Many people think of an eating disorder as a lifestyle decision or a diet “gone too far.” In reality, eating disorders are serious mental health conditions that can have serious, life-threatening implications if left untreated. 

Those individuals who have struggled with an eating disorder know too well that the “just eat” or “just stop eating” intervention is not helpful. They also know that it is not only about the food. An eating disorder is a complex and often chronic illness with medical, social, and emotional implications—and the underlying cause of the eating disorder lies well beyond the food relationship.

What is an eating disorder?

The most common eating disorders are anorexia nervosa (extreme restriction of food intake), bulimia nervosa (obsessive purging or intentional vomiting of food), and binge eating disorder (uncontrollable eating of large amounts of food in a short time period).

Conservative estimates suggest that approximately three percent of males (adolescent and adult males do have eating disorders) and six percent of females struggle with an eating disorder. Among adolescents, the prevalence is 14 percent among females and 6.5 percent among males.

What are the complications of an untreated eating disorder?

Eating disorders often result in serious consequences for mental and physical health, work and school productivity, and relationships with family and friends. The mortality rate for people with eating disorders is the highest of all psychiatric illnesses and more than 12 times higher than that of people without eating disorders.

Left untreated over long periods of time, anorexia and bulimia can result in heart failure, suicide, early-onset osteoporosis, amenorrhea, kidney failure, pancreatitis, and other serious issues. Binge eating disorder and compulsive overeating can lead to morbid obesity, Type II diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and other illnesses.

What are some of the signs or symptoms of an eating disorder?

Not every food-related behavior qualifies as an eating disorder. Stress-related eating and infrequent bingeing—as well as an obsession with lifestyle diets—can often be a sign of “disordered eating.” Early interventions with disordered eating patterns can avoid the slippery slope of a full-blown eating disorder.

Warning signs of an eating disorder can include:

  • Dramatic weight loss
  • Preoccupation with weight, food, calories, fat grams, and dieting
  • Refusal to eat certain foods or whole categories of foods (e.g., no carbohydrates or dairy products)
  • Anxiety about gaining weight or being “fat”
  • Denial of hunger and/or development of food rituals
  • Excessive and/or rigid exercise regimen

A useful screening tool used by healthcare providers is known as the S.C.O.F.F. questionnaire. While the S.C.O.F.F. screening tool is not a diagnostic tool, it is helpful in identifying those at risk for anorexia or bulimia and can identify the need to contact a treatment professional for a more detailed assessment.

What types of treatment are there for an eating disorder?

Recovering from an eating disorder is not a matter of simply choosing to eat healthily. Eating disorders are complex illnesses that affect perceptions of body image, as well as behaviors, and they are not easy to change. Treatment of these disorders works to change these thoughts and behaviors, but these changes do not happen immediately and take time. 

The Department of Health and Human Services recommends evidence-based treatment from a coordinated treatment team that specializes in eating disorders treatment. Treatment includes medical stabilization, nutritional rehabilitation, pharmacotherapy, and psychosocial treatment.

Because of the unique needs and complexities of treatment for an eating disorder, ask your healthcare providers if they have expertise on treatment of eating disorders. In addition, look for treatment providers that are Certified Eating Disorder Specialists (CEDS) or Certified Eating Disorder Registered Dietitians (CEDRD).

Seeking help for an eating disorder is often a difficult step to take. It is important to know that help is available and full recovery is possible.

Dr. Teri McCann serves as the Founder and Clinical Director of Fairhaven Treatment Center for Eating Disorders in Cordova. McCann has specialized in the treatment of eating disorders, trauma, and attachment disorders for more than 30 years and earned her Certified Eating Disorder Specialist designation from the International Association of Eating Disorders Professionals (IAEDP) Foundation. Fairhaven has both a Residential and Outpatient Facility, offering residential, PHP, IOP, individual services and transitional living to older adolescent and adult females recovering from the depths of eating disorders and trauma. This certification allows McCann to offer patients the assurance and confidence that the highest standards of care will be provided throughout all stages of treatment.