Eating Problems and Disorders

This purpose of this web page is to provide general information on eating related issues, but is not meant to replace consultation with a mental health professional. If you are concerned about the eating patterns in your own life, or that of another, please feel free to contact our office to set up an appointment.

We live in a society that encourages overindulgence in just about anything that can be consumed, including food. At the same time, we place an emphasis on being thin and fit. This double message causes many of us to have conflicts about food and body image.

Many of us set very high standards for ourselves which we can’t always achieve. For some people, abusive eating patterns begin in response to feelings of anxiety, frustration or disappointment. Although these eating patterns seem to offer a temporary solution, they lead to more pressures in the long run.

Not everyone who goes on a diet or eats too much pizza on Friday night has an eating disorder. Some experts describe a continuum of eating behaviors with normal eating patterns at one end and severe eating disorders on the other end. People frequently move back and forth along this continuum.

The commonly recognized eating disorders are:

  • Anorexia nervosa
  • Bulimia
  • Chronic dieting
  • Compulsive overeating

Why Can’t People With Eating Disorders Just Stop?

People develop problem eating patterns for a variety of reasons:

  • Fear of weight gain
  • Response to family problems
  • Anxieties about sexuality
  • Pressures to succeed; fear of failure

At first, the eating behavior might provide a feeling of comfort, solace or control. Binging numbs distressing feelings. Purging might begin as a way to relieve physical discomfort after a binge, or as a way to avoid weight gain. Eventually it provides a sense of control. In time, the eating behavior can become addictive with the accompanying feelings of loss of control, shame, isolation and low self-esteem.

How Do I Recognize That Someone Has an Eating Disorder?

Some possible signs of eating disorders are:

  • Frequent changes in and constant talking about weight
  • Preoccupation with food, nutrition or dieting
  • Severe weight loss or dramatic weight fluctuations
  • Face looks pale, hair is limp
  • Wears layers of clothing or baggy, loose fitting clothes
  • Complains frequently of the cold
  • Faints, blacks out, has dizzy spells, difficulty concentrating
  • Seems sad, angry, irritable
  • Isolates self
  • Makes frequent trips to the bathroom
  • Takes long, frequent showers
  • Skips meals, cuts food into small pieces, or eats large quantities of food
  • Steals food or money

What Will Happen If the Eating Disorder Continues?

Some medical/psychological consequences of eating disorders are:

  • Loss of menstruation
  • Excessive constipation
  • Loss of head hair
  • Growth of fine body hair
  • Swollen and/or infected salivary glands
  • Bursting blood vessels in the eyes
  • Damaged teeth and gums
  • Dehydration and kidney failure
  • Electrolyte imbalance leading to heart problems
  • Insomnia
  • Low self-esteem
  • Guilt
  • Depression and loneliness
  • Death

How Do I Help?

Be direct:

Clearly stated, honest concern is the best approach. If the person’s behavior directly affects you (you hear them vomiting, they’ve stolen food or money, etc.), tell them about it in an objective, nonjudgmental way. Use “I” messages. For example, “I care about the fact that you…” stay focused on what you’ve observed and how you feel about it. Don’t attack or tell the person what’s “wrong” with them.

Listen carefully:

You want to encourage discussion of what they are feeling and doing. Careful listening involves asking questions, using attentive body language, and paraphrasing the speaker’s words to show you understand them.

Keep an open mind:

You want to explore the possibility that the person has an eating problem in a way that minimizes defensiveness. Think about your own attitudes towards food, body image and eating disorders. Be careful not to blame, label or judge. Learning about eating disorders is another way to keep an open mind.

Assist with referral:

The person with an eating disorder might feel isolated, hopeless or trapped. Help give them hope. Encourage them to get professional help. If necessary, gather information about local resources and facilitate making an appointment.

Be prepared for denial:

The person may not be ready to hear your concern or to admit they have a problem. Presenting them with specific examples of their problem eating behavior sometimes helps to break through denial, but not always. Accept the fact that you may not see immediate results of your intervention. Consult with a professional if you have any concerns about the person’s physical safety.

When A Family Member Develops An Eating Problem:

If someone in your family has an eating problem it should be recognized that it is a symptom that something is wrong… not just with the individual but possibly with the family. It may be that the rules and patterns that have been established to keep the family working as a system are not working for the individual with the eating problem. The eating problem is a call for change. It may also be an expression of anger, if anger and the show of emotions are not accepted family norms. To help a person who has an eating problem within the family context, all members of the family might try reevaluating their roles, their rules and patterns of communication. Family therapy may be helpful to accomplish this.

If you would like more information, assistance or referrals regarding an eating disorder, call the Employee Assistance Office at 263-2987.

The above information was adapted from the University of Massachusetts Faculty and Staff Assistance Program. We wish to thank them for permission to use this material.