Helping Those With Eating Disorders

Troy Todd, Ph.D., BCN

Eating disorders can be a destructive and frustrating disorder for those who suffer with them, as well as their friends and family. There are several forms of eating disorders: Anorexia Nervosa where the person restricts food intake, has an intense fear of gaining weight, and an inaccurate perception of body weight or body condition. In Bulimia Nervosa, a person engages in recurrent episodes of binge eating and inappropriate compensatory behaviors in order to prevent weight gain (such as self induced vomiting, misuse of laxatives or diuretics, fasting, or excessive exercise), while unduly basing their self evaluation on body weight and shape. With Binge-Eating Disorder, a person engages in recurrent episodes of binge eating where they have a sense of a lack of control over their eating during the episode, and have marked distress about binge eating, but they do not engage in inappropriate compensatory behavior.

Eating disorders can develop early in life, and can persist into adulthood. They tend to be observed more in women than men. They can be be a reaction to a chronic sense of a lack of control in their lives or negative feelings about themselves. Eating disorders are one of the many dysfunctional ways people react to chronic emotional distress.

Eating disorders are formed by long processes of habit and therefore take time and effort to correct. Most of this effort must come from the person suffering with the disorder. However, those in the person’s life can assist the sufferer by helping to improve the emotional atmosphere of the person’s life. This can be difficult to do because a person’s perception of their environment is what affects them, and this can be different from how the environment is perceived by others. To help a person with an eating disorder, spend some time trying to comprehend their life from their perspective. Even if it seems to you that everything in their life is in good order and they are provided with everything they need, see if there is any possible way they could perceive they do not have charge of their life or that there is too much negative emotion in it. Then try and formulate what changes, from their perspective, would significantly impact their experience. Once you have an understanding of this, determine what aspects you control. Then, in ways that work for you, seek to modify those aspects so as to provide a better environment for the person suffering from the eating disorder.

Any changes you are able to make will need to be sustained for a considerable period of time, in order to be effective in their improvement. When a person has an environment that is supportive to eliminating their disorder, there will still be periods of improvement followed by periods of falling back into the disorder. However, if the better environment is maintained through these cycles, the person can eventually be successful in eliminating the disorder.