Coping with eating related problems

Mostly women suffer from eating disorders but an increasing proportion of  young men are also experiencing them. They are as much a social and cultural  problem as a personal one.

We live in a society where the media constantly bombard us with images of  successful people who are portrayed as thin. Women's bodies are particularly  scrutinised by the fashion industry. There is often pressure to fit into a  certain type of look that is currently fashionable. Since the 1960's fashion  models in the West have become markedly both underweight and taller than the  national average woman.

Increased photographic skills and other technical expertise has resulted in  the reproduction of images of women which are glamorous, superhuman and perfect.  Even the models don't actually look as perfect or glamorous as their photos  appear.

We are given the message that looking thin means being successful in society.  Pressure to conform and the fear of loss of control leads to worry about one's  body image or weight.

On top of this, millions of pounds are spent by the dieting industry on  advertising. Research shows that 90% of men and women are concerned with their  body size and diet or exercise in an attempt to redefine their natural body  shape.

Types of eating disorders

Even though exact sympoms vary due to individual personality, lifestyle and  circumstances, these are three commonly experienced eating problems that often  have overlaps between them.

  • Compulsive Eating
  • Bulimia Nervosa
  • Anorexia Nervosa
  • Compulsive Eating

This is where a person finds they have irresistible urges to binge. Often  after a binge they might feel overwhelmed by feelings of self-disgust or shame.  The binge may follow a period where a rigid dieting regime has been put in  place.

Thus a diet-binge cycle may ensue. The dieter is often concerned with body  size that may fluctuate. Someone who compulsively eats may appear or feel  overweight.

Eating is often not in response to physical hunger pangs. The eater feels out  of control around food. The desire to binge seems to take over and overpower any  will to diet and lose weight.

Bulimia Nervosa

This is a cycle of overeating followed by self-induced vomiting or purging  with laxatives or fasting. The eating disorder is often kept secret. The  sufferers binge or purge alone and appear normal in body size. Those  experiencing bulimia are constantly preoccupied with food and body size. They  may have lists of high calorie or high carbohydrate foods that are  self-forbidden, these foods become binge products. The disorder is characterised  by secrecy, shame and guilt until help is sought and recovery begins.

Sufferers from bulimia may experience one or more of the following:

  • Damage to kidneys
  • Swollen salivary glands
  • Damage to stomach and oesophagus
  • Loss of body fluids
  • Muscle cramps and weakness
  • Fainting spells
  • Fits and irregular heart beats.
  • The binge seems an automatic respose to emotional pain. Often the person  feels out of control and unable to resist the desire to binge.

Anorexia Nervosa

Those who experience anorexia may be totally obsessed with food yet diet  stringently and deny themselves healthy meals. They are constantly dieting or  exercising to loose weight. The most commonly affected are young women in  education aged 15-25. Although they may appear very underweight they will feel  fat. Anorexia can be life-threatening - some women starve themselves to death.  Sufferers often feel low self-esteem and may vomit or purge themselves of food  with laxatives. Women anorexics will sometimes suffer a loss of menstrual  periods.

Sufferers may feel terribly isolated and may experience the effects of  starvation including:

  • sleep disturbance
  • reduced mental ability
  • excess hair growth on body
  • poor circulation
  • feeling excessively cold
  • fatigue
  • dizzy spells
  • thin bones leading to deformity or osteoporosis
  • stunted growth
  • digestive tract dysfunction
  • Indeed all eating disorders may incur feelings of isolation, shame, guilt  and emotional pain.

Further help

Counselling

As previously stated all eating disorders are symptomatic of emotional,  psychological and social cultural issues. In one-to-one counselling a person can  explore and learn to understand the underlying issues in a safe, confidential  environment thus breaking the experience of isolation. An individual can gain  new coping strategies conquering the driven obsession with food and body image  that seems to override all life's activities.

Groups

Being in a group for many has been a relief. Together sufferers have broken  their isolation and realised that others have had similar experiences. A group  may be the next step on from one-to-one counselling to enable the participants  to regain control over their lives.

Other contributory factors

  • Low self-esteem
  • Relationship or family problems
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Stress

The eating disorder itself is usually symptomatic of an underlying emotional  or psychological issue. The underlying issues are not necessarily unusual or  traumatic incidents but may be fairly commonly experienced problems that have  built up over a period of time.

Ten tips which may help you help yourself

  1. Buy a self-help book. Research has proved self-help books can be enormously  effective.
  2. Begin to keep a diary - write down feelings. Make your diary personal to you  - your own confidante and friend in whom you confide your thoughts. Scribble,  stick in photos, draw pictures - there are no rules about how you have to use  the space.
  3. Begin to be in touch with the feelings and thoughts around the binges. Begin  to understand your underlying emotional issues.
  4. Ask yourself what is it that you really want instead of food - is it a  response to the worry of work? Do you really want a hug, a chat with a friend?
  5. Start nurturing and pampering yourself. Set aside time in the day for your  own relaxation and leisure periods. Prioritise your needs.
  6. Dare to say yes to yourself instead of no. Learn to accept the way you are  and begin to appreciate and love yourself.
  7. Do not overly criticize or judge yourself harshly. Over zealous  self-criticism will drive the compulsion of the eating disorder.
  8. Draw a family tree to include all friends and all those living or dead.  Write down your family history noting dramatic or eventful periods of change.
  9. See if there are emerging patterns of behaviour. Look at the way you relate  to others. Do you have equal give-and-take in relationships?
  10. Be gentle on yourself. Accept the way you are. Your eating disorder has  enabled you to cope with difficult circumstances. See if you can come up with  other coping strategies which are less harmful.