Co-occuring Disorders

Body image & eating disorders

Body Image & Eating Disorders

Eating disorders wreak havoc on a person's health. The self-destructive behaviors associated with them not only impact physical health, they severely damage psychological health. Because many factors influence the development of eating disorders, treatment and recovery must address the unique needs of the whole person.

What are eating disorders?

Eating disorders are illnesses characterized by abnormal eating habits that adversely impact physical or mental health. Though eating disorders primarily affect females, particularly teenagers and young adults, males can also suffer from them.

Types of eating disorders.

The most common eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder.

  • Anorexia nervosa, which is characterized by an intense fear of gaining weight, involves very restricted eating and the pursuit of an extremely low body weight (at all costs.)
  • Bulimia nervosa involves recurrent episodes of binging (eating unusually large amounts of food) followed by compensatory behaviors such as vomiting, using laxatives or compulsive exercise.
  • Binge eating disorder involves compulsive episodes of overeating without the compensatory behaviors associated with bulimia nervosa.

Other eating disorders include compulsive overeating, pica (compulsive eating, chewing or licking of non-food items such as paper, cigarette ashes or chalk) and purging disorder (vomiting or other elimination behaviors in the absence of binging behaviors.)

Causes of eating disorders.

While the exact cause of these disorders is unknown, a combination of genetic, psychological, environmental and social factors is thought to play a role. Often, individuals suffering from eating disorders have low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, loneliness or other co-occurring conditions. Peer and cultural factors, including narrow definitions of beauty; the glorification of thinness; and an emphasis on appearance over character, may also contribute to the development of eating disorders. Genetic influences, such as a history of eating disorders in the family, may also be at play. Finally, individuals with eating disorders may have a history of physical or sexual abuse or other childhood trauma.

Effects of eating disorders.

Eating disorders can have serious physical and psychological consequences. Patients with eating disorders are often extremely malnourished. Many suffer from electrolyte imbalances, osteoporosis, constipation, diarrhea and dental problems. More serious complications, such as cardiac arrest, kidney failure, brain atrophy, death and suicide, also result from eating disorders.

Treating eating disorders.

The most effective eating disorder treatment programs approach individuals from a holistic perspective. These programs:

  • identify underlying causes of eating disorders
  • address psychological, biological, social and cultural factors that influence eating disorders
  • teach coping strategies
  • treat other health problems and co-occurring disorders

A typical course of eating disorder treatment.

Usually, eating disorder treatment programs involve behavioral counseling or psychotherapy; family counseling; nutritional counseling; and help from therapists, support groups and other experienced professionals. Medication may be used both to combat co-occurring mental health issues and to manage the many health problems that often arise from eating disorders.

While eating disorders can sometimes be treated in an outpatient setting, many patients flourish in the therapeutic, nurturing environments that residential or inpatient programs offer. Inpatient treatment or hospitalization may be necessary and beneficial for the following types of patients:

  • Individuals who have suffered from an eating disorder for a long time
  • Those with severe cases of the disorder
  • Those with comorbidities, such as drug addiction, anxiety or severe depression
  • Those with severe health complications

Hospitalization and inpatient treatment programs should be followed by continued outpatient treatment. Follow-up care and monitoring, which is essential for preventing relapse, should continue after outpatient treatment is complete.

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