One of the gifts I’ve received in mid-life is to be able to see more clearly the different ways in which all people struggle and the choices we make to deal with our individual challenges. One very natural and logical place that some people go to is how their body looks and feels. In a way, it makes perfect sense to me that if someone is uncomfortable or seeking relief from an experience in the body, using the food that goes in it to eliminate the experience could be believed to be an effective solution. For those who are genetically predisposed to have an eating disorder, this can turn deadly.
If we think about the big picture of why these behaviors start, and then can become a full-blown eating disorder, we may be able to literally save lives. For instance, we often see changes in response to a big life stage. Raising children, caring for aging parents, making career decisions, ending relationships, menopause, kids going off to college, just to name a few. These are transition times and we may not have the coping skills to adequately deal. Puberty is also a common time eating disorders develop, as the average girl gains 40 lbs of body fat during this phase.
Going off to college is another stressful change. The term Drunkorexia started as a way to describe college students’ response to the fear of “the freshman 15.” In order to avoid the weight gain caused by drinking alcohol, some purposely restrict food and calories, or exercise excessively, in order to balance out a night of drinking. Drinking on an empty stomach increases the rate of intoxication and likelihood of risky behaviors and blackouts. This behavior is not limited to college students, however, and many women in midlife may turn to this solution to deal with weight gain that may come with menopause.
These “-rexias” tied to major life changes aren’t limited to alcohol either, and at Eating Recovery Center and among our colleagues in the medical community, we’ve seen a rise in other related disorders.
Getting married should bring joy, but it too can bring a lot of stress and expectation. Brideorexia may develop in the pursuit to be the “perfect size” for their wedding day. It’s not uncommon for women to try to lose weight for a big event, but it is concerning when those weight loss goals are unrealistic or there are extreme measures being taken to get the weight off (fasting, diet pills and laxative use, stimulant drug use). When the way you want to look overtakes the idea of the wedding itself, it may be an indicator that something else is going on.
We’ve seen Pregorexia occur too, which is a deliberate attempt to avoid the weight gain that comes with pregnancy, and planning for getting that pregnancy weight off as soon as possible after birth. Women who engage in this risky behavior may restrict food intake, exercise excessively, and engage in purging efforts that put them and their babies at risk.
Lastly, as much as pop culture has promoted “clean eating,” it can also go too far. Known as Orthorexia, it can develop at any stage of life. Some people become rigid and obsessive about following the “correct” pattern of eating in pursuit of a feeling of purity or cleansing and maybe even fear of contamination. This belief in “good” versus “bad” food may limit one’s ability to spend time with others and function in settings that require food choices. They become distressed when eating the wrong food and even observing others food choices.
If you notice some of these behaviors in yourself or others, you should use it as a sign that there is some suffering or stress going on in the person’s life. It is best to have a conversation about it, at a neutral time, expressing that you care about them and that it is hard to see them struggle in this way. Offer to help support them, and have them talk to a professional who specializes in eating disorders and eating related issues. They can do this easily, and confidentially, by contacting us at Eating Recovery Center by calling (877) 789-5758, or visit www.eatingrecoverycenter.com to speak with a Master’s-level eating disorder clinician. People often worry that they don’t want to offend the person or get them mad. I’d rather have someone mad at me than see them develop a life threatening eating disorder. Remember that the risk you take to have the conversation may be the thing that saves their life.
Bonnie Brennan, Eating Recovery Center Senior Clinical Director of Adult Residential and Partial Hospital Services