Frequently Asked Questions About Eating Disorders

What is an eating disorder?

A: Eating disorders are serious, but treatable, illnesses with medical and psychiatric aspects. The eating disorders most commonly known to the public are anorexia and bulimia. There are also other eating disorders, such as binge-eating disorder (BED), which is usually associated with obesity. People with an eating disorder typically become obsessed with food, body image, and weight. The disorders can become very serious, chronic, and sometimes even life-threatening if not recognized and treated appropriately. Treatment requires a multidisciplinary approach by an experienced team of specialists.

Who struggles with eating disorders?

A: Males and females of virtually any age (including as young as 7 or 8 years old) can struggle with an eating disorder. While it’s true that eating disorders are more commonly diagnosed in females than males and more often during adolescence and early adulthood than older ages, many cases are also being recognized in males and in women in their 30s, 40s and 50s. Eating disorders affect people from all backgrounds, Anorexia nervosa ranks as the 3rd most common chronic illness among adoles­cent U.S. females. Recent studies suggest that up to 7% of U.S. females have had bulimia at some time in their life. At any given time an estimated 5% of the U.S. population has undiagnosed bulimia. Current findings suggest that binge-eating disorder affects 0.7% to 4% of the general population.

I’m noticing some changes in the weight/eating habits/exercise habits of a friend, but I’m not sure if it’s an eating disorder. How can I tell?

A: Unless you are a physician, you can’t make a diagnosis, but you can refer your friend or loved on to appropriate resources that might help. Keep in mind, however, that denial is often a big part of eating disorder behavior and this person may be unreceptive to the suggestion that anything is wrong.

What if I say the wrong thing and make it worse?

A: Family and friends often express concern about saying the wrong thing and making an eating disorder worse. The causes and contributing factors of eating disorders are complicated. Just as it is unlikely that a person can say something to make the eating disorder significantly better, it is also unlikely that someone can say something to make the disorder worse. If you or your fried or loved one needs the guidance of an expert, don’t wait – call Wilkins Center today at 203.531.1909.

Are the issues different with males with an eating disorder? What do I say?

A: Some aspects may be different in males. Important issues to consider when talking to or supporting a male who may have an eating disorder include the following:
Stigma. Eating disorders are promoted predominantly as a female concern. Males may feel a greater sense of shame or embarrassment. It may be even more important not to mention the term “eating disorder” in the discussion, but instead focus on the specific behaviors you have noticed that are concerning. Keep the conversation brief and tell him what you’ve observed directly and why it worries you. Eating disorder behavior presents differently in males. Although the emotional and physical consequences of eating disorders are similar for both sexes, males are more likely to focus on muscle gain, while females are more likely to focus on weight loss.

How can I distinguish between a child or teen who has an eating disorder and one who is dissatisfied with his or her body?

A: It is important to carefully observe children and teens who express dissatisfaction with their body. body image dissatisfaction among adolescents, especially when coupled with depression, puts teens at high risk of developing an eating disorder.

Can eating disorders be cured?

A: Many people with eating disorders who are treated early and appropriately can achieve a full and long-term recovery, or cure. Among patients whose symptoms improve—even if the symptoms are not totally gone—the burden of the illness can diminish a lot. This can open the way for healthier relationships with food and improve quality of life so that patients feel happier and more productive. Treatment must be tailored to the individual patient, and most treatment plans involve a combination of psycho­therapy, nutritional support, and possibly even medication. The biggest step towards recovery is getting the person with the eating disorder to admit it and accept help.

If someone I know intentionally vomits after meals, but not all the time, should I be concerned?

A: Yes. Anyone who feels the need to either starve or purge the food they’ve eaten in order to feel better has unhealthy attitudes about their physical appearance, body image and food, or has underlying psychological issues. This doesn’t necessarily mean the person has a diagnosable eating disorder, but it is important to express your concern about the behavior.

I know someone who exercises every day up to 3 or 4 hours a day. Is this considered to be a sign of an eating disorder?

A: Perhaps. If the person is not training for a rigorous athletic event (like the Olympics) and if the compulsion is driven by a desire to lose weight, despite being within a normal weight range, or if the compulsion is driven by guilt due to binging, then, yes, the compulsion to exercise is a dimension of an eating disorder. If you know the person well, talk to him/her about the reasons he or she exercises this much. If you are concerned about weight or the rationale behind the excessive exercise, try to put the person in touch with information and resources that can help.

What’s the difference between overeating and binge eating? Is attendance at a Commercial Diet Program sufficient to treat binge eating?

A: Most people overeat now and then, but binge eating is distin­guished by eating an amount of food within a specified time that is larger than the amount that most people would consume during a similar time and circumstance, and feeling out of control over eating during the binge. Because programs like Weight Watchers often include a self monitoring component, such as detailing daily eating patterns, they can be helpful in decreasing food consumption. However, they may be insufficient in addressing the underlying emotional or psychological compo­nents of an eating disorder and the consequences of binges.

Can’t people who have anorexia see that they are too thin?

A: People with anorexia usually see themselves in a distorted way, feeling and even seeing fat despite being at a very low weight. They may realize that friends and family see them differently. Others with anorexia are aware that they are underweight, but are unable to change it.

Do people who are obese have an eating disorder?

A: Most people who are obese have a genetic, biologic and lifestyle problem associated with modern society. Others who are obese have binge eating disorder, or can sometimes have other psychological problems like depression. Wilkins Center brings you specialized expertise in the treatment of binge eating and mood disorders, as well as weight loss.