In the spirit of National Eating Disorder Awareness week, I want to highlight some of the major factors about eating disorders (EDs) that I find (in my work and just in general) are often misunderstood. So, here we go…
EDs are coping/survival mechanisms. Much like drug addictions, ED behaviors (bingeing/purging, restricting, over-exercising, etc.), are ways of coping with hard life things and the uncomfortable emotions that come along with being human. Since EDs are destructive and life-stealing ways of coping, developing and learning new life-giving coping skills is imperative in recovery. Therapy is essential because the person struggling needs to understand their emotional world and heal any unresolved trauma. Also, it’s important to recognize that the person recovering from an ED was doing the best they could at the time to try and protect themselves – this helps the person in recovery (and perhaps their loved ones) shift from a shameful to compassionate lens from which he/she/they is/are viewing the experience.
ED symptoms are indirect forms of emotional expression. Regardless of the type of ED, all symptoms/behaviors are a metaphoric language – a way of saying, “I am not okay.” This is why learning how to identify, allow, tolerate and express feelings/emotions, and to be supported/held by others in this process, is crucial in recovery.
Eating disorders seem like they’re all about food, but they’re really not. I think one of the biggest misunderstandings some people have about EDs is that it’s all about food. As therapist Anita Johnson puts it, the food or the behavior with food is the “red herring,” not the true issue. So as a RD, my job is to help people peel back that top layer and find freedom with food, so they can do their work in therapy and look at and heal what lies underneath – what’s really going on here.
You cannot tell that someone has an eating disorder by looking at them. People of all body sizes have EDs! The stereotype that only people in very thin bodies have EDs is a lie. It is also dangerous as EDs can easily go undiagnosed and mistreated under this misconception.
They have the highest mortality rate of all mental illnesses. High rates of suicide and/or malnutrition is what makes this sad fact a reality.
They do not discriminate. EDs happen to everyone – people of all races, genders, ages, sexual orientations and socioeconomic classes suffer.
People do not choose to have EDs. No one chooses to develop an ED. There is not one clear cause of them, but can stem from multiple factors on biological, psychological and sociocultural levels.
EDs are not phases. As I alluded to above, EDs are deep-rooted, all-consuming mental diseases that require treatment from a team of specialized providers (usually a doctor, dietitian, therapist and psychiatrist).
Weight restoration or regular eating does not mean someone is recovered from an eating disorder. Being at a certain weight or even consistent eating does not mean someone is not struggling internally. While weight restoration and/or stabilization is often necessary in earlier stages of recovery, and regular eating is very important throughout recovery, they are only pieces to the recovery puzzle.
Full recovery is entirely possible. Just like it is possible for someone with alcoholism to maintain sobriety for the rest of his/her life, it is also possible for someone with an ED to live in full recovery. I do believe that recovery must be an ongoing intention and priority, however, and being aware of the slippery slopes (such as becoming a vegan or going on any restrictive diet) is crucial, to maintain full recovery.
If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, please contact the NEDA helpline at 1-800-931-2237.
If you’d like help healing your relationship to food and you body, please explore my counseling page.
I’d love to work with you!
In true health,