You pride yourself on being an intelligent person, one who is capable of making wise decisions and being able to handle whatever comes your way. Then, seemingly out of the blue, you find yourself engaging in behavior that is totally at odds with what others consider healthy. You discover, to your dismay, that you have a problem with eating that you can’t seem to control.
What can or should you do when an eating disorder takes over your life? Here we’ll look at some specific suggestions to help you begin the healing process and resume living in a healthier manner.
What Is Disordered Eating?
It might first be helpful to define what disordered eating is. Chances are, it means something a little different than what you think. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, disordered eating occurs when a person’s attitudes about their body size, weight and food lead to a very rigid pattern of behavior in eating and exercise habits that ultimately jeopardize their health, safety and happiness.
Maybe what happened in your case is that you started off just wanting to drop a few pounds, maybe to look good for an upcoming event or to get "in shape" for the beach. But shedding those pounds or dropping those inches can quickly escalate into a dangerous, obsessive, and out-of-control behavior pattern that approaches or even turns into an eating disorder.
When all you do is focus on every single bite that goes into your mouth, bingeing and purging to severely restrict what the scale is telling you, go to dieting extremes, feel guilty and/or ashamed about how you look – you’re likely dealing with disordered eating of one form or another.
Eating Disorder Statistics
Eating disorders generally begin during the teenaged years or early adulthood, but they can come on at any age, including childhood and later in life.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), approximately 2.7 percent of 13 to 17-year-olds are suffering from an eating disorder. And girls are more than 2-1/2 times more likely to have an eating disorder than boys.
Incidentally, the NIMH broadly defines an eating disorder as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and/or binge eating disorder.
Among adults, the average age of onset for binge eating disorder is 25. People ages 18-29, 30-44 and 45-59 were all significantly more likely to have binge eating disorder than 60+ year olds.
The average onset age for anorexia nervosa is 19 years, while for bulimia nervosa, it’s 20 years old.
Do You Want to Change?
This may sound a bit obvious, but you have to want to change in order for any change to either come about in the first place or to remain for very long. There is no magic elixir or pill that’s going to "cure" you of your bad eating habits. There never has been and there probably never will be. Let’s face reality. You won’t just go to sleep one night and wake up in the morning and be able to ditch your way of eating that’s proven so unhealthy.
You have to really want to change. Since you already have come to the realization that your eating disorder is pretty much taking over your life, now’s likely a good time to get serious about thinking how you’ll change.
Maybe your realization came about as a result of how bad your overall health has become after a protracted period of anorexia or bulimia or binge eating disorder. It could be because you’ve recognized how unattractive you’ve become in the process. Your skin is sallow and sags. You have no energy. Your teeth are in bad shape due to all the stomach acids from regurgitation. Any one of these could be enough to send you scrambling for some way to stop this cycle of self-destruction.
And, yes, anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder only get worse if they remain untreated. In that respect, an eating disorder is like any other kind of addiction, whether it’s addiction to alcohol or drugs or gambling or compulsive spending. Once you’re into it, you can’t just stop of your own accord.
Maybe you’re waffling — all for doing what it takes one day and then changing your mind the next. If so, even being forced into a treatment program for eating disorder – by your parents or spouse, for example – won’t be enough to keep you on-track with what you need to do.
But it is a start. And you have to begin somewhere, especially if things have gotten really bad for you health wise and your life is all out of whack as a result of your eating disorder.
So, let’s say that you think you want to change. Now it’s time to help you become better informed so that you want to change.
Getting Past the Stigma
A big part of acknowledging that you have an eating disorder involves being able to get past the stigma that still, unfortunately, associated with the disorder. Whether you have anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa or binge eating disorder, the three main types of eating disorder, if you’re hiding in your room or locking yourself away from friends and family because of it, you’re attaching more importance to stigma than there needs to be.
The truth is that ignorance is what perpetuates stigma of any sort. This doesn’t mean that your parents or spouse or loved ones, friends or co-workers are stupid. It just means that they either lack adequate information to be able to understand what an eating disorder is or they harbor prejudices and misconceptions about anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder.
So, how do you get past the stigma – especially if it’s right in your own family? This is a tough one, but it’s not inconceivable that you can do it. Of course, you very likely won’t be able to do this on your own. You will need help. And help is available from a number of sources, whether you go in for treatment immediately or simply begin by researching resources available online. The point is to begin the process. It’s only by getting started on the path to healing that you will be able to heal.
Eating Disorders are Treatable
Don’t think that there’s nothing that can be done to reverse the eating disorder that may be taking over your life. The truth is that eating disorders are treatable medical illnesses. Naturally, they’re not just going to disappear overnight. It takes time to undo the harm that’s already been done, to learn new and healthier eating and lifestyle behaviors, and to get some real-life experience living a more proactive existence.
