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Introduction to Eating Disorders

Bridget Engel, Psy.D., edited by Kathryn Patricelli, MA

Most of us live in cultures which urges us (especially women) to improve our appearance. The messages sent by magazines, television, and other media include "buy certain clothes and products; straighten and whiten your teeth; get rid of your wrinkles; and most commonly, LOSE WEIGHT and you will be happy, admired, and loved." The ongoing debate concerning the unhealthy, stick thin models used in the fashion industry is a perfect example of how strongly held our notion of "thinness equals happiness" has become.

therapy sessionAlthough many of us would benefit from eating a bit less and exercising more in order improve our health and fitness, simply watching what you eat is NOT an eating disorder. Eating Disorders are potentially life-threatening conditions with psychological and physical effects. They are characterized by a number of abnormal and harmful eating behaviors. People with an eating disorder have unhealthy beliefs, thoughts and expectations concerning eating, weight, and body shape. Individuals with eating disorders tend to have difficulty accepting and feeling good about themselves. They tend to think of themselves as "fat" and "ugly" because of their body size and shape. They have these thoughts even when this self-judgment is seen as inaccurate and false by others around them. Identifying and defining themselves based on their perceived "fatness", people with an eating disorder tend to decide that they are unacceptable and undesirable. As a result, they feel quite insecure and inadequate, especially about their bodies. For them, controlling their eating behaviors is the logical way to become thinner.

This article is designed to provide you with more information about eating disorders, their causes, potential treatments, and strategies for prevention. This information can be helpful in determining whether you or someone you love has an eating disorder. Before we begin, though, we want to stress two important points:

First, if you (or someone you love) have an eating disorder, YOU ARE NOT ALONE! Worldwide 70 million people are estimated to have an eating disorder. Hopefully, knowing that other people have experienced what you are going through, and have gotten better with treatment, will provide you with some sense of hope.

Second, don't rely on your "willpower" to get over this condition. An eating disorder is a serious, potentially life-threatening disease. Between 6% and 20% of those with an eating disorder will literally die as a result of their disease. Seek PROFESSIONAL help for yourself or someone you love as soon as possible if you suspect there is a problem.