Eating disorders are a type of mental illness that can be difficult to understand and are still met with many misconceptions. From a physical perspective, ‘just eat more or less’ seems to be the solution for someone who has lost or gained a lot of weight due to an eating disorder. But eating disorders are about much more than food. Therefore, the eating behavior of someone with an eating disorder is not the cause, but the symptom of the disorder. What is the cause of eating disorders and what do they have in common in this regard?
Best known eating disorders
The three most common eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder (BED). These three differ from each other in the way patients deal with food and, therefore, have different consequences for the body. Therefore, the disorders are also visible to the outside world in different ways, or can even remain hidden.
People with anorexia nervosa are afraid of becoming fat. Unfortunately, they have a false image of “fat” and continue to lose weight, even though in reality they are far too skinny. Anorexia nervosa involves eating (extremely) little and exercising excessively, vomiting, and taking laxatives.
In bulimia nervosa, losing weight alternates with binge eating, often keeping the patient at a normal weight and making the disorder virtually invisible to the outside world. The binge eating is compensated for afterward by vomiting or using laxatives.
Binge eating disorder (BED)
People with BED only suffer from binge eating, but do not compensate for it. As a result, they gain weight over time and can even become significantly overweight. This excess weight can lead to other psychological problems.
What is binge eating?
During a binge, patients completely lose control of their eating habits. Interestingly enough, binge eating often involves planning in advance. A person with binge eating often fantasizes about what he or she is going to eat, and then deliberately shops for the binge, sets out all the food on the table, and starts eating until everything is finished. During a binge, much more is eaten than a person normally eats at one time. Often a binge also consists mainly of unhealthy food. Afterward, there is a lot of shame, disgust, and sadness.
A binge is a coping mechanism, a way of not having to feel emotions. This narcotic effect is addictive, making it difficult to get rid of binge eating – even though patients know exactly how they feel afterward.
What causes an eating disorder?
Despite the differences between eating disorders, the underlying causes are often similar. Because eating disorders are more common in women than in men, we tend to think it has to do with losing weight to conform to ideals of beauty. But while that does sometimes play a role, it is by no means the whole story.
Eating disorders are mental illnesses that can sometimes be life-threatening. They are caused by profound issues, such as negative self-image and low self-confidence, fear of rejection, perfectionism, depressive feelings, and difficulty expressing emotions. Not infrequently, these issues have arisen from major life changes (as occurs in adolescence) or shocking events and trauma.
Why an eating disorder?
What kind of eating disorder a person develops varies, but they all give patients the same thing: control. For people with an eating disorder, food and their weight have become an obsession. They have a plan every day regarding food and derive self-esteem from having control over it.
Symptoms of eating disorders
There is a great taboo surrounding eating disorders, which means that people suffering from them are not likely to talk about them. Because some eating disorders are not visible on the outside, they often remain under the surface. Also, the line between normal weight loss and an eating disorder is sometimes difficult to determine. The following symptoms indicate an eating disorder:
- obsessing over food, calories, body measurements, and weight
- being underweight or overweight
- feelings of shame regarding their body, food, and eating patterns
- fear of gaining weight and therefore not daring to eat
- experiencing food as a constant source of stress and anxiety
- not wanting to be seen eating and therefore avoiding dinners or parties
- eating binges, followed by vomiting, the use of laxatives, or extreme dieting
- a disturbed hormone balance, causing the feeling of being hungry or full to disappear
- absence of menstruation
- physical complaints, such as gastrointestinal problems and a sore throat
- mood swings and depressive feelings
Treatment of eating disorders
Overcoming an eating disorder is a long and intensive process, especially if the patient has been struggling with the disorder for a long time. Many patients try to sabotage well-intentioned attempts by those close to them to get them to eat. Food is thrown away or regurgitated afterward. The treatment of an eating disorder, therefore, focuses not only on the eating pattern but more importantly on the underlying causes.
To cure an eating disorder, attention is paid to the reasons why patients cling so tightly to control, why they have so little self-confidence or belief in themselves, and why their self-image is so negative. Conversation therapy is crucial here, and it can be done excellently online.
Do you have a difficult relationship with food and suspect that you have developed an eating disorder? An experienced therapist can help you break through negative patterns. This reduces compulsive thoughts and behaviors around food and helps you to master your eating disorder.
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