It may also be that along with an eating disorder you also have some other illness. These commonly include depression, substance abuse and/or anxiety disorder. The Academy of Eating Disorders (AED) lists some of the consequences of eating disorders. Bulimia nervosa, says the AED, may be particularly associated with alcohol and/or drug abuse problems.
You also need to know that some symptoms of an eating disorder can endanger your life if they are not treated. Among individuals suffering from anorexia nervosa, for example, death is 18 times more likely than among individuals of a similar age in the general population.
The basics of treatment for an eating disorder include an emphasis on balance. This includes adequate nutrition, appropriate exercise, and stopping all purging behavior. Some eating disorders respond well to certain types of psychotherapy, talk therapy and medications.
Going in for treatment of an eating disorder is the first step toward learning how to live a healthier life. Treatment plans are tailored to your specific situation and may include individual therapy, group therapy, and/or family therapy, nutritional counseling, medical care and monitoring, and medications.
The American Psychological Association says that incorporating family or marital therapy into the patient’s care may help to prevent relapses by resolving interpersonal issues related to the eating disorder. What happens during family therapy, for example, is that therapists guide family members into an understanding of their loved one’s disorder and learn techniques for coping with problems. Support groups are also invaluable as the patient and his or her family begins to heal.
As for the conditions that may be life-threatening, individuals may need to be hospitalized until they can be stabilized – especially if they are suffering from malnutrition or are seriously underweight.
What can you do right now, today, to begin your journey toward healing from an eating disorder that’s taking over your life? Start by educating yourself on the specifics of the type of eating disorder you believe you have, or the one you’ve been diagnosed with, if that is the case.
Dispelling the fear and myths associated with eating disorders can immediately help you get past the stigma and give you the encouragement you need to take the next step and get into treatment.
WomensHealth.gov (1-800-994-9662) has terrific fact sheets that you can download and print out on the various types of eating disorders:
Other resources and contact numbers include:
Academy for Eating Disorders (AED) 1-847-498-4274
American Psychological Association (APA) 1-800-374-2721
National Institute of Mental Health (NIH, HHS) 1-866-615-8431
National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) 1-800-931-2237
National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders 1-847-831-3438
National Mental Health Information Center (SAMHSA, HHS) 1-800-789-2647
The Obesity Society 1-301-563-6526
Weight Control Information Network (NIDDK, NIH, HHS) 1-877-946-4627
Treatment for Eating Disorder
Once a diagnosis of an eating disorder is made, appropriate treatment will be recommended based on the physical, psychiatric and laboratory findings. Treatment may include inpatient, outpatient, intensive outpatient, partial hospital or residential care.
You can start by talking with your doctor. Ask for a referral for treatment for your eating disorder. You may also know of an organization in your area, or have a friend who’s gone through treatment. The point is to begin your search for appropriate treatment – and the sooner, the better.
Where do you get treatment for eating disorder? There are three choices: inpatient, outpatient, and residential housing.
Inpatient treatment is where you reside at a treatment facility for the duration of your treatment program. This can be several weeks to several months, depending on the severity of your eating disorder and your progress toward overcoming it, along with the general state of your physical and emotional health.
Outpatient treatment for eating disorder is usually conducted at eating disorder clinics or mental health clinics, but can also occur at inpatient facilities that also offer outpatient treatment.
The focus of residential housing is to help with the patient’s transition back into daily life for those in recovery. Sometimes this is included in aftercare or continuing care programs, or it may be a separate care facility.
To find a treatment professional in your area, refer to the National Eating Disorders Association treatment providers and support group directory or call NEDA’s toll-free treatment referral helpline at 1-800-931-2237.
Self-Help Groups for Support When You are in Recovery
After you complete treatment for an eating disorder, you need continued support – both from your family and loved ones, but also from outside groups that have been formed specifically to help those in recovery from eating disorder.
Three of these groups are Overeaters Anonymous, Eating Disorders Anonymous, and Food Addicts Anonymous. There are no dues or fees to join, and participation in these 12-step fellowship groups is always anonymous.
Summing it Up
There’s one simple way to summarize what you need to do when an eating disorder takes over your life: You need to take action. What you do will depend on your readiness to embark on this journey of discovery, the availability of family and friends to support you during your healing process, and access to and completion of appropriate treatment to overcome an eating disorder.
Recognize that this is a worthwhile endeavor that you are considering. If you’ve made it this far in this article, you’re likely highly motivated to make the kind of changes that can bring about a happier, healthier and more productive life. The decision is yours, since only you can decide you really want to change.
Once you come to that conclusion, spring into action and never look back. After all, you live in the present. Make your life choices count so that every moment of life can be enjoyed for the precious gift it is – and that means getting past the eating disorder that’s taken all the joy out of your life. You can do it. But you need to begin your healing journey today.