Eating and food issues comprise a range of behaviors, such as overeating or under-eating, that may or may not meet diagnostic criteria for an eating disorder. A true eating disorder occurs when one’s relationship to food spirals out of control, as is the case with anorexia nervosa, when a severe restriction of food results in dramatic weight loss, health complications, and even death, if left untreated. Eating issues generally occur because people develop complicated relationships with food or their bodies that might result in compulsive exercising and overeating or under-eating, rather than allowing appetite and hunger to dictate one’s eating cycles.
Disordered eating is a complicated matter; some people experience eating and food issues that are problematic or unhealthy that do not meet the specific criteria for one of the six eating disorders as outlined in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM).
The six specific types of eating disorders listed in the DSM-5 are as follows:
When an eating or feeding behavior does not fall into one of the six main types, but does demonstrate psychological distress and impairment, the behavior may be classified as Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder (OSFED). Examples include night eating syndrome, atypical anorexia nervosa, purging, and low frequency bulimia or binge eating. In addition, the DSM-5 recognizes Unspecified Feeding or Eating Disorders (UFED) to account for those who struggle with eating and food issues in ways that do not meet criteria for any of the specific types of eating disorders.
Eating and food issues can develop from a wide range of psychological, biological, social, or external factors, and they affect people of all ages, male or female, although adolescents and young women develop eating disorders at higher rates than other groups.
While cultural attitudes about weight and body size are not ultimately responsible for the origins of eating disorders, they certainly provide a fertile environment for complicated issues with food and body image to flourish. In fact, in a culture that glorifies ultra-thin women and fixates on weight, body-mass index (BMI), and the latest diet trend, a disordered relationship with food, exercise, and one’s body can masquerade as “healthy.” People develop beliefs based on these shared cultural values that thinness makes a person desirable and worthy, and fat leaves a person undesirable and unworthy. Thus, food and eating issues are ultimately expressions of one’s sense of self and self-worth.
People who compulsively starve themselves, purge, eat to excess, or exercise unnecessarily may do so out of feelings of anxiety, inadequacy, competitiveness, needing to please others, or low self-esteem. They may feel pressure to succeed and achieve perfection, particularly for those who work as models, dancers, actors, or athletes. Adolescents may be more susceptible to developing issues with food due to the hormonal, physical, and neural changes they experience; and sometimes stressful events, trauma, or troubled relationships can lead a person to develop an unhealthy relationship with food. A family history of eating disorders or other mental health conditions may also contribute to a person’s potential for disordered eating.
Typically, recovery from disordered eating is a long and arduous process. Some therapies are relatively short term, requiring approximately four months, but when the process lasts for years, many clients struggle with the motivation and energy required to commit to the work involved. It is important to recognize that recovery involves not simply attaining the absence of disordered thoughts and behaviors about food and body, but recovering one’s self—developing a sense of authentic identity, and cultivating self-acceptance and reverence for one’s self.
Many different types of psychotherapy have demonstrated effectiveness in treating eating and food issues, including interpersonal psychotherapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, family therapy, and dialectical behavior therapy. In addition, many types of group therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), psychodynamic therapies, and feminist therapies show promise in helping those who want to improve their relationship with food and their bodies. When youth experience problems with food and eating, it is imperative to include parents in the treatment process.
According to Deborah Klinger, MA, LMFT, CEDS, “Psychotherapists who treat eating disorders in outpatient practice usually recognize the importance of adjunctive therapies and utilize resources such as dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) skills groups, group therapy, expressive arts therapies, yoga therapy, specialty yoga classes, and self-help programs such as Eating Disorders Anonymous.” Generally, food is the most important medicine and psychotherapy the best treatment, although sometimes medications are employed as needed to help control urges and stabilize mood.
In some cases, outpatient therapy alone is insufficient to treat the complexity of an eating disorder. When a higher level of care or a more intensive treatment program is required, full-immersion treatment centers are available in the form of residential treatment centers or inpatient treatment in a hospital, for which a person resides in a treatment program facility for one month or longer. Other less intensive options include intensive outpatient, which requires participation in a day treatment center, or partial hospitalization, for which a person attends a hospital treatment program during the day.
