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You Can Never Be Too Thin–or Can You?

Eating Disorder

“You can never be too thin or too rich.” This quote has been ascribed to twice-divorced Wallis Simpson, the American woman for whom Edward VIII abdicated England’s throne. Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor, was reportedly obsessed with wealth–and being thin.

Apparently, the duchess isn’t the only one to ascribe to this point of view. Thin models and celebrities stare at us from magazine covers. Celebutantes, almost always thin, post their filtered, carefully posed selfies on Instagram. Women of every age try diet after diet in an attempt to look like the airbrushed images that bombard them every day. According to BusinessWire, the weight loss and diet control market in the United States reached $72 billion in 2019, the highest it had ever been.

That last point may be proof that what’s good for Wall Street isn’t always good for Main Street. According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), twenty million women and ten million men in the United States suffer from an eating disorder. Eating disorders have the “second-highest mortality rate of all mental health disorders, surpassed only by opioid addiction.” NEDA works to educate the public about eating disorders, build communities to support people who are recovering from these disorders, fund research, and provide people with resources. In an effort to educate the public, NEDA sponsors National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, which will be February 22 through 28 in 2021.

What Are Eating Disorders?

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, eating disorders are “serious medical illnesses marked by severe disturbances to a person’s eating behaviors….These disorders can affect a person’s physical and mental health; in some cases, they can be life-threatening.”

Three common types of eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder.

People with anorexia avoid food or severely limit the amount and types of food they eat. They see themselves as overweight even when they are severely underweight. Some people with anorexia, in addition to restricting food, will force themselves to vomit or misuse laxatives and diuretics in an effort to further limit calories. Signs that someone may have anorexia include restricted eating, excessive exercise, extreme thinness, fear of gaining weight, and a distorted body image. As the illness progresses the person may develop medical issues, including:

  • Anemia
  • Muscle wasting and weakness
  • Brittle hair and nails
  • Low body temperature
  • Lethargy or fatigue
  • Heart damage
  • Brain damage
  • Multi-organ failure

Anorexia can be fatal and people who die from anorexia exhibit medical conditions associated with starvation.

People with bulimia eat unusually large amounts of food and feel as if they have no control over their eating. They compensate for binge eating by forcing themselves to vomit, misusing laxatives or diuretics, fasting, or excessive exercise. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), people with bulimia can be a normal weight or even be overweight. Medical issues caused by bulimia include a chronically inflamed and sore throat; swollen salivary glands; worn tooth enamel and tooth decay; acid reflux; intestinal issues from laxative abuse; dehydration; and electrolyte imbalance which can lead to a stroke or heart attack.

Sufferers of binge-eating disorder have repeated episodes of binge eating, usually defined as “eating an amount of food that exceeds what most people would eat within a two-hour time period. People with this disorder will eat even when they are not hungry and eat until they are uncomfortable. They tend to eat very rapidly during these binge episodes and they frequently eat alone or in secret because of feelings of shame or embarrassment. People with binge-eating disorder are frequently overweight or obese and diet without success. Heart problems are the most common health problem for this group.

Co-Occurring Mental Health and Substance Abuse Issues

While the causes of eating disorders are not known, experts speculate that eating disorders are caused by a combination of biological, psychological, and societal forces. What is known, however, is that many people with eating disorders also suffer from depression and anxiety and may have issues with substance abuse. 

A study published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders found that 50% of people with eating disorders abuse drugs or alcohol, particularly those who engaged in some sort of purging behavior. According to an advisory released by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), people with eating disorders have high rates of substance abuse as well. As the eating disorder becomes more severe, the likelihood that more than one substance is abused increases as well. Studies reported in the advisory found that people with binge-eating disorder tended to abuse alcohol, while those who attempted to increase their weight loss by purging (including bulimics and anorexics who purge) abused stimulants and sleeping pills.

The same advisory noted that co-occurring mental health disorders are common among people with eating disorders, particularly anxiety disorders, mood disorders (including major depressive, bipolar, and seasonal affective disorders) and impulse control disorders.

Help–and Hope–Is Available

Fortunately, help is available for people suffering from eating disorders. As serious as these disorders are, they are treatable, and people do recover.

Treatment for an eating disorder includes nutrition education, psychotherapy (talk therapy), and medication. Of the available psychotherapies, family-based therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy have been found to be effective. Alternative treatment modalities are also helpful in treating eating disorders. These include yoga, meditation, massage, fitness therapy, and acupuncture. 

You can recover from an eating disorder and receive treatment for co-occurring disorders that you may have. Treatment can literally save your life.

Experts estimate that nearly thirty million Americans suffer from an eating disorder, which has one of the highest mortality rates of all mental health issues. Approximately half of those who have an eating disorder also abuse drugs or alcohol and co-occurring mental health issues are also prevalent in this population. Eating disorders are serious health issues that can result in death if not treated. Help for eating disorders is available at Enlightened Solutions. We are a drug and alcohol treatment center on New Jersey’s southern shore and we are licensed to treat co-occurring disorders, including anorexia, bulimia, and binge-eating disorder. Our treatment plans are rooted in the 12-Step philosophy. We focus on healing the whole person, not just treating the addiction. In addition to traditional talk therapy and support groups, we offer a range of holistic treatment modalities including yoga and meditation, art and music therapy, and family constellation therapy. If you have been struggling with an eating disorder or other addiction, please call us at (833) 801-5483. We can help.