Approximately One in 20 Young Women Has an Eating Disorder
Are you or one of your children part of the statistic?
The connection between food and feelings is formed the moment we are born. Food is of crucial importance in human culture, and it is an inseparable aspect of any social, cultural, or religious event or ceremony. Most people respond to extreme emotions by eating too much or too little, and it’s widely agreed that people’s eating habits are an excellent indicator of their psychological state.
An eating disorder can be defined as a sequence of situations, psychological in origin, in which normative eating is disrupted.
The body becomes an arena of mental conflict, usually unconscious, which cannot be expressed in words. Between 0.3% and 1% of young women have anorexia nervosa (making anorexia as common as autism), around 1% to 3% of young women have bulimia nervosa, and around 3% of the population has binge-eating disorder. Between 4% and 20% of young women practice unhealthy patterns of dieting, purging, and binge-eating.
In many cases, an eating disorder is the expression of an attempt to gain a sense of control. Every person has a different set of life circumstances; but with eating disorders I meet many people who tell me similar narratives. They often say to themselves, “If I fill my body with food to the point of sensory, emotional, and mental haziness, I will no longer be able to feel the emptiness and loneliness.” Or alternatively, “When I go against my body’s needs and starve myself, I am in control of myself and my surroundings, I am strong, and I can do anything.” Irrationally, the mind thinks that starving or overfeeding the body will allow the person to regain control of their life.
Stop Looking at What’s on My Plate: Why So Many Adolescent Girls Develop Eating Disorders
In adolescence, young people strive to develop an independent identity, separate from their parents. An eating disorder can sometimes be an expression of the difficulty of achieving this independence, or a rebellion in the face of what teens experience as their parents’ over-control. Anorexia, for instance, embodies the conflict between independence and dependence. On the one hand, anorexic adolescents feel the need to decide what to eat and when; but at the same time, their physical condition requires their parents to take care of them, feeding them as if they were babies.
The environmental and social pressures exerted on adolescent boys and girls, the extreme physical changes they undergo, and their developing sexuality, together with today’s unrealistic standards of beauty and thinness, “the Thin Ideal”, lead many adolescents to develop severe issues with body image and eating habits. There are cases of eating disorders that develop in childhood, but most of the literature states that about 85% of people with eating disorders develop them between the ages of 8 and 20, and that most of them are adolescent girls.
Notable risk factors include:
- Distorted body image and low self-esteem
- Criticism and high expectations from parents
- Sexual assault/abuse in childhood and/or adolescence
Two of the most prominent characteristics often found among those suffering from eating disorders are anxiety about sexual development and anxiety as a result of sexual trauma. In the first case, the young girl is unconsciously anxious about the natural sexual development of her body and is afraid that her sexuality will endanger her. To delay this process, she unconsciously attacks her body by starving it and preventing its growth.
In the case of sexual trauma, an eating disorder is a way to reject her body, out of a desire to emotionally dissociate from the assault and prevent it from happening again. The disorder is often an expression of a sense of guilt over the traumatic event, and is used as a way to punish the body – hurting and abusing it in order to regain a sense of control and express anguish for which there are no words.
Eating Disorders vs. Disordered Eating
It is important to distinguish between eating disorders and disordered eating. There are several types of eating disorders, the most common being anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, and avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID).
Disordered eating is not included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), but it is a risk factor for the development of a full-blown eating disorder. It is expressed in abnormal behaviors, thoughts, and attitudes regarding food, eating, and weight. Disordered eating behaviors include fasting, restricted eating, skipping meals, binges, and induced vomiting.
Since therapy has been proven to be effective in dealing with eating disorders, early detection is critical to prevent it from developing into something worse; but unfortunately, treatment usually begins only around four years after the onset for girls, and even longer for boys.
“How can I find relief without throwing up?”
Before starting treatment for eating disorders, it is important to take into account that it is very difficult for the patient to give up the solution that the mind has found for distress, even when it comes to self-harm that causes immense and life-threatening damage. The thought of treatment is frightening because it is associated with relinquishing control. Patients ask themselves, how can I find relief without throwing up? How will I be able to stand myself if I gain weight? How will I deal with emotional turmoil without bingeing?
Anorexia also involves an impaired perception of reality, and in severe cases the person suffering from the disorder denies it and sometimes is not even aware of it. In these situations, the person dealing with anorexia will try to hide the fact that they are starving themselves and even lie about it. For this reason, often it is not the patients who refer themselves for treatment but someone close to them, usually their mother.
The therapeutic process is adapted to the pace of each individual, depending on their willingness to learn to give up self-harm through eating or avoiding eating. The process is designed to find a genuine solution for coping with distress, to let go of using the body as an arena of conflict, and to learn how to build a life free from dependence on food as punishment or reward.
During treatment, tools are provided to regulate eating and stop compensatory behaviors such as taking laxatives, vomiting and excessive physical activity. In addition, careful guidance is provided during the process of weight gain and the anxiety that accompanies it. As part of the guidance, a multi-step program is built to develop a positive body image.
More information about eating disorders can be found on the website of the Academy for Eating Disorders: https://www.aedweb.org/home