Eating Disorder: Feud with Food?
Before the therapist sits an 18-year-old girl, as thin as a matchstick who has recently admitted to having an eating disorder. The digits on the weighing scale falling rapidly, the unhealthy relationship with food, the ghost of calorie-counting haunting her constantly, the inability to eat in the presence of others, excessive eating and purging, the constant fear of ‘gaining weight’ hanging like a sword over the head, denying the feeling of hunger, skipping meals are the notes scribbled on the notepad of the counselor.
This young size-zero girl struggles with maladaptive behaviors, thoughts, and emotions in her approach toward food. Eating disorders incline their victims to persistent thoughts concerning food, calories, weight, etc. Just like a whirlpool, these notions and anxiety seem intense and lingering.
An eating disorder is a mental illness encompassing a spectrum of debilitating conditions that manifest as unhealthy eating patterns.
Although, like a film franchise, eating disorders have several branches, which are subtle alterations of the principal disorder, they all have some underlying characteristics which are shared by all.
These symptoms include:-
Boycotting particular food from the diet
Episodes of purging and binging of food
Overexercising to maintain a strict body shape and indulging in excess workouts after a cheat meal (punishing yourself for ingesting calories)
Recurrently finding yourself on the weighing scales and day and night living in fear of gaining weight
Establishing fixed rituals on food e.g. weighing the food, eating certain things at certain times, taking only tiny helpings of food, etc
Lying about the quantity of food consumed
Cooking food for others and not eating it yourself
Withdrawing from the social milieu
Reduced sexual drive
Eating disorders have the potential to drain our physical well-being also by leading to issues like:
Amenorrhea (missing menstruation in women)
Low Thyroid Levels
Slower pulse rate
Fragile nails, weak hair, and dry skin
Disturbed Sleep cycle
How does someone get an eating disorder?
Although most patients are teenage girls, eating disorders do not discriminate against age, gender, race, or body type. The risks of developing an unhealthy relationship with food can have a biological, social, or psychological basis.
A family history of this dysfunction can make one susceptible to having an Eating Disorders
Certain personality traits like impulsivity, neuroticism, low self-esteem and being a perfectionist increases the probability of developing an eating disorder.
Television Ads, Instagram Posts, or our Social Circle’s biases towards admiring a slim figure can influence a person to lose weight by rigid dieting and excessive exercising and eventually fall into the clutches of an Eating Disorder.
Recently, the changes in the levels of our brain’s messaging chemicals (serotonin and dopamine) is considered a factor causing this condition.
"I am angry that I starved my brain and that I sat shivering in my bed at night instead of dancing or reading poetry or eating ice cream or kissing a boy.”
― Laurie Halse Anderson
The girl in the therapy room had spent months believing that she was too fat to fit the beauty stencil, now, she finally realizes that the ‘ideal physique’ she was chasing under the pretext of a healthy lifestyle was just an illusion.
Now, she looks forward to eating not to survive, but to satisfy her soul, feel happy, and relish the cravings she had long since suppressed. But How?
Food: From Fiends to Friends
Eating disorders stem from irrational perceptions of food and eating habits and a distorted body image. The victims have increased suicidal tendencies and are prone to depression or anxiety and are to be given the utmost care, empathy, and love.
Initiating a hand of healthy friendship with food is a gradual recovery process and must be journeyed with dedication and patience.
Apart from individual therapy, the possibility of group therapy can also be explored where the family is provided psychoeducation on assisting the client to establish and maintain a healthy bond with food until the client is healed.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has proven efficacious in solving issues of binge eating or purging. CBT identifies maladaptive behavior, modifies distorted beliefs and replaces it with healthier alternatives, and restores nourishing and fulfilling eating habits.
In severe and rare cases, antidepressants, antipsychotics, or mood stabilizers may be prescribed by a psychiatrist can facilitate the treatment of eating disorders.
To cure an eating disorder, the client’s arbitrary belief about food must be broken down and substituted with a new and nutritious model. A dietitian/nutritionist can fashion a diet chart with regular eating patterns which are best suited for the person and help maintain a balanced weight. This can play a crucial role in recovery when combined with psychotherapy.
People who suffer from Eating Disorders are also victims of self-doubt and low self-esteem. The role of family in providing love, support, care and empathy becomes even more crucial in helping them in their path to recovery. Having discussions on a healthy, balanced diet and reassuring their concerns goes a long way in making them feel valued and satisfied with themselves.
The client must keep reminding themselves that fitness is not about punishing ourselves with vigorous exercise and a meagre, low-calorie diet to fit into a social stencil, rather it must be tailored to make our souls content.
Broadening young minds to admire all kinds of body size and types can foster a more welcoming and positive society, thus, helping to reduce the number of people developing issues about their appearances and becoming targets of eating disorders. Eating disorders damage our attitude towards food and we become inclined to a punishing and self-debilitating routine concerning weight, eating patterns, calories, and exercise. Confirming the body appearance popularized in society snatches away our own definition of comfort and happiness and makes life unwholesome for the sufferers and the family.
Tempting delicacies add richness and spirit to our existence…so let's give into our cravings and relish that decadent-looking brownie shake!
Written by: Aqsa Merchant (BA Psychology, SY, The Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda)
Proofread & edited by: Rubal Prajapati (Counseling Psychologist and Ph.D. Scholar at Bharathiar University)