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Recognizing Eating Disorders and Getting Help

It's Not Just about Food and Weight
  -- By Dean Anderson, Behavioral Psychology Expert
Full-fledged eating disorders are abnormal, disordered patterns of eating that become out-of-control. All types of eating disorders represent serious and immediate threats to the health, well-being, and happiness of the individuals caught up in them.

For practical purposes, it’s less important to know the clinical criteria that doctors use to diagnose these disorders than it is to simply recognize the typical behaviors and thoughts that people tend to exhibit. Many people start slipping into these patterns well before they meet the formal requirements for diagnosis. Likewise, a basic understanding of how people use these “disordered” behaviors and thought patterns to solve the problems they are experiencing in daily life can point the way to finding better solutions. This will help individuals and their loved ones figure out if professional help is needed.

Common Signs & Behaviors
The following behaviors can be signs of an active eating disorder: As you can see, the differences between dieting and anorexia nervosa, and between overeating and binge eating disorder, can get pretty hazy. What starts out as “normal” can easily cross the line and become disordered, especially when you are focused primarily on weight and calories, instead of healthy eating and exercising. Recognizing problems as early as possible is one key to getting them under control.

Underneath the Surface
Many people with clinical eating disorders have certain genetic or biochemical susceptibilities to strong emotions, or histories of emotional, physical, or sexual abuse that further amplify the intensity of feelings and short-circuit the development of normal emotional-management skills. There is also strong evidence that disordered eating can be “passed down” from generation to generation within families.

Although biology and genes play significant roles in eating disorders, it's a mistake to think that people develop eating disorders because there is something wrong with them. People turn to these behaviors because, to them, they solve an important problem or accomplish some necessary purpose. And even when the “solution” starts causing serious problems of its own, people may consciously or unconsciously stick to their disordered eating patterns until they can come up with some alternative way of meeting the original need.

It’s a lot easier to find a way to meet that need when you have some idea of what that original purpose or problem might be. So, let’s take a brief look at some of the most common problems and needs that, according to people who have successfully struggled with their own eating disorders, got them headed down the road to trouble in the first place: <pagebreak>
The common theme in all these statements (and many others) is that disordered eating almost always starts out as an effort to manage feelings, thoughts, and worries that aren’t really about food and eating. Most often, they are about basic human needs like fitting in, being valued and wanted for who you are, having control over your own life, and having the power to influence how other people see and treat you.

When these problems grow larger and persistent enough to pave the way for the development of disordered eating (or a full-blown eating disorder), it is because other factors have also conspired to make this the “path of least resistance.” It is not because the individual is stupid, defective, or incompetent.

Getting Help When You Need It
The good news is that recovering from an eating disorder is possible. You can find much better ways to deal with your original concerns or needs; you can learn the skills you need to manage difficult feelings and “thought storms” without turning to overeating or not eating. There are also effective treatments (like good nutrition and medication) for many of the biochemical problems involved.

It’s not impossible to do all or most of this on your own. There’s plenty of good information and support available from books and websites, and there are good self-help programs available.

But doing it on your own is not the easiest or fastest way, and often it's not enough. You can’t hang a picture straight on a wall when you’re right up against the wall yourself. You need someone with a different perspective to tell you when one side is higher or lower than it should to be. That’s not a reflection on you—it’s just a fact of life. The same can be true when it comes to seeing your own behaviors and attitudes clearly enough to start changing them.

These days, there are many counselors, dietitians and doctors who know a lot about disordered eating. These helpful professionals won’t pass judgment on you, but they can help you sort things out so that your decisions will help you get what you really want for yourself. If you find yourself having a hard time changing your behavior (or wanting to change), even though it is causing you problems, ask for some help.

The following online resources will help you find help in your area:

www.nationaleatingdisorders.org
www.something-fishy.org