About eating disorders
Eating disorders affect the way you eat and the way you feel about food and your body. People with eating disorders may severely restrict how much they eat, eat large amounts in one sitting, exercise excessively or do ‘purging’ behaviours such as vomiting.
Our culture places great value on outward appearances, and advertising and social media messages can lead to people who don’t fit a narrow definition of ‘attractiveness’ feeling stigmatised. As a result, many of us have complicated, difficult relationships with food and body image.
For some of us, there is a greater risk that these difficulties will turn into an eating disorder, because a combination of genetics and life experiences have made us more vulnerable.
Eating disorders are much more than an extreme focus on diet and exercise. They are serious conditions that can have a devastating effect on your day-to-day life and your long-term health. They are not a ‘phase’ or a ‘choice’, and it is extremely hard to recover from them without professional help.
However, with the right treatment and support, you can make a full recovery. If you think you or a loved one may have an eating disorder, it’s important that you seek help as soon as possible.
Who gets eating disorders?
Eating disorders most often begin in adolescence or early adulthood (apart from ARFID, which is more common in children). However, they can affect people of all ages, genders, races and social groups. Sadly, the stereotype of eating disorders affecting only young women can sometimes stop other people from getting the help they need.
Eating disorders are often associated with other mental health conditions. If you have an eating disorder, you may also experience symptoms of anxiety, depression, body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). You may do self-harming behaviours. Your clinician can help design a treatment plan for you that takes these factors into account.
What causes eating disorders?
We don’t yet fully understand the cause of eating disorders, but researchers now believe it is a combination of genetics (40–60%) and environment, just like many other illnesses. That is, you might be born with a higher risk, and then something might happen in your life – whether intentional (diet, exercise) or unintentional (illness, trauma) – that triggers this genetic propensity and leads you to develop an eating disorder, where another person in the same circumstances might more easily go back to their normal eating behaviours.
Eating disorder behaviour tends to become habit-driven. It may begin as something you do to ease feelings of distress in the short term, but it then ‘takes on a life of its own’, with the behaviour becoming more extreme and turning into a vicious cycle. When you get treatment for an eating disorder, your clinician will be interested in the circumstances that led to the start of the eating disorder, but they will also focus on the behaviour itself, working to break the cycle and understand the factors that keep it going.
Having an eating disorder is not your or anybody else’s fault, even though it may feel like that. Nobody chooses to have an eating disorder. Recovery is possible, and your chances of a full recovery are better the sooner you seek treatment.
How to access help
The first step is to visit your GP, who will do an initial assessment and examination. Since eating disorders can carry significant medical risk, your GP will weigh you, order blood tests, check your pulse and blood pressure, and ask about any other physical symptoms, such as weight loss, whether your periods have stopped or changed or presence of binge eating or purging behaviour.
Your GP can then give you a referral for the eating disorder service provided by Te Whatu Ora. You could also look into finding a private therapist who specialises in eating disorder treatment. Private treatment will involve a cost, but it might mean a shorter wait for an appointment and will give you a choice about who you see.
Reaching out for help can feel scary. You might worry about being judged or not taken seriously. You might find it difficult to put your experience into words. Living with an eating disorder often involves secrecy; it can be hard to break this pattern and let someone else know what is really going on for you.
Also, you might have mixed feelings about getting treatment. You might be afraid to let go of behaviours like dieting, exercising, purging or binge eating, because they have helped you feel safe in some ways.
These are all valid feelings. It might be helpful to let your clinician know that you are uncomfortable. They will understand and can help you work through these feelings. You might also find it helpful to bring a support person along to your first appointment or write down your experiences/feelings/questions ahead of time.
If you don’t feel comfortable with a particular clinician, or don’t feel they are understanding you, keep trying. See a different doctor, ask a support person to advocate for you, or send a follow-up email. It is important that you keep looking for the help you need.
Another option is to make contact with the Eating Disorders Association New Zealand (EDANZ), who can provide you with support and information.
How the clinician determines if you have an eating disorder (diagnosis)
Eating disorders are diagnosed based on specific criteria set out in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).
Your clinician will ask you questions about the way you eat and exercise, whether you do any purging behaviours, and how you feel about food and your body. They will want to know how often you do certain behaviours and how long this has been going on for, since it can influence what treatment approach to suggest and discuss with you.
