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Eating Disorders

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eating disorders

According to the National Eating Disorder Association, in the United States as many as 10 million females and 1 million males are battling eating disorders, and millions more are struggling with a binge-eating disorder.

The most common eating disorders are Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa. However, other food and diet related disorders are also very common, such as compulsive exercising, binge-eating disorder, and food phobias. 

All food and diet disorders are characterized by extreme, unhealthy eating patterns.  For example, individuals with Anorexia Nervosa have a tremendous fear of weight gain, and as a result, restrict their food intake through dieting, fasting, or excessive exercise.  People struggling with Bulimia engage in binge-eating (consuming excessive amounts of food), followed by purging.  Purging is often accomplished through forced vomiting, excessive exercise, or ingesting laxatives.

Unlike Anorexia and Bulimia, people struggling with Binge-Eating Disorder do not try to restrict, or compensate for food intake.  Instead, people with Binge-Eating Disorder binge regularly on food.  This behavior is characterized by consuming abnormally large amounts of food in one sitting, past the point of fullness.  Like other eating disorders, individuals with Binge-Eating Disorder wish to be thin, or think that they are not thin.

While there is no one cause of eating disorders, and other food related disorders, these disorders are usually accompanied by mental problems, such as depression, anxiety, and obsessive compulsive disorder.  Medical studies have found that eating disorders may also result from stressful family relationships, genetic factors, sports participation, societal pressure, puberty, and distorted body image. 

If left untreated, eating and food related disorders can lead to irreversible health and mental complications, and in some cases, even death.  Thankfully, people with eating disorders can get well, and learn to maintain a healthy body-weight.

Eating disorder treatments

Because eating disorders are medical illnesses that afflict both the body and mind, treatment focuses on both mental and physical recovery.  As such, medical doctors, mental health specialists, and dieticians are commonly involved in the healing process.

Treatments vary from patient to patient, and usually depend on the severity of the illness.  For example, a person who has had Anorexia for 15 years, and is at a dangerously low weight, may need to be committed to a hospital, and treated with aggressive mental therapy.  While treatment for a person with Anorexia for less than a year, who is still eating some food, may involve seeing a therapist and dietician on a weekly basis. 

Whatever the case, mental health specialists play an integral role in the treatment of people with eating and food related disorders.  Through patient interaction, they ascertain the underlying mental issues, such as family problems, personality disorders, body-image distortion, or other issues, which may account for the development of the eating or food disorder.  They often share this information with the patient’s medical doctor and dietician to coordinate a multi-disciplinary treatment plan that ensures long-term recovery.

The biggest obstacle to the treatment of eating disorders is usually denial of a problem, or resistance to treatment by the patient, family members, and sometimes friends or coaches.  The patient often believes that she or he is not overly thin, or that their extreme behaviors are not unhealthy.  Family members sometimes deny the problem, which makes it difficult for a patient to recover.  Coaches and friends may also encourage unhealthy behavior through espousal of distorted ideals of thinness and athletic success.

The mental health field has developed an array of psychological treatment methods to help patients with eating disorders to overcome their illness.  The most common of these therapies is talk therapy.  Therapists who use talk therapy usually employ one or more different types of talk therapy, such as cognitive based therapy, behavioral therapy, and interpersonal therapy.

Therapists may recommend that mental therapy be supplemented with medication, such as anti-depressants or anti-anxiety drugs.  These drugs, when used in conjunction with mental therapy, can be highly effective in helping a patient to recover, and manage their eating disorder.  However, drugs can also have an opposite effect, so patients must be carefully monitored when taking medication.

Individuals with severe or life threatening cases of eating and food related disorders may require treatment from 24 hour supervised care facilities, such as an Eating Disorder Center or Clinic.  Eating Disorder Centers are in-patient treatment centers where patients live until they are no longer a threat to themselves.  These centers employ multi-disciplinary teams that focus on mental and physical recovery.  Dieticians employed by the centers teach patients how to eat healthy, and monitor patients’ food consumption.  Therapists provide intensive therapy to facilitate the recovery process, and medical doctors are on staff to ensure that the patients’ medical health is not in peril.  Through coordinated intensive treatment, people with life threatening eating disorders can recover and learn to live healthy lives.

Specialized medical and mental health services are vital to the treatment of people with eating disorders. If you have an interest in working with people with eating disorders, a career in this industry may be for you.

Find out how you can become involved, request information from schools offering Psychology degree programs. Also, learn more about the psychology career licensing processes and what the requirements for licensure are: Psychology Career Licensure.

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