How Eating Disorders Affect Mental Health

Eating is absolutely essential for survival. We all know that food is one of our most basic needs. It powers our muscles, nerves, and systems. No matter how complicated our relationships with food may be, we literally cannot live without it.

Importantly, food fuels our brains. When we struggle to improve our lives or disrupt negative thought patterns, our brains must be properly fueled to have the strength to process new things we could be doing or telling ourselves. Food, a core building block in our hierarchy of needs, is more important to maintaining mental health than most people realize.

Issues with not Eating Properly

Being “hangry”—sometimes it is a cultural joke, and sometimes it is just the perfect word for how we feel. But is it an occasional occurrence or an ongoing concern? As Bellwood Executive Director Terri Marques suggests, “Think about your own experience—recall the last time that you missed a meal or when you were last on a weight loss diet. How did you feel? What was it like to problem-solve simple challenges throughout the day? What feedback did you receive from individuals that you engaged with about your temperament? The answer is probably, I didn’t feel great and my tolerance for others was compromised.’

“Think about food restriction in a day over weeks, over months and, for some individuals with eating disorders, over years. It is highly problematic.”

When irregular eating behaviours become habitual, and the quality of your relationships, employment and school suffer and impact your quality of life, it is time to evaluate your options. Dietary restriction impacts your mental health significantly. It is no wonder that a fundamental eating disorder treatment intervention is to see “food as medicine”. If our brains are well nourished, we have a better chance of feeling less depressed or anxious and able to problem-solve more effectively.

The COVID-19 pandemic has created an extended need for coping mechanisms. At the start of the pandemic, many people were caught off guard—most of the world clung to whatever could help them survive rapid and tremendous change. As the months wore on though, some people have found ways to build healthier coping mechanisms—while others could not. Social isolation brought on by COVID-19 exacerbated and compounded the social isolation experienced in eating disorders. As a result, restrictive eating or over-eating has become more problematic for many individuals.

What are the Root Causes of an Eating Disorder?

Eating disorders are complex with a mixture of biological and psychiatric vulnerabilities. There is no one single factor that “cause” eating disorders, but rather various predisposing, precipitating and perpetuating factors. It is different for each individual. We know that simply by living in a Western society—where the culture values female thinness (ultra-thinness) and attributes success in life and relationships to your weight—significantly increases your risk of developing an eating disorder. Personality features, such as perfectionism, obsessive and compulsive behaviours; working in careers like modeling, dancing, gymnastics; and where there have been one or more traumatic life events can also increase the risk to develop an eating disorder.

Why is it Important to Talk About Eating Disorders?

Culturally, media portrayals and stereotypes can stigmatize eating disorders, making it more difficult for individuals to even identify what they are going through, let alone seek treatment. Talking about eating disorders—what they look like, what the root causes are—can help people understand the real issues they are coping with.

It is important to educate yourself about eating disorders and to break the stereotypes and misconceptions that exist about people who have eating disorders. It is not just about food or wanting to have the “ideal” body type. It is about navigating your sense of self, including a desire to fit in and be accepted, have genuine control over life-events, and to matter. Eating disorders are desperate attempts to cope with life.

Talking more about eating disorders may personally help you:

Re-evaluate Your Coping Mechanisms

Do you use food to manage strong emotions? For example, some people may binge eat to lift their spirits after a difficult conversation or an upsetting event. In contrast, other people may try to insulate and distract themselves from other problems by not eating all day to create a numbing sensation. Alternatively, some may be seeking an illusion of control through food, even when things are spiraling from under them.

Some emotions may feel unbearable without the eating disorder symptoms to cope, but relying on them comes at a huge cost to your mental and physical health. Just like if someone were to turn primarily to alcohol to chase short-term gratification, they could develop an unhealthy relationship to substances. By relying on eating disorder behaviours to feel better, one can develop a deeply unhealthy relationship to food. The role of food is simply to nourish you and give you energy to move on with your life.

Discover if an Eating Disorder is Worsening Another Condition (or Vice Versa)

The most well-known types of eating disorders include anorexia nervosa and bulimia, but there are many more types than that. [1] What fewer people realize is that an eating disorder can also exist with a concurrent condition for some individuals. This means that one can have a mental health or substance abuse disorder at the same time as an eating disorder.

