Eating disorders: An expert explains

eating disorders - how is a nutrition professional involved in recovery?

Eating Disorders Awareness Week is 27th February to 5th March and this year, the aim is to encourage those suffering to speak up, be brave and seek help as early as possible.

What are eating disorders?

Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses and can affect a person in many ways. It is thought that, in the UK alone, more than 725,000 men and women are affected by some form of disordered eating. The most common problems are anorexia nervosa, binge-eating disorder and bulimia nervosa.

An eating disorder will affect a person physically, emotionally and socially. While anyone can develop a problem, regardless of age or gender, younger women aged 12 to 20 are more likely to be affected.

Anorexia nervosa can cause a person to feel overweight, even if they are considerably underweight. They will have a strong need to lose weight, which can lead to starvation and/or exercising excessively.

Binge-eating disorder sees a person lose control – they may binge excessively or overeat regularly. Also called compulsive eating, a person may turn to food for emotional support or as a way of masking difficult feelings.

Bulimia can affect a person’s relationship with food. Sufferers can fall into the binge-purge cycle, purging through vomiting, excessive exercise or laxative use.

Knowing you need help

If you are experiencing an eating problem, the thought of talking about it can be daunting. If you know you have a problem, you may feel embarrassed, ashamed and may not know who to turn to. How can anyone understand what you’re going through? This feeling can make reaching out difficult and the fear of recovery and weight gain can only pull you back. But it’s important to remember that people care about you and there is a way out.

The first step is reaching out. If you’re not comfortable talking to friends or family, there are other options. Consider talking to your doctor. If you are diagnosed with an eating disorder, your GP will most likely refer you to a specialist team, including nurses, psychologists, counsellors and nutrition professionals, who are experienced in the field and understand how you feel.

What role does a nutrition professional play in supporting a person’s recovery?

We ask nutritional therapist and founder of Wholeself Nutrition, Maria Rigopoulou to explain how a nutrition professional can support you during recovery.

Nutrition therapy is an essential part of any ED treatment and recovery process. It assists the ED patient to:

  • Eat enough to meet daily body needs
  • Establish a balanced relationship with food and oneself
  • Learn how to listen and trust body signals to determine hunger and fullness

However, the main characteristic of all eating disorders (EDs) is an unhealthy focus on food. Usually, people with an eating disorder have an extensive knowledge of food and nutrition which is applied in ways that rather harm than benefit their health.

Some of the ED characteristic behaviours are:

  • Chronic or severe dieting
  • Eliminating specific food items or entire food groups or categories with no reason
  • Obsessive calorie counting, reading of nutrition labels or measuring and weighing of foods
  • Labelling foods as good vs. bad, clean vs. dirty, safe vs. unsafe
  • Difficulty eating around other people
  • Extreme difficulty making decisions about food, i.e. when ordering off of a menu or while meal-planning.

Due to such distorted thoughts and ideas, ED individuals may resist nutrition advice.

A nutrition expert will help them shift any doubts and pass that barrier. With a compassionate but firm approach, he/she will develop a trusting relationship with them so they can effectively assist them to deal with their challenges. Personalised meal plans and schedules addressing each one’s special needs are then used to provide further support and the structure that they are missing in their daily routine while regular contact and “check-ins” are essential for compliance. Only this well-balanced expert approach will eventually lead towards more mindful and intuitive eating, restore health and ensure a full recovery.   

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Ellen Hoggard

Written by Ellen Hoggard

Ellen is the Content Manager for Memiah and writer for Nutritionist Resource and Happiful magazine.
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