder not otherwise specified (EDNOS) is a category of eating disorders that don’t meet the criteria for a specific eating disorder, such as anorexia nervosa. Binge eating disorder (BED) is characterized by recurrent binge eating without the regular use of compensatory behaviors to counter the binge eating. Binge eating disorder is considered to be an EDNOS.

There is no single cause for why someone develops an eating disorder. While eating disorders may begin with preoccupations about food and weight, they are usually about much more than food. Psychological factors, such as low self-esteem and feelings of inadequacy, can contribute to developing an eating disorder. Troubled family and personal relationships and a history of physical or sexual abuse are considered to be interpersonal factors that can also contribute to the development of an eating disorder. Furthermore, social factors also contribute to developing an eating disorder. For example, the media’s narrow definition of beauty that includes only those who meet a specific size and weight requirement. (This is so prevalent in our daily lives; just take a look around the next time you are in line at the grocery store.) Current research also suggests that genetic contributions play a role in the development of an eating disorder.

Love and support for the person struggling with disordered eating is crucial. Express your concerns in a loving, non-confrontational manner. Pick a place that is private and tell your loved one the concerns you have by using specific examples, such as a pattern of exercise. Explain that these examples lead you to believe that there is a problem that needs professional help. Ask your friend to discuss the behavior(s) with a professional and offer to go with them to the appointment. Avoid placing blame, shame, or guilt on your loved one. Avoid making accusatory statements such as, “You just need to eat.” Rather, use “I” statements such as, “It makes me afraid to hear that you’re vomiting.” Avoid offering simple solutions. For example, “If you would just stop, then you will be fine!” Continuously support your loved one because the recovery process will take time.

Put yourself in your loved one’s shoes. You may be thinking, “Why can’t they just eat something?” This is impossible because their behavior, such as restrictive eating, “works” for them on some level. It helps them manage anxiety and cope with fears about loss of control. They may think, “My eating is the one thing I can control.” Perhaps your loved one suffers from bulimia nervosa. You may be thinking, “Why can’t he just stop purging?” Purging allows them to eat without fearing weight gain. The numbing sensation that is felt during a bingeing and purging cycle calms them. The purging behavior is addictive. (The American Medical Association concluded that addiction is a disease that is chronic in nature, like cancer, diabetes, or bipolar disorder. “Anatomy of a Food Addiction” by Anne Katherine, M.A. can help to explain this subject further.)

Below are three resources to help educate you about eating disorders. While these three resources provide excellent information, keep in mind that there are many other trustworthy resources, too. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. There are support groups available for family members and friends of someone who has an eating disorder.

Bulimia.com contains a vast amount of information and resources pertaining to eating disorders. You can find a local support group under the “Treatment” section.

The National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) is a non-profit organization committed to supporting those who suffer from eating disorders as well as their family and friends. In 1999, NEDA established a toll-free helpline and their website, http://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/, has more than 50 million hits each year.

The Academy for Eating Disorders (AED) is a global professional association that is committed to leadership in eating disorders research, education, treatment, and prevention. On their website, http://www.aedweb.org/, you are able to find a trusted professional in your area by typing in information such as your city and zip code.

The Admissions Department at McCallum Place welcomes phones calls or e-mails in order to answer any questions you may have, whether or not it is you or a loved one suffering from an eating disorder. All information is free of charge. Visit our website, for contact information.

*Facts provided by the National Eating Disorder Association