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We all face daily challenges in today's complicated and demanding world. ACA’s Counseling Corner Blog offers thoughtful ideas, suggestions, and strategies for helping you to live a happier and healthier life.

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Feb 22, 2021

Fact: Eating Disorders are Mental Illnesses


Not only is food a life sustaining force, it also shapes societies and cultures. The very beginning of our existence can be traced back to our ancestor’s relationships with nature, between humankind and its perpetual hunt for food. Even now, the bond we share with food affects how & where we socialize, our moods, our thoughts and even the way we see ourselves & others. It both binds and divides us. At its best, food becomes a centerpiece that can forge relationships and resolve conflicts. At its worst, it pits us against ourselves and isolates us into nonexistence.

 Considering its vast influence on our lives, it's quite normal for our relationship with food to expand and evolve as we age and change habits. Just like any other relationship, it should be treated with respect, mindfulness and the smallest bit of caution. When our relationship with food starts to take over our thoughts and behaviors in an invasive, detrimental way, it can quickly become a disorder. Although they have been historically documented in individuals for centuries, eating disorders were only added into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders in 1980. Binge Eating Disorder, one of the most common eating disorders, was only introduced in 2013.

The most common eating disorders, and perhaps most easily recognizable in the United States, include: Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia, Binge Eating Disorder and Orthorexia Nervosa. Most eating disorders typically manifest and are diagnosed in early adolescence and young adulthood. Despite popular portrayals, eating disorders can be found in both men and women and can recur sporadically throughout different stages of life.

Today, we’ve come to discover that the occurrence of eating disorders has doubled since the 1960s and can be found in increasingly younger age groups. A few rare cases have shown children as young as seven being treated for eating disorders. According to a recent study, forty percent of 9-year-old girls have admitted to partaking in some form of dieting and even 5-year-olds have admitted to being concerned about diets. These concerning statistics have served as a wakeup call for both mainstream media and mental health communities for how current society is affecting our mental health and its relationship to food.

It should also be noted, although it may not be a surprise to anyone who has suffered or knows someone who has suffered from an eating disorder, that eating disorders are normally accompanied by secondary mental health illnesses such as anxiety, obsessive compulsive behavior and depression. 

Many of the behaviors associated with each of the eating disorder diagnoses can have dangerous and life-threatening impacts on both physical and psychological well-being. As such, it is important to learn to identify symptoms and behaviors associated with eating disorders in ourselves and in others. Most eating disorders are characterized by extreme emotions surrounding food, weight gain and body image. These emotions can result in extremely difficult disturbances and pervasive thoughts. Some symptoms to look out for that tend to be associated with eating disorders include the following: self-loathing feelings when it comes to food, restricting calorie intake, binging, purging, extreme exercise and an avoidance of social gatherings at which food will be served, amongst others.

Unfortunately, certain precursors to eating disorders have become so normalized in our culture, that we fail to recognize them as early signs for mental illness. Have you ever heard or thought: I am transitioning towards clean eating, I am cutting, I am bulking, or feeling guilty or depressed after eating a larger than normal meal? Have you ever established a ‘cheat meal’ or day and then felt embarrassed or ashamed after indulging?

These are all practices that have become commonplace in our thoughts and conversations but when talking about eating disorders, it’s important to distinguish mindfulness from obsession. Wanting to be healthier and striving to pay more attention to what you eat sounds like healthy, attainable goals on the surface but when things like: compulsive exercising, calorie counting, binging, measuring, weight tracking and restrictive dieting start to become the means to achieving these goals, it’s likely that your relationship with food has ventured into dangerous territory.

The journey to recovery from eating disorders is twofold. Unlike most addictions, food addiction is not something you can just quit. We need food, we need sustenance and nutrition to nurture our bodies and our minds. Reconciling the physical injury to our bodies with the mental illness that inflicts it is no easy task. But despite their severity, eating disorders are treatable and earlier diagnosis and intervention often leads to better outcomes. The most effective and long-lasting treatment for an eating disorder is some form of psychotherapy or counseling, coupled with careful attention to medical and nutritional needs. Ideally, whatever treatment is offered should be tailored to the individual. This would vary according to both the severity of the disorder and the patient's individual problems, needs and strengths. 

Treatment must address the eating disorder symptoms and medical consequences, as well as psychological, biological, interpersonal and cultural forces that contribute to or maintain the eating disorder. 
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