Residential treatment centers often incorporate complementary modalities, such as yoga or tai chi, and experiential practices, such as equine-assisted therapy or art therapy into their treatment programs. Some residential treatment centers are modeled after the 12-step approach that originated with the Alcoholics Anonymous programs, and others use specific models of psychotherapy in their treatment protocol, like Internal Family Systems (IFS).
Anorexia and bulimia nervosa and binge eating are particularly dangerous eating disorders. Anorexia can lead to death from malnutrition or from refeeding syndrome, in which a sudden increase in nutrients causes an electrolyte imbalance that results in respiratory or cardiac arrest. The repeated vomiting associated with bulimia can cause esophageal rupture or electrolyte imbalances that may damage the heart, and binge eating can result in long-term health issues, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, or diabetes, among others.
Certified Eating Disorders Specialist Deborah Klinger, MA, LMFT, advises, “Patients whose disordered relationship with food is putting them in medical danger should have a treatment team that includes a primary care physician, a psychiatrist for overseeing medication, and a dietician who is skilled in treating eating disorders, as well as a psychotherapist.”
Cathy, a 25-year-old second-year medical student, came to therapy because some fellow students expressed concerns about Cathy’s extreme weight loss and increasing lack of participation in social events. Cathy maintains that she is simply stressed out about school, putting grades ahead of socializing. She has recently lost about 15 pounds, and at 5’4” and 96 pounds, her BMI is 16.5. She is menstruating regularly, though very lightly, and has been on birth control pills for the last four years. Further questioning reveals that Cathy still has an intense fear of becoming “the fat kid that no one likes,” after having been teased for being chubby in middle school. As a teenager, she induced vomiting after meals for a few years, and more recently she has been cutting back on her food portions, eliminating fats from her diet, and avoiding social events that include food, because she doesn’t “know what’s in it.” In addition to referring her to a physician for medical monitoring and a dietician for help devising an appropriate meal plan, Cathy’s therapist helps Cathy view anorexia as an unwelcome guest who has taken over Cathy’s brain. She helps Cathy challenge the distorted, anorexia-driven thinking about her body’s needs for nutrients and energy, and as Cathy’s eating improves and her brain is better nourished, she begins to acknowledge her tremendous fear of being less than perfect that stems in part from her parents’ intense focus on her academic achievements, rather than her inner emotional experiences. Cathy learned to ignore her emotional needs after her parents divorced in an effort to please them, as they seemed happier when she did well in school. She also wanted to make sure that wasn’t a burden or an unhappy reminder of their failed marriage. The therapist helps Cathy access her feeling and learn to manage painful emotions rather than starving them away, and Cathy becomes more comfortable in her body.
Yvonne, 38, is an elementary school teacher who has been overweight since childhood. She has tried innumerable diets, repeatedly losing weight and gaining it back, and she berates herself for being “a fat pig.” Ashamed of her lack of willpower, Yvonne soothed herself with food when her now-former husband made nasty remarks about her weight. After such a binge, she experienced remorse and vowed to be strong and disciplined from then on. She enters therapy because she feels defeated by her lack of commitment to herself, and wonders if she has a problem with emotional eating, although she fears this might just be an excuse for her weaknesses. Yvonne’s therapist explains the relationship between painful emotional states and the misuse of food as an antidote and provides Yvonne with tools for tuning into her body’s hunger and satiety signals to dictate her eating, rather than following a weight-loss plan. At the same time, the therapist teaches Yvonne to recognize the urge to overeat as a sign of emotional distress left unacknowledged. Through therapy, Yvonne recognizes the effects of her father’s alcoholism on her family and herself—she had unknowingly learned from her father to stuff painful feelings down. Yvonne developed the habit of reaching for food to comfort herself when her father was drunk and arguing with her mother, who was timid and did not argue back. As Yvonne’s eating became more in tune with her body’s needs and she developed greater emotional self-care skills, her body dropped much of the excess weight.
Last updated: 02-26-2014
Eating and Food Issues Articles