What is an Eating Disorder"?

The words "eating disorder" get used frequently in the media, in schools, at home and at the workplace. It's important to have a definition behind what an eating disorder actually is before attaching it to someone. First, we cannot make the assumption that a person who looks underweight OR overweight actually has an eating disorder. There could be other health or medical conditions at play. Second, just because someone looks healthy, he/she could very well have an eating disorder. Outward appearances can be deceiving. Don't assume. 

If you think you may have an eating disorder or know someone who does, it's important to seek help and support. This is one of those things that is not just going to "go away". Let's start with a few "eating disorder" definitions:

Anorexia Nervosa - Marked by restriction of food, potential over-exercise, and can be fueled with stimulants and/or laxatives. 

Bulimia Nervosa - Marked often by binging (overeating) and purging (inducing yourself to vomit); this can also present as eating "normally" and then purging. 

Binge Eating Disorder - Marked by at least 2 binge episodes a week for at least 6 weeks. 

Other Eating Disorders - There may be a mix of the behaviors above which don�t quite fit in any of the other categories but still represent a concerning health condition. 

While these descriptions are very basic, you can get more detailed information on the definitions of different eating disorders at the website of the National Eating Disorders Association: https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org

Symptoms & Behaviors of Eating Disorders

Let�s talk about specific symptoms or behaviors of eating disorders. Here is a list of a symptoms which may require evaluation by your primary care physician, possibly a psychiatrist and dietitian, and definitely a therapist: 

  • Significant/Rapid weight loss or gain over a short period of time 
  • Obsessing about caloric intake and/or exercise 
  • Having significant body image distortions 
  • Isolating from family or friends (especially during mealtimes, hoarding food, etc.) 
  • Inability to stop eating once full 
  • Feelings of shame or guilt after eating and/or after purging 
  • Preoccupied with thoughts about your (and even others) weight, weighing yourself on a consistent basis, measuring calories, restricting calories, over exercising, purging, etc. 
  • Avoiding social situations to engage in any above the behaviors 

If you answered yes to even one of these symptoms/behaviors, please go see your primary care physician to get a physical and be assessed or find a local counselor to discuss these intruding thoughts. 

Diagnosed with an Eating Disorder? Now What?

If you have already been diagnosed with an eating disorder, there are often ways to get help in your local community. There are many services to choose from that include eating disorder outpatient and inpatient programs, family based therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, and medication management. What you are experiencing and how severe it is will determine which level of service you should seek out. Your primary care physician or other treatment professionals can assist you in referring you to the most appropriate practitioner or facility. 

Therapies for Eating Disorders

There are many reasons why an eating disorder might begin. Many eating disorders manifest from societal pressures to look a certain way. They can also present due to past trauma as a form of control. In order for any treatment to be successful, we encourage counseling with both the person with the eating disorder and his/her support system. It is very difficult to make change if the home environment, family members, or supportive friends are not included in treatment. 

A highly successful therapy is called family based therapy. According to Walden Eating Disorders Treatment, family based therapy for eating disorders include the following tenets: 

  • Parents take charge. 
  • There is no blame for eating disorders. 
  • Focus on the now. 
  • No one chooses to have an eating disorder. 
  • Everyone in the family has a role in the eating disorder treatment/recovery. 

Success can be limited when a client presenting with an eating disorder is the only person involved in treatment. Eating disorders are a systemic problem and should be treated as one. 

At our practice in Schaumburg, Illinois, we offer both cognitive behavioral based therapy and family based therapy for eating disorders. Set up an appointment and start your path to recovery.

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Meghan Reitz

Meghan Reitz, LCPC, NCC, has worked within the counseling profession for over 19 years. Her therapist experience includes providing individual, couples, family, group, and crisis counseling. She also speaks with companies and groups on mental health and wellness topics. Learn more about Meghan here.