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Questions & Answers About Eating Disorders

Q. What exactly are Eating Disorders? What are the causes? How are they treated?

Eating disorders are serious illnesses. The 3 main eating disorders are Anorexia Nervosa (anorexia), Bulimia Nervosa (bulimia) and Binge Eating Disorder (binge eating).

The exact causes of eating disorders remain unknown, although it seems likely that the underlying issues are psychological. The behavorial problems associated with these eating disorders, such as dietary habits, bingeing, purging and weight loss are symptoms not causes. These eating disorders require urgent professional medical care and attention.

Because these eating disorders involve both psychological and dietary issues, treatment involves a combination of medical experts, family and support groups.

For example, a psychologist or psychiatrist using specific diagnostic skills and tools should be involved to help identify the root causes of the eating disorder concerned (anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating) and help the anorectic, bulimic or binge-eater manage their condition.

At the same time, doctors and dietary experts should provide the essential clinical care and support.

Successful treatment of anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating also involves the family. Their support for the anorexic, bulimic or binge-eater is crucial.

Finally, due to the nature, complexity and social dimension of eating disorders, treatment also involves the use of support groups where sufferers and their families may receive and share advice on eating disorders, their causes, symptoms and treatment.

Treatment occurs at home or in the hospital, depending on the severity of the medical symptoms of the eating disorder. If the sufferer’s weight or blood electrolytes (sodium and potassium in particular) are life threatening, she/he may be hospitalized and given intravenous fluids to stabilize and correct levels.

This may be followed by an eating-disorder-treatment-plan involving moderate weight gain goals for anorectics, or a reduction in binge / purging / vomiting by bulimics. The person’s family will be involved in treatment. A Registered Dietitian will prescribe the correct medical nutrition therapy required to achieve the correct weight and/or eating behavior.

The length of treatment for someone suffering from anorexia, bulimia or binge eating varies according to how long the anorexic / bulimic / binge eater has had their abnormal eating patterns. Generally, the longer an eating disorder has existed, the longer the treatment. Treatment may last anything between three months and two years.

Eating disorders can gain a firm grip on the individual sufferer. Relapses into previous abnormal eating patterns are not uncommon and may prolong treatment.

Q. Can eating disorders be prevented? Is there a cure?

There is no known prevention for eating disorders, like anorexia, bulimia or binge-eating.

Due to the complexity of the underlying root causes of eating disorders, there is no guaranteed cure although success rates continue to improve. Nevertheless, about 10 per cent of eating disorder cases remain impervious to treatment, sometimes with fatal results.

Q. What’s the best way to handle someone with an eating disorder?

The immediate goal is to seek professional help. Eating disorders are serious illnesses that require specialist clinical, dietary and psychological care and support. Do not delay.

The best practical approach to someone whom you think is suffering from anorexia, bulimia or binge eating is to say: “You don’t look healthy. Would you like me to go with you to see a doctor?”

If you suspect anorexia, do not tell them they look too thin. Focus on their health.
If you suspect binge eating, do not criticize their weight or dietary habits. Focus on health.

If the person is under 18 years of age, a parent can bring her/him in for treatment. If the person is over 18, this is not possible, but you should definitely encourage them to seek help. If the anorectic or bulimic is at risk from suicide, bring them in for mental health treatment immediately. For support reasons, you may decide to accompany the anorectic / bulimic when they visit a psychologist, but don’t try to solve their problems for them. It’s simply not possible.

Q. I think I may have an eating disorder. What should I do?

First of all, please realize that you are not alone. A huge number of other people have similar problems. So, no matter how you think about your body, or what dietary problems you have, it’s easy to get help. However, it is very important to act and seek such help. The sooner you act, the easier the cure.

If you are in school, talk with your parents or speak in private with a school counsellor. If you are in college, visit your campus health service and ask to be referred to someone with experience of eating disorders.

Alternatively, check your local phone book for local support groups.

Finally, check out the eating disorder links on the Links Page of this web site.

Please act now. You can do it!

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