Understanding Eating Disorders with Brennen Joseph NCC

October 21, 2021

Understanding Eating Disorders with Brennen Joseph NCC

Understanding Eating Disorders

From our first day on earth, we learn the importance food has in our lives. Without it, we can’t survive. Food is at the heart of how we plan our day, socialize, entertain, and share experiences. What and how we eat can also be a big part of our identity, whether we eat meat, are vegetarian or vegan, eat healthy, have keto or kosher diets. With so much of our lives revolving around food, it’s not hard to understand why so many people want to control their food intake and hunger.

What people have trouble understanding is how something so basic becomes a major disorder. “An eating disorder,” says JF&CS therapist Brennen Joseph, “is actually more of a pattern of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors around food than it is about the food itself.” As Brennen describes, it has more to do with how a person sees themselves and the world around them. “For individuals with disordered eating patterns or an eating disorder, food is a way to feel in control of their lives.”

Eating disorders aren’t a choice. They are a mental and physical illness that can affect any gender, race, age, ethnicity, and economic class. They are harmful. They can be destructive. However, they are treatable.

Types of Eating Disorders

“Many people connect eating disorders with addiction,” says Brennen. “As with any addiction, an eating disorder often begins as a harmless habit that soon spirals out of control.” In a study published by the National Institutes of Health, people with eating disorders like anorexia were shown to often act similarly to those with substance abuse issues. Both will narrow their behavior in such a way so that their illness interferes with a healthy life. With both, their concentration on their substance, whether alcohol, drugs or food, can consume them.

“The behaviors of eating disorders are more measurable although the underlying thoughts and feelings tend to be individualized,” says Brennen. “But typically, the person suffering from an eating disorder is struggling to feel in control of something in their life.” According to The Anxiety & Depression Association of America, people do this in several ways:

Anorexia Nervosa sufferers will see themselves as overweight even when dangerously thin. They experience cyclical thoughts related to their weight and body image lending to restrictive eating patterns to reduce calories or find other ways of controlling their weight, such as excessive exercise.

Binge Eating Disorder (BED) is where a person eats large quantities of food with an inability to stop themself. They then feel shame or distress which often leads to another cycle of binge eating.

Bulimia Nervosa (BN) also involves a cycle of binge eating, followed by a cycle of purging through vomiting, excessive exercise, or other behaviors to counteract the binge eating. People that suffer from this often have body dysmorphia - a distorted view of their body weight and shape.

Even seemingly healthy eaters can take things to extreme. Orthorexia is having such a focus on eating healthy that it can cause malnutrition and disruption of a person’s life and it becomes unhealthy.

Signs and symptoms

The symptoms to watch for can differ greatly depending on the person and their eating disorder, but some common signs include:

  • Weight fluctuations. Weight loss isn’t always a symptom.
  • A fear or obsession with weight or constantly getting on a scale.
  • Always thinking about food, calories, dieting, exercise, weight, etc.
  • Always going to the restroom during or after eating.
  • Eating in secret, cutting out food groups, moving food around the plate without eating.
  • Withdrawal from friends, family, and social activities.
  • Dizziness, fatigue, dehydration.
  • Having a distorted image of the body.
  • Gastrointestinal issues.
  • Bradycardia (slow heart rate).
  • No or low menstrual flow.

What can friends and family do to help

“Eating disorders are a form of unintended self-harm,” says Brennen. “These individuals need a way to cope and find peace within themselves.” So how can family and friends help these people?

“It’s like drug addiction and alcoholism. It’s a very sensitive topic for the individual unless they’re ready to hear it,” says Brennen. “The biggest thing is sharing love and affirmation with that person and showing them that their worth is not based on their physical appearance but who they are inside. Be aware of their feelings but still approach them and ask if they’re okay. You can say, ‘I’ve noticed you seem to be having a hard time.’ ‘I’m here to talk if you want to talk. I’m here to support you.’ Most importantly, don’t be judgmental.”

There are also resources available for individuals with eating disorders. The National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) has a crisis line, text line and online chat schedules. Their website is also full of educational content and useful suggestions.

If parents notice that their child isn’t eating or binging, they will need to bring it up. Brennen says, “It doesn’t have to be an intervention, but they should approach their child and just say, ‘we notice you’re not eating your dinners. What’s going on?’ If they can’t explain or verbalize what’s going on with them, another option is to find a professional for support and assistance.”

Finding a therapist or doctor that understands eating disorders is best. “I’ve seen doctors who really understand triggers and complexities of eating disorders. Doctors who don’t understand it may unintentionally say something that will trigger worse behavior,” says Brennen. “But there are experts out there and people need to know that they aren’t alone.”

If you need help, call JF&CS clinical intake. 770-677-9474. JF&CS professionals can help pair you with a therapist that understands and can help.

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