“Over the years, l have encountered many individuals who struggle with both addiction and an eating disorder. They lament that it has been difficult to find guidance from healthcare professionals for both disorders together,” Marques shares.

“When they treat the addiction or the eating disorder first, the other can suddenly get more activated. It can be quite discouraging.”

When discussing Bellwood’s new Eating Disorder Program, she clarifies that “the unique part of this program is that we are marrying the treatment of addictions and eating disorders. In Canada and around the world, it is most typical to either do one or the other.”

Improve Your Quality of Life

Clinging to an unhealthy coping mechanism might make us feel stuck. Getting out of those negative patterns requires a huge individual commitment, but it can be lifesaving. If your behaviours fall under the criteria of an eating disorder, talking about it can help you seek the necessary and appropriate treatment. Everyone must eat and those with eating disorders need to eat enough to bring their weight up to what is natural and healthy for them. The more a person includes all types of foods in their meal plan, and enough of them, the less likely they are to engage in the physiological consequences, such as binge eating. Achieving normalized eating allows individuals to process the psychological functions of the eating disorder more deeply.

The Link Between Eating Disorders and Addiction

Behaviour patterns observed in those with eating disorders are commonly identified in those with substance abuse. You may find that, in certain situations, you cannot control how much you eat or you respond to an upsetting incident by binge eating, just as someone with an alcohol dependency would react and reach for a drink to “steady” themselves. The similarities are numerous. Common patterns include preoccupation with the abused substance, use of the substance to cope with stress and negative and uncomfortable feelings, secrecy about the behaviour, and maintenance of the behaviour despite harmful consequences.

Unfortunately, the abstinence approach to addiction treatment—that is, to stop using alcohol and drugs—is difficult to apply to eating disorders as one cannot abstain from food. Food is necessary for survival, but also essential for recovery from an eating disorder. Addiction treatment alone has not adequately appreciated the sociocultural pressures on women and the impact that dieting and starvation have on physical and emotional states.

The Most Common Mental Health Disorders Linked to Eating Disorders

Depression and anxiety tend to be relatively common. According to Marques, “Being malnourished, as seen in anorexia nervosa, and eating irregularly and erratically, as seen in bulimia, can negatively affect mood states. Feeling that you are not good enough because your body does not meet the cultural ideal can produce anxiety and deep depression.”

When individuals engage in normalized eating—even for a few weeks—and the body starts to receive adequate nutrition, depression commonly starts to lift for many. This then allows the individual to do more meaningful therapeutic work at understanding the underlying psychological issues. “It is true,” explains Marques, “that some individuals who successfully normalize their eating may not feel relief from their depression or anxiety. They are however, still further along and better able to rule out the eating disorder as a contributor. Medications have been seen to be more effective when the body is fully nourished.”

Interprofessional Treatment is Essential

Once someone is diagnosed with an eating disorder, whether it is concurrent with another disorder or not, what happens next? Tailoring treatments to the individual in a holistic approach is incredibly important to address multiple issues at once. “You do need staff with specialty knowledge and training, not a generalist,” Marques confirms. “A solid interprofessional model of care is essential.” However, most treatment centers in Canada only treat one issue at a time.

At Bellwood, we want to “treat the whole person, instead of compartmentalizing care,” says Marques. “We have over 35 years of experience working with addiction. We are leveraging that knowledge into the Eating Disorders Program.”

 

EHN Canada Can Help You

If you would like to learn more about the eating disorder support programs or counselling services offered by EHN Canada, or if you have any other questions about addiction or mental health, please call us at one of the numbers below. Our phone lines are open 24/7—so you can call us anytime.

  • 1-800-387-6198 for Bellwood Health Services in Toronto, ON
  • 1-800-683-0111 for Edgewood Treatment Centre in Nanaimo, BC

You can also find more information on our Eating Disorder Program page. Please note: eating disorder programming is not currently available at all our facilities, but a comprehensive Eating Disorder program is now available at Bellwood in Toronto. Please call us–an admissions counsellor can help you learn more.

 


 

References

[1] https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/common-eating-disorders

 

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