eating disorders

Is an Eating Disorder Actually a Mental Illness?

Many people are surprised to learn that eating disorders have little to do with food and more with mental health. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental health disorder. Long-term eating disorders also increase the risk for osteoporosis, reproductive problems, and heart and kidney damage. 

Like other mental health disorders, eating disorders can be successfully treated. But, they are complex and may involve a genetic component, as well as co-occurring disorders like anxiety, depression, and obsessive compulsive disorder. This is why intensive, dual diagnosis treatment is required. 

What are the Most Common Eating Disorders? 

When it comes to body image, there is a lot of confusion, especially for young people. However, they can’t just “snap out of it” and start eating a normal diet again. Eating disorders are mental illnesses that come from more than the desire to look good or be thin. People with eating disorders need professional intervention to understand the root cause of their problems. 

The DSM-IV recognizes the following types of eating disorders: 

  • Anorexia nervosa. Anorexia is the inability to maintain a healthy body weight. People with this disorder refuse to eat to lose weight. 
  • Bulimia nervosa. Bulimia is repeated binge eating followed by vomiting, fasting, extreme exercise or laxatives. 
  • Eating disorder not otherwise specified. This includes any other eating disorder that does not fit the criteria for bulimia or anorexia. 

What are the Signs of an Eating Disorder? 

People with eating disorders typically hide their distress. This makes it hard for others to detect the warning signs. But, there are some things you can pay attention to. Below are some signs of a possible eating disorder. 

  • Intrusive thoughts of food or body image.
  • Inability to focus on other tasks.
  • Trouble having meals with others.
  • Feeling guilty for being hungry. 
  • Dysfunctional pattern between eating and emotions.
  • Difficulty functioning daily. 

How Eating Disorders Affect Mental Health 

You need vitamins, minerals and calories to survive. When your body does not get enough nutrients, it becomes compromised. As a result, you can suffer problems with your gastrointestinal tract, reproductive system, bones and heart. But, there are changes in the brain, too. 

For instance, we can train our brains to respond to certain things in our lives without realizing it. Our beliefs then change our behaviors. As an example, if you believe drinking tea in the morning makes you look prettier, the tea becomes a trigger stimulus for you to feel good. Eventually, the brain is trained to think that tea makes you beautiful. 

People with eating disorders have the same thing going on. They have trained their brains to associate food with being ugly or overweight. The sight of food makes them feel bad about themselves, and they use behaviors like restricting, binging or purging to minimize calories. 

How to Treat Eating Disorders 

Fortunately, it is possible to successfully treat eating disorders. Treatment requires an organized approach to manage symptoms, return to a healthy weight, and maintain good mental and physical health. To accomplish this, there needs to be a strong support team, including a mental health professional, registered dietician and supportive family members. 

Specifically, here is what you can expect from a treatment plan: 

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy. This type of psychotherapy focuses on behaviors, thoughts and feelings related to the eating disorder. After you gain healthier eating behaviors, you can learn to recognize your harmful thoughts and behaviors, like restricting and purging.
  • Family therapy. Family therapy brings the family together to restore healthy eating patterns until you can do so on your own. Goals may include meal planning, grocery shopping, and eating together.
  • Group therapy. Group therapy involves meeting with a therapist and other people with eating disorders. Together, you can learn skills to help manage your symptoms and restore healthy nutrition. 
  • Nutrition education. A dietician can help you better understand how you should be eating. For example, you can set goals for a healthy weight, understand how nutrition affects your body, and practice meal planning. 
  • Medications. Some people with eating disorders benefit from medication like antidepressants. Antidepressants work best when combined with psychotherapy. Additionally, medications are sometimes prescribed to treat physical problems caused by the eating disorder. 

If you are concerned about an eating disorder in yourself or a loved one, contact Awakenings Treatment Center. Our clients benefit from our broad spectrum of evidence-based services that also address co-occurring disorders like anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder or addiction. With the right treatment, you can heal from your eating disorder.