What’s an Eating Disorder?

For people that struggle with eating disorders, the most difficult thing about recovery is the fact that every single day, several times per day, people that struggle must encounter the thing with which they are struggling: food. So, what are eating disorders? Eating disorders come in all varieties of shapes, sizes, fears, anxieties, and obsessions. At their core, eating disorders are disruptions in typical eating behaviors and patterns. At Virtue Recovery Center we want to acknowledge and aid in the recovery from all eating disorders. Some typical eating disorder behaviors (EDBs) are restricting, binging, and purging. Although these behaviors are often seen in terms of “willpower,” (having the “willpower” not to eat or having too little “willpower” resulting in overeating) we know that these behaviors are about coping. Eating disorders have been described as ways of coping with “various areas of life, including self-esteem, emotional self-regulation, existential fears of development, shame, trauma, aversive experiences, societal norms, and relationship conflicts,” (Mehler and Andersen, 2022).

What is Restriction?

Restriction involves limiting the amount of food you eat per day. The staff here at Virtue Recovery Center have seen many forms that restriction can take. For some, it may involve counting calories. Some people that restrict their food will spend a significant amount of time each day looking at food labels and calculating how many calories they are eating. Some people set irrational limits on the number of calories they consume. They may decide that they should only be eating 1000, 500, or 200 calories per day. However, doing so can have significant effects on a person’s ability to function normally physically, mentally, and emotionally. There are a variety of behaviors that people use in order to restrict food. This may include: skipping meals, having very small meals, cutting out particular foods (like ice cream, beef, fish, milk, pork, cookies, chips, or candy), or even cutting out entire food groups (for example, grains, sweets, dairy, or proteins). Friends and family of people struggling with eating disorders may notice that their loved ones will cancel plans involving food, will say they just aren’t hungry, will eat small portions, will say they are going to eat later, will say they have already eaten, will talk about food often, will prepare food for others, but most often you will not see your loved one eat. You may notice that your loved one is losing weight (maybe you even complimented them about it) at a rapid or frightening pace. Regardless, these behaviors take a significant toll on the person enacting them as that individual is putting so much time and energy into worrying and thinking about food.

What is binging?

Binging consists of eating large quantities of food, larger than one may eat in a typical day, in a single sitting. Binge foods often differ from person to person, and the staff at Virtue Recovery have heard countless stories of people binging on their foods of choice. Some people will stop at multiple fast food restaurants and eat their foods on their way home from work. Others will go on shopping trips to one or multiple stores to pick up all of their favorite foods. Others still will notice all the foods that they have at home, intended to last for a week or more, and feel unable to stop themselves from eating. However, in most cases the end result is the same. Most often the person who has engaged in the binge will feel full of shame about the behavior that they have engaged in. Often they will question why they are engaging in the behavior and what is wrong with them that they cannot stop. We at Virtue Recovery Center know that this is not an issue of “will power” or self control. We understand that these behaviors are just ways of coping. Friends and family of people that are struggling with these behaviors may notice food wrappers in the trash that were hidden, food going missing in the home without explanation, or significant amounts of money spent on food. Often the people that engage in binging behaviors feel that they need to hide these behaviors from their loved ones, which can be an extremely lonely and shameful experience.

What is Purging?

Finally, purging behaviors are any kinds of behaviors that are intended to compensate for eating. Purging can come in many forms. Often people think about self-induced vomiting as purging. However, it can also take the form of excessive exercise. Some patients will spend hours of the day at the gym and at home exercising and trying to burn calories. Purging can also take the form of excessive laxative or diuretic use. Some individuals suffering from eating disorders can use laxatives many times per day in order to purge their bodies of calories or food. Family and friends may notice loved ones disappearing after meals, spending excessive time in the bathroom, sustaining injuries from over-exercise, or having a difficult time remaining still. Again, these behaviors are often exhausting for the individuals experiencing them.

Virtue Recovery Center can help

Another answer to the question “what are eating disorders?” is that they are tormenting, abusive, neglectful, and harmful voices that exist in people’s minds that, sometimes slowly and sometimes quickly, destroy lives. We at Virtue Recovery Center want to help you get your life or the life of your loved one, back. If you recognize any of these unhealthy behavior/thought patterns in yourself, Virtue Recovery Center is a warm and understanding place to seek help. If you recognize any of these behaviors in a loved one, it may be time to have a life-saving conversation.

Mehler, P. S. and Andersen, A. E. (2022). Eating disorders: A comprehensive guide to medical care and complications. Johns Hopkins University Press.