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Dec 12, 2018

How to Help People With Eating Disorders

Written by Dr. Caroline Leaf

We all know that eating disorders can be incredibly dangerous. They have an estimated death rate of up to twelve times higher than all other causes of death combined for females between the ages of fifteen and twenty-four, while recent statistics from NEDA (the National Eating Disorders Association) reveal that ‘anorexia is the third most common chronic disease among young people, after asthma and type 1 diabetes.’

Unfortunately, the current biomedical mental health system tends to lock in, rather than heal, destructive behaviors such as eating disorders. According to the dominant vein of thinking, eating disorders and other types of food addictions are diseases, not disorders. According to Dr. Daniel Alford at Boston University Medical Center, “it’s hard necessarily to cure people, but you can certainly manage the problem to the point where they are able to function through a combination of pharmaceuticals and therapy” The brain disease model and food addiction language focus predominately on bearing with a biological flaw, not healing your thinking. 

But are eating disorders really diseases? Our brain’s reward circuits fire up a neurophysiological response par excellence when we think and eat in a healthy way,  as I talk about in my book Think and Eat Yourself Smart. I call this the “wired for love” concept that is operational in our brains and bodies, and in this universe we inhabit. Eating disorders are negative behaviors that stem from disordered love, not diseases. Essentially, these positive circuits in our brains are hijacked by our distorted thinking, which, in the case of many eating disorders, stems from the lack of love, acceptance or control in a person’s life. This sets up a negative cycle of distorted love, including a misleading sense of pride, leading to distorted perceptions, which in turn leads to a distorted sense of identity and behaviors. 

We are made to love and be loved, and when we do not feel accepted for we are, or when we feel that our life is spiraling out of control and we do not have anyone to turn to, we will do anything to get our "love" fix—to fill that hole in our lives. Look at the lengths an addict will go to get his or her next fix—the lack of fulfillment, will make us desperate, and we will seek substitutes for that love, such as food, sex or drugs. The brain is designed to latch onto something—we do not exist in a vacuum. 

The concept of a brain disease is very limiting, and almost always gives a sense of hopelessness: you are what your brain does, and there is really nothing you alone can do about it. A “love disorder”, on the other hand, brings hope in the sense that although there have been significant biological changes in the brain, the brain can still change (neuroplasticity). 

Is there a solution? 

It is important to remember that the brain can change. Our thoughts, words and actions are powerful; we create realties with our minds. Thoughts are real things, which occupy mental real estate, so change has to start in our minds. Choosing to change, based on an awareness of the fundamental need to change and the support of our loved ones as we go through the process of change is not only possible but attainable, as I discuss in my book Think, Learn, Succeed

Choosing to quit a toxic thinking pattern such as an unhealthy addiction to food can in fact result in brain regrowth, which is how my five-step learning program that I talk about in Think, Learn, Succeed and in my new brain detox app SWITCH, works. Each of the five steps plays a vital role in the building of memory, enabling the person using the steps to reconceptualise toxic thinking patterns and create new, healthy thinking patterns, thereby changing the structure of the brain. Essentially, this process works on the root of the destructive behavior, enabling people to overcome it by transforming the way they think and see their world. 

What are some ways we help people battling with eating disorders?

Social Support 

Social support is crucial if we want someone to learn how to manage his or her emotions and deal with the vagaries of life. Social support helps us deal with the challenges we face, because we realize that we do not face these challenges alone: we see our difficulties in a different light. Moreover, in a community-focused society, warning signs can be picked up earlier and help can be provided before destructive behaviors escalate.

In fact, community involvement has been associated with mental health and cognitive resilience, reduction of chronic pain, lower blood pressure, and improved cardiovascular health. It is therefore important that people suffering from eating disorders have a “safe space” where they can talk about what they are going through and work through it with people they love and trust.  

Love starts in the family unit. It is so important for parents or guardians to constantly tell and show their children that they are loved and accepted. Hug them, tell them they are needed and wanted, and tell them they are special. Parents or guardians also need to create a safe space for their children and show them that they will not be judged or condemned. Hear what they have to say and ask them how you can improve and what can you do to help them. Sometimes, a simple apology can be powerful, as disordered eating patterns often come through the generations when toxic thinking patterns are not managed in a healthy way. 

The next step is in school and workplace: teachers, professors and managers should be trained to identify the signs and should provide adequate support for troubled individuals, such as providing each teacher or manager with a compassionate and knowledgeable individual who is there to listen and to help individuals deal with eating disorders, such as sitting with them during lunch periods.     

Eat Together

Negative eating patterns do not disappear overnight. It is important that people who suffer from eating disorders have structured yet friendly meal times where they are not only loved, but also taught how to eat again in a communal setting, as an eating disorder is by its very nature something that isolates people. Within this setting, you can monitor how much they eat and when they go to the bathroom while creating a loving family environment that can help them heal. 

Eating a meal with loved ones is also incredibly therapeutic. Regular family meals are associated with a decreased risk for addictive behavior and depression, and higher self-esteem, which often play a role in the onset of an eating disorder.

Controlled Thinking  

Individuals with eating disorders have to learn how to think about food in a new way, which requires developing a habit of thinking about their thinking. Learning how to renew the mind enables us to get rid of toxic thoughts and emotions that block success, including toxic thoughts about food. 

An important part of changing thinking patterns is reconceptualizing (redesigning) thoughts about food that are holding someone back by deciding what thought they would rather have, writing this down and then working toward eliminating the toxic thought and practicing the healthy thought over three sets of 21 days, which is the minimum amount of time it takes to change a negative thinking pattern. 

For example, if you find that self-esteem is part of what lead to your eating disorder, practice not comparing yourself with others. Every time you feel you are not good enough, remind yourself that you can do something no one else in the world can do—now that is something to celebrate! Develop an expectancy mindset when you think about yourself: expect great things! Perhaps write what you love to do and want to do in a journal and read it when you are feel at a low and feel the desire to binge or purge.

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