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What is Disordered Eating?

By Kelly Lewallen, MFT
Seeking help is the first step in overcoming an eating disorder. Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash

In a nutshell, disordered eating is when an individual’s relationship with food causes problems in their life or that of their loved ones.

People are often surprised to find out that what they consider to be a lack of self-control or poor discipline is really “disordered eating,” driven by a part of our brain over which we have very little control. Others believe that they have extremely good self-control but are actually overly rigid and over controlling of food. Both of the above are actually the result of imbalanced relationships with food and usually body image as well. Again, in the end the most important question is, “Does your relationship with food cause problems in your life or the lives of your loved ones?”

Where does all this insanity about our relationship with food originate? The answer is from multiple sources. They include the diet industry, social media, and even our own health professionals.

It is abundantly apparent that diets are not the solution to our overindulgence of food, as the weight loss industry takes in over $60 billion a year while our population gets fatter. When Oprah became part of the business of Weight Watchers, it is the first and only time she’s disappointed this writer. As our waistlines expand and recede, our relationships with food and our bodies grow sicker and sicker. Diets actually damage the part of our brain where disordered eating resides and worsens our food obsession and binge episodes. We also feel guilty for eating regular food, like our thin counterparts, believing we are too shameful and undeserving to fuel our bodies as well.

Adding to the problem is the focus of social media on body image, body building, body idealizing and body shaming, dieting and a vast array of nutritional myths. Hit the “like” button and we build social media stars, all explaining how we can be like them and less like ourselves. The individual’s focus turns away from real accomplishment, like high academic achievement, perfection of a craft or skill, being of service to others and now we measure a human’s value and worth based on their dimensions. The eating disordered teens I work with would say SAD about this current situation. And they are. Sad, disenfranchised from their bodies, isolated from their peers, and of course their parents try to help. Unfortunately, parents are driven by their own internal shame trying to perfect their bodies, trying to lose weight, gain more muscle, or get in shape.

Lastly, some medical professionals have it all wrong. Not because of incompetence, but simply lack of training and education in this area. Eating disorders are cunning, baffling and difficult to understand. And worst of all, overweight and overeating have gone undiagnosed as actual eating disorders. People with Anorexia Nervosa are frequently first diagnosed due to an episode of fainting. It is only in the emergency room that the low body mass index (BMI) is notated and referrals made back to pediatricians and primary doctors.

So how do we know if we never get diagnosed? So many of my patients are surprised, and then actually relieved, when they get a diagnosis for an eating disorder. They finally realize that there is a name for the insanity that they are living. Fortunately, many medical professionals are now being armed with accurate information. We are receiving more and more referrals from them, as they are beginning to understand that the overweight, underweight, over exercising, or purging patient has a diagnosis of an eating disorder.

Eating disorders don’t discriminate. They come in all shapes and sizes, races, sexes and ages. Patients in middle childhood are sometimes diagnosed with ARFID (Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder), and we have seen patients in their 70s who have struggled all their lives with many types of eating disorders.

If you’re concerned about someone you love and think they might have an eating disorder, or are concerned for yourself, where do you get help? It is important, due to the complexity of these diseases, that you seek assistance from someone who is certified as an eating disorder specialist by the International Association of Eating Disordered Professionals. This person has met the rigorous qualifications to be deemed well trained and experienced in assessing and treating patients with eating disorders. Generally, this individual works with a team approach towards treatment. The team consists of a physician (often the PHP or pediatrician), a psychotherapist, a dietitian, and other psychotherapist-specializing modalities recognized as useful in treating eating disorders. Sometimes an eating disorder interventionist is in the team, to help patients in denial about eating disorders.

We had patients in recovery from eating disorders stop by our office this week. One woman in her 50s had been isolated and depressed. She was able to drag herself to and from work and then spent her evenings watching TV with her latest “date” of ice cream, chips, or other junk food. She had been doing this for 10 years. Her self-esteem was at an all-time low, and she felt not only would she never find love, but that she was certainly not deserving of it.

Fast forward to today: she walked in looking stunning in a dress, lovely heels, her hair and make-up beautifully done, but it was her eyes (her sparkling, shiny, full of love, life and joy eyes) that struck me most. This was NOT the woman I had first met a year ago. She explained she had not been in for our alumni groups, as she was out having too much fun this summer! She was dating a gentleman, enjoying her children and friends, and most importantly taking time to enjoy her meals and to meditate and was no longer being held hostage by shame.

Later that day, I spent part of the afternoon with my “Annie girls.” This is one of our groups of teens with Anorexia Nervosa. They no longer looked like the skeletons that first walked into my office. I was no longer having to wonder if today I would send them to the hospital, as I did one. I felt I could take a breath, as I didn’t have to worry that the next might be their last. Instead, they lay across each other on the couch, as teen girls will do, sang songs from a YouTube video, and just acted like kids.

So, I guess, my point is, although the most deadly of all psychological disorders, there is hope for eating disorders including yours or that of someone you love. I hope you reach out for help today.

Kelly Lewallen, is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist practicing in Palm Desert and a member of Desert Doctors. She can be reached at (760) 777.7720. For more information visit mindoverbodyps.com or go to DesertDoctors.org.

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