What is an Eating Disorder?
Many people, men and women alike, struggle with their physical appearance. We all have things we would like to change about ourselves, so feeling unhappy with oneself is not uncommon or abnormal. However, for some people, their displeasure with how they look can become an unhealthy obsession over time. What may seem like a simple desire to improve their physical appearance may actually be a deeply-rooted unhappiness with who they are as people. They are typically very critical of themselves and can be aptly described as “their own worst enemy,” often being more critical of all parts of their personality and appearance than anyone else would be. In these cases, trying to “improve” their physical appearance, particularly their weight, masks an intense urge to change who they are. They believe something is very wrong with them, so they plot a course to fix the imperfection, no matter how high the cost is to their physical, emotional, or spiritual health.
"Over the course of my time here [at Cedarville] I have gone through several hard struggles. As a result, I have gone to counseling... and also participated in their support group for those struggling with eating disorders. I found the support group to be especially helpful because everyone there was so supportive and caring, and since we were all dealing with the same sort of struggle I felt as though the others understood me. Lastly, I really appreciated the spiritual connection and support because so much of what I was going through was ultimately tied to spiritual issues."(CU student)
In other cases, men and women may not struggle with their appearance as much as they struggle with things that have happened to them in the past that were outside of their control – things like abuse, trauma, relationship difficulties, etc. When someone experiences such difficult life events, he or she may decide that the pain may have been prevented if they were in more control of themselves or their surroundings. As a result, they turn to controlling food and exercise as a way to regain the control they think will prevent them being hurt again. Unfortunately, no amount of control ever helps them resolve the emotional wounds they experience, so the cycle of using control to handle or minimize pain continues.
Eating disorders are rarely spoken about, a reality that makes the prevalence of these disorders seem deceptively small. In reality, eating disorders are a growing concern for men and women, but the development and progress is different between the sexes. For women, an eating disorder manifests itself as an intense fear or anxiety about gaining weight. For men, an eating disorder is often about appearing strong, wanting to be healthy, or wanting a more traditionally-masculine appearance.
Facts and Statistics
- Up to 65% of women in their first year of college display some behavioral and psychological characteristics of disturbed eating (Mintz and Betz, 1988).
- Around 30% of college students experience various degrees of eating-disordered behaviors such as binge eating, purging, caloric restriction, and unhealthy weight loss (Drenowski, Yee, Kurth, and Krahn, 1994 & Joiner & Kahubeck, 1996).
Here are some more startling statistics, taken from the National Eating Disorders Association:
- Anorexia nervosa has the highest premature mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder. The majority of deaths are due to physiological complications.
- The majority of people with severe eating disorders do not receive adequate care.
- 91% of women recently surveyed on a college campus had attempted to control their weight through dieting, 22% dieted "often" or "always" (Kurth et al., 1995).
- 35% of "normal dieters" progress to pathological dieting. Of those, 20-25% progress to partial or full-syndrome eating disorders (Shisslak & Crago, 1995)
Types of Eating Disorders
There are two main types of eating disorders. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (4th edition), these are thier symptoms:
- Anorexia Nervosa:
- Refusal to maintain a minimally normal body weight
- Intensely afraid of gaining weight
- Exhibits a significant disturbance in the perception of the shape or size of his or her body
- Absence of three consecutive menstrual cycles
- Bulimia Nervosa:
- Binge eating (eating a largely excessive amount of calories in one sitting)
- Inappropriate compensatory methods to prevent weight gain such as use of laxatives, excessive exercise, or purging (self-induced vomiting).Binge-Eating Disorder:
- Binge-Eating Disorder
- Recurrent episodes of binge eating without regular use of compensatory behaviors associated with Bulimia Nervosa.
- Eating Disorder NOS (Not Otherwise Specified)
- This is a “catch-all” diagnosis for eating disorders. For example, if a woman has as a fear of gaining weight but has had no loss of her menstrual cycle, she may be diagnosed with Eating Disorder NOS. In other words, this diagnosis is given when there is significant impairment in one’s life due to thoughts or behaviors related to food but not all the criteria are met for anorexia, bulimia, or binge-eating disorder.
It is also important to note that, for some people, symptoms of anorexia and bulimia can be present simultaneously.
The Counseling Services staff is committed to addressing these complex issues and the resulting repercussions to one’s spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical, and relational health. We have the privilege of counseling women and men from our university campus who struggle with eating disorders. We offer one-on-one counseling as well as group counseling for those seeking accountability and support when working through an eating disorder. We also offer referrals to eating disorder inpatient and outpatient treatment centers when additional accountability is necessary. It is our joy and privilege to watch God offer hope and healing for those seeking help with the addictive thoughts and behaviors associated with eating disorders.
How You Can Help Someone with an Eating Disorder
adapted from Eating Disorders for Dummies by Susan Schulherr
There are some common thought patterns found in people with eating disorders. Here are a few:
- There is no room for error or mistakes (If I’m not perfect, I’m a failure).
- My self-worth is based on my weight.
- I have a good day when I have shown more control over my eating. I am depressed/anxious when I feel I have "messed up."
