Eating Disorders: Is it really about the food?

Is it all about the food?

One of the big misconceptions with eating disorders is that the disorder centers around an unhealthy relationship with food. While this is certainly a part of all eating disorders, the food and eating behaviors are typically symptoms of the problem, but not the true problem itself.

Many people are not aware of the fact that the development of eating disorders is often triggered by the experience of a difficult, unpleasant, and sometimes traumatic event or circumstance that causes the affected individual to shut down emotionally.

This suppression of emotion is not sustainable and feels unmanageable; therefore, those predisposed to developing eating disorders will turn to food as a way to feel more in control or to distract themselves from their emotions.

Disordered Eating and Emotions

In Monika Woolsey’s timeless book, Eating Disorders: A Clinical Guide to Counseling and Treatment, she describes perfectly the true motivation behind eating disordered behaviors:

“Eating disorders can be viewed as an alternative language that develops when verbal skills do not provide an emotional outlet. When basic emotions such as anger and fear are not verbalized, they find other avenues of expression. .. Clients often express frustration that family and friends did not recognize their dysfunctional behavior as their way of saying they were angry or hurt” (Woolsey, 103).

Woolsey goes on to describe some common eating disorder behaviors and their true meaning:

“Common eating disordered behaviors include:

  • Tearing food into small pieces to express anger
  • Expressing fear of weight gain or fear of fat in place of a greater, less tangible fear
  • Bingeing to avoid feeling lonely
  • Expressing guilt over a food eaten, rather than over another behavior perceived as “bad”’(Woolsey, 103)

The suppression of emotions, in addition to feelings of low self-esteem and low self-worth as well, are the true root cause of many eating disorders. For this reason, it is imperative to address these issues as a key component of treatment. Focusing on changing eating behaviors for the sake of health doesn’t cover the whole issue at hand, and may be more likely to lead to resistance or risk of relapse. The components of a well-rounded treatment team and approach for someone with an eating disorder should include:

  • Therapeutic counseling with a social worker or licensed counselor specializing in eating disorders. Specific types of therapy that can be helpful include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), exposure-response therapy, and expressive or art therapy.
  • Nutrition counseling with a registered dietitian specializing in eating disorders. Specific areas to focus on include healthy meal planning, developing mindfulness or intuitive eating, and addressing fear foods or uncomfortable eating situations (such as eating at a restaurant).
  • Regular lab testing and medication management with a medical doctor or nurse practitioner familiar with the medical concerns associated with different eating disorders (including electrolyte imbalance, vitamin and mineral deficiencies, etc.).

Help is available

Here at Bridging the Gaps, we ensure that we provide this team-based approach when a client comes into our care with a secondary diagnosis of an eating disorder. For clients who are struggling with eating disordered behavior as their primary diagnosis, residential and IOP treatment options are available in the local area, including:

  • Center for Discovery– Fairfax, McLean, and Alexandria, VA (Residential and Outpatient services)
  • Prosperity Eating Disorders and Wellness Center– Herndon, VA (PHP and IOP)
  • The Body Image Therapy Center– Alexandria, VA; Washington D.C.; Baltimore and Columbia, MD (PHP, IOP, and OP)

If you have questions about eating disorder treatment options for yourself or a loved one, please feel free to contact our nutritional department at Bridging the Gaps.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *