Food is one of our most basic biological needs for survival. If the need for food becomes the source of fear or is seen as dangerous or frightening, this is one indication of an eating disorder.

When dieting or the focus on weight loss has become your primary concern—if you are spending an inordinate amount of time thinking or acting on behaviors that would lead to weight loss—it is reasonable to assume that your relationship with food has become disordered.

Problematic eating behaviors include: overeating or bingeing, characterized by eating very large amounts of food in a short period of time until uncomfortably full; anorexia, characterized by gradual to severe food restrictions despite being underweight; and bulimia, characterized by purging food (by vomiting, diuretics, laxative use, or even excessive exercise).

Eating disorders are often minimized or camouflaged by words like ‘eating healthy’ or ‘clean eating’. When clean eating becomes obsessive and restrictive, this is called orthorexia. Some individuals will use athletics to manage their weight and emotions. Again, if the behavior is excessive, it becomes a disorder—in this case, hypergymnasia or anorexia athletica.

What causes disordered eating patterns? This is a highly complex issue, but in short, individuals with eating disorders have difficulty sitting with an emotional discomfort and use a particular type of behavior (like, problematic eating behaviors) as a means of managing that discomfort.

Adult eating disorders often start in teenage years. Because adolescence is a period fraught with unfamiliar and intense emotions accompanied by a strong desire to be accepted by peers, young people are especially vulnerable to eating disorders. Within families where there is an over-interest in appearance, perfectionism and/or weight, and no guidance given on the importance of healthy emotional expression, the stage is set.

Any Recovery Should Treat the Body, Mind, and Emotions

1) Physical recovery will reconnect the act of eating with physical hunger.

2) Behavioral therapy will retrain your brain using therapeutic approaches such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Internal Family Systems Therapy and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (and others). These therapies can help clients examine and challenge their negative belief systems, teach emotional regulation and help individuals develop alternative, adaptive ways of coping.

3) Emotional recovery can be achieved by creating a support network. It’s imperative to have allies and a support system to call upon when you are struggling. (If you have thoughts of suicide, you may require a higher level of care and/or chose to participate in a specialized inpatient or residential program, an intensive outpatient program or partial hospitalization program.

You can begin taking care of yourself right now by making an appointment with your primary care provider for a full physical work up. It’s important that you go to a provider where you feel emotionally safe to be completely honest. Share with them any problematic eating behaviors you experience. If you have shame about your eating (and most people do), remember this: Shame can only survive in the dark. By sharing your experience with another, you bring the light of awareness to your situation—and begin to find your way out. Like the 12 Step slogan states, “We’re as sick as our secrets.”

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To prepare for your appointment, begin to monitor your eating for one week. Do not judge yourself! Just gather information like a scientist gathering data. Write down the time and your feelings before eating. What did you ate? How much did you eat? Did you eat because you were physically hungry? Were you feeling bored, lonely, angry, or tired? Did you have an impulse to purge afterwards? If so, what did you do? Write down anything you learn about yourself. Bring this information with you to your appointment.

By investing time each day, you can begin the process of reprogramming your thinking, healing your relationship with food and your body, and changing behaviors that can result in a more peaceful body-mind.

Ultimately, the goal is to re-learn how to trust yourself around foods you love. Recovering from an eating disorder takes commitment, time and patience. While slowly and gently returning to the weight that is best for your body (and soul) to thrive, you will come to see that thoughts about food, or your weight or body are simply cues from You to Yourself that there is something within that needs your attention.

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Online Help

You may be interested in an online course that I offer, How To Recover From Emotional Eating. It includes Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy exercises, plus an Internal Family Systems Therapy guided meditation. Throughout the 58-lesson course you will have the opportunity to question your thoughts, discover what you need (or don’t need), learn how to reduce stress, strengthen your vocabulary with assertive ways to say “No,” uncover why you may be sabotaging your weight loss efforts, and much more. The course delivers mp3 audio downloads of all 58 lessons, plus guided meditations, experiential exercises, and eating guidelines and resources, for a cost of $20. You can register here: How To Recover From Emotional Eating.

Olimpia Etts is a Licensed Certified Clinical Social Worker with degrees in psychology and social work and a private practice where she specializes in working with adults who have a history of emotional or compulsive eating, trauma, anxiety and depression.

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