If you notice these dictating how the person lives his or her life, you can start by communicating your concerns. However, the most important thing you can do is to encourage the person to talk to a counselor. Though sharing your concern is important and demonstrates that you love and care for the person, you cannot provide treatment on your own. Most eating disorders, by the time they are discovered, have advanced to the point that that the person needs a great deal of help from multiple sources (nutritionist, counselor, doctor, etc.). Eating disorders are complex and deeply-rooted, and professional help is nearly always needed in overcoming them.
When you do share your concerns with your loved one, keep these guidelines in mind:
- Set some realistic goals. Be at peace with the recognition that your friend may not be ready or willing to change now.
- Take hope that you may be planting seeds of healing in his/her life.
- Show respect and humility in focusing more on listening than on talking. Avoid lecturing.
- Do not assume you understand why your friend is struggling or what he/she needs to get better.
- Be willing to respect your friend’s response without resorting to begging, arguing, threatening, or making assumptions.
- Do plan ahead what you want to say, so you can share in a clear way. Share what you have specifically observed that led to your concern. If you approach the concerns in a nonjudgmental or non-threatening way, you are showing that you care and will be there if the person is looking for support in the future.
Finally, we encourage you to talk to your RD or Counseling Services for support and guidance. Promising to keep this problem a secret puts your relationship in jeopardy when you finally determine that your loved one needs outside support. By going to a trusted person who can be discreet about the situation, you gain support for yourself and involve another person who can pray and direct your loved one to the help he or she needs.
Treatment Centers Specializing in Eating Disorders
Sometimes, a person with an eating disorder can no longer function in healthy ways in their daily environment and need help on an intensive level. Below is a list of eating disorder treatment facilities that are respected for their work in this area:
" When Dieting Spells Danger " from Christian Parenting Today (2000)
The article provides a unique perspective of an adolescent male struggling with anorexia. It talks about ways parents in particular can help to prevent the development of an eating disorder in their children.
"Confessions of a Compulsive Over-Eater" from Today's Christian Woman (2001)
One woman’s story of how she found victory from overeating (Binge Eating Disorder).
"Eating Disorders Will Consume You" from Relevant Magazine (2010)
Christie Pettit was a young woman who battled an eating disorder during college. This article tells the story of the journey she had to make in order to find freedom spiritually, physically, and emotionally.
"Starving Yourself for Love" from Relevant Magazine (2010)
This article examines the role of the church to reach out and support those with eating disorders.
Hope, Help, & Healing for Eating Disorders, (2nd ed.) by Gregory Jantz (2002)
Written by a therapist who has years of experience in treating eating disorders, this book helps someone with an eating disorder understand all the ways that the eating disorder interferes with life and gives practical and spiritual hope for recovery.
Life Without Ed: How One Woman Declared Independence from Her Eating Disorder and How You Can Too by Jenni Schaefer (2004)
This book is written by Jenni, a young woman who fought anorexia and bulimia for year. Her therapist wrote some chapters as well to share some practical exercises that someone with an eating disorder can use to help in recovery. Short and easy-to-read, each chapter is more like a journal entry and make it easy to take in the information presented without being overwhelmed.
Life Inside the Thin Cage
by Constance Rhodes (2003)
This book recounts Constance’s personal journey from a daily struggle with an eating disorder to a life of recovery, hope, and joy.
Eating Disorders for Dummies
by Susan Schulherr (2008)
This book uses humor and everyday language to talk about eating disorders. Among other topics, it addresses warning signs, talks about disorders like anxiety and depression that often accompany eating disorders, suggests how to get help, what to expect from treatment, and how to handle recovery.
Beyond the Broken Image by Debra M. Cooper (2006)
This fictional book follows three female characters as they enter a treatment facility for eating disorders, talking openly and honestly about the causes and effects of eating disorders. It also gives an accurate glimpse into what inpatient treatment is like.
Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole & Elyse Resch (1995)
This book, written by a nutritionist and a dietician, coaches readers on how to listen to your body to discern when you are hungry and how to stop the urge to eat when you are not.
Hungry Souls: What the Bible Says About Eating Disorder by Catherine S. Boyle (2007)
This book uses Scripture as its main source for discussing the origins of eating disorders, contributing factors to the development of an eating disorder, and even references a woman with anorexia in the Bible.
Whether you’re overweight, underweight, or in-between, if you have issues with food, you are not alone. And you don’t have to stay where you are. Freedom is out there. It’s all about finding balance.
- from FINDINGbalance’s website
National Eating Disorders Association
"NEDA supports individuals and families affected by eating disorders, and serves as a catalyst for prevention, cures and access to quality care."
- from NEDA’s website
Eating Disorders Anonymous
“People can and do fully recover from having an eating disorder... In EDA, we try to focus on the solution, not the problem. Solutions have to do with recognizing life choices and making them responsibly. Diets and weight management techniques do not solve our thinking problems. EDA endorses sound nutrition and discourages any form of rigidity around food. Balance – not abstinence -- is our goal.”
- from EDA’s website
Eating Disorder Survey from The Center for Counseling and Health Resources
This survey is an interactive, web-based form that allows the user to determine if he or she has an eating disorder. It is not meant to serve as a diagnostic tool but to aide someone in pinpointing where he or she may need support in making changes.
- from A Place of Hope's website