Once your clinician has the information they need, they will work out whether your symptoms match the criteria for a particular eating disorder.
Even if you aren’t given an official diagnosis, this doesn’t mean your experience is any less real or serious. You can – and should – still get support and treatment.
There are several types of therapy and treatment settings that can be used in treating eating disorders. Largely, treatment consists of specialist evidence-based psychological treatments. This includes individual therapy and family therapy. It can at times also include group therapy, provision of nutritional advice and meal planning with a dietician, and education for you and your family/whānau.
Depending on how severe the eating disorder is, you may attend a clinic for residential or day treatment for a number of weeks to provide a more structured setting for support. You may be admitted to hospital for medical stabilisation as an in-patient if you are at risk and medically compromised.
There is no specific medication to treat eating disorders, but you may be prescribed medication to assist with treatment. Some medications may make your eating disorder thoughts less intense and help with depression or anxiety symptoms.
Below are some of the specialist evidence-based psychological therapies used to treat eating disorders. Your clinician can help you decide which one is right for you.
General counselling has not been shown to be effective in treating eating disorders. Make sure your clinician is trained in specialist eating disorder treatment, experienced in treating your type of symptoms, and being supervised for their work.
- Family Based Treatment (FBT) is the first line of treatment for adolescents and young adults with anorexia and bulimia. Recovery rates of FBT for treatment of adolescents with up to three-year illness duration are about twice as high as individual treatment (AFT). Therapists and parents work together to help the young person’s recovery, restoring weight and addressing the eating disorder behaviour. The treatment lasts for one year, with the parents gradually supporting the adolescent to learn how to take on more responsibility in the management of eating behaviour.
- Adolescent Focused Therapy (AFT) is also effective for anorexia in young people and is used in circumstances where FBT is not possible or has not been taken up by the family. In individual sessions across about 12–18 months, with some parental involvement, the therapist works with the young person to strengthen their sense of self and help them find new ways to handle the challenges of adolescence other than through their eating disorder.
- Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT-E) is the first line of treatment for bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder but has now also been expanded to treat anorexia nervosa. It focuses on patterns of thought and behaviour that are happening in the present day, rather than experiences in your past. You will work together with your therapist with a focus on behavioural change, using daily monitoring forms, introducing regular eating, challenging patterns of thought and behaviour that contribute to disordered eating, and learning techniques to change these.
- Integrative Cognitive Affective Therapy (ICAT) is a structured short-term treatment for bulimia and binge eating disorder, over 20 sessions. It focuses on development of emotion awareness in the very moment before a binge in order to learn and apply different skills to manage these situations.
- Maudsley Anorexia Treatment for Adults (MANTRA) In addition to working on weight recovery and challenging eating disorder behaviour, MANTRA addresses the function of the eating disorder in the person’s life more fully and focuses on strengthening the person’s ability to develop better emotional and interpersonal skills and address unhelpful thinking styles.
- Specialist Supportive Clinical Management (SSCM) is less structured than CBT or MANTRA. It is a practical approach that combines supportive therapy, information, advice and encouragement.
All types of therapy should be provided to you and your family/whānau in a manner that is respectful of you, and that helps you feel comfortable and free to ask questions. It should be consistent with and incorporate your cultural beliefs and practices. All psychological therapies are designed to be done without disrupting study or work.
Other strategies to support recovery
The term complementary therapy is generally used to indicate therapies and treatments that differ from conventional western medicine and which may be used to complement and support it.
Certain complementary therapies may enhance your life and help you to maintain wellbeing. In general, mindfulness, hypnotherapy, relaxation, massage, mirimiri and aromatherapy have all been shown to have some effect in alleviating mental distress. However, you should not rely on these therapies alone to treat eating disorder symptoms.
Family/whānau support and involvement
If someone you love is experiencing an eating disorder, you are likely feeling many emotions: fear, sadness, worry, frustration and more. It’s important to remember that eating disorders are strongly influenced by biology: it is not your fault that your loved one has an eating disorder, and it’s not something they can change or recover from without professional help.
As a family/whānau member, you have an important role to play. Learning as much as