What is an eating disorder?

Photo by Lidye on Unsplash

Some quick facts about eating disorders:

  1. Eating disorders are a mental illness. This is a fact that most people either don’t know or don’t fully understand. An eating disorder is not a choice. It develops out of a “perfect storm” of genetic predispositions, biological factors, and social pressures. When someone has an eating disorder, their thoughts and emotions around food and their body can be significantly distorted, and this is not their fault.
  2. Of all the mental illnesses, eating disorders have the highest mortality rate. The physical impact of extreme behaviors surrounding food along with suicide rates of those suffering from eating disorders cause this to be true. In my work, I see firsthand the devastating effects of all eating disorders (not just anorexia — but we’ll get to that later).
  3. Eating disorders affect 24 million people in the U.S., both male and female, and of all ages. Surprise! Eating disorders aren’t just for the girls. They present differently in males, but are equally as dangerous. Also, 24 million people is around 7% of our population! That means that you probably know someone who is suffering from an eating disorder, even if they aren’t talking about it.
  4. Eating disorders can happen to anyone, in any body size. One of the most common misconceptions about eating disorders is that everyone who has one looks like they just came out of a concentration camp in the Holocaust. Actually, this is quite rare. All eating disorders can occur in people in larger bodies with equal severity. And in fact, the voices of those who do not understand this point can be extremely invalidating to patients with eating disorders and a huge barrier to them getting the care they need (looking at you, medical health providers).
  5. Motivation for recovering from an eating disorder is complicated. Unlike other illnesses such as cancer or heart disease, people with eating disorders don’t always want to get better. This baffled me when I first started working with this population, but as time went on I began to understand that an eating disorder is about way more than your body looking a certain way. Extreme food behaviors can actually be a coping tool for someone who feels their life is out of control in one way or another. It is scary to let go of this tool, especially if you’ve used it for a long time. Recovery means learning to deal with hard emotions (and often co-occurring mental health issues) in other ways, and this is hard.
  6. Recovery — even when someone wants it — can take a long time. I work at a facility where clients come for up to seven hours per day to eat meals with staff and attend groups with peers and meetings with their dietitian and therapist. There are higher levels of care where people live in an actual house 24/7 to have that constant support. People stay in various levels of treatment for weeks to months to years upon end. Changing deep-seated thought patterns and behaviors takes time, and it’s usually never as quick as people wish it to be.

This probably all sounds pretty defeating…

…and it can be. But I have three values when it comes to walking with people with eating disorders — faith, hope, and patience.

  • First, faith. My faith is the cornerstone for the work that I do because I believe God cares deeply about each one of these people. I believe that the power of Jesus is strong enough to make them well, and that his light can shine even in such a great darkness.
  • Second, hope. The process of recovery is usually long, and as someone giving care to these people, I must come each day with hope for them, no matter what happened yesterday. I believe that every day is a new day, and a new chance to take a step in the right direction.
  • And lastly, patience. Recovery is never linear — it has many ups and many downs. Additionally, as much as my solution-minded brain wants me to just “fix everything,” that’s not my job. I am here to love my clients and walk with them side by side, and I must be okay with the “not yet.”

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Abbie Joy Womack

Abbie Joy Womack

Ice cream lover. Dog mom. Registered dietitian. Downtown HTX city dweller.