Getting Treatment for an Eating Disorder

Eating disorders are a group of conditions characterized by severe disturbances in eating behavior, such as extreme intake or extreme overeating, or feelings of extreme distress or concern about body weight or shape. The two main types of eating disorders are anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. A third category exists which includes several variations of eating disorders called “eating disorders not otherwise specified (EDNOS)”. Eating disorders are treatable medical illnesses with complex underlying psychological and biological causes.

Eating disorder treatment plans are tailored to the patients’ individual needs. Treatment includes medical care and monitoring; medications; nutritional counseling; and individual, group and/or family psychotherapy. Some patients may need to be hospitalized to treat malnutrition or to gain weight.

Anorexia nervosa is life threatening and is characterized by a fear of gaining weight and starving themselves because of it. The four primary symptoms of this disease are: resistance to maintaining body weight at or above minimally normal weight for age and height; fear of becoming fat or any sort of weight gain, or denial of a dangerously thin body weight. Many women can also suffer a loss of menstrual fluids. Some warning signs of anorexia to look for include significant weight loss, obsession with weight, food, dieting and calories. Being an extremely picky eater and refusing to eat certain foods, progressing to restrictions against whole categories of food, development of food rituals, and general behaviors and attitudes indicating that weight loss, dieting, and control of food are becoming primary concerns.

The American Psychiatric Association found that approximately 90-95% of anorexia nervosa sufferers are girls and women, but men are also affected. Anorexia is one of the most common psychiatric diagnoses in young women, with between 0.5-1% of American women suffer from anorexia nervosa. There are three main components in treatment for anorexia nervosa: restoring the person to a healthy weight; treating the psychological issues related to the eating disorder; and reducing or eliminating behaviors or thoughts that lead to disordered eating, and preventing relapse. The psychological aspect of the disease can be addressed with different forms of psychotherapy, including individual, group and family-based. It has been shown that a combined approach of medical attention and supportive psychotherapy designed specifically for anorexia patients is more effective than just psychotherapy.

Bulimia nervosa is characterized by a cycle of binging and compensatory behaviors such as self-induced vomiting designed to undo or compensate for the effects of binge eating. The three primary symptoms are: regular intake of large amounts of food accompanied by a sense of loss of control over eating behavior; regular use of inappropriate compensatory behaviors such as self-induced vomiting, laxative or diuretic abuse, fasting, and/or obsessive or compulsive exercise; and extreme concern with body weight and shape. Similar to those suffering from anorexia, bulimics fear gaining weight, want desperately to lose weight, and are extremely unhappy with their body size and shape. Also, bulimia often coexists with psychological diseases, such as depression, anxiety and/or substance abuse problems. Treatment for bulimia is dependent on the individuals’ needs. Nutritional counseling and psychotherapy, especially cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) aid in reducing or eliminating binge and purge behavior. CBT has shown to be effective in changing binging and purging behavior, and eating attitudes.

Research has shown that people struggling with bulimia nervosa usually appear to be of average body weight. Bulimia affects 1-2% of adolescent and young adult women, with approximately 80% of female bulimia nervosa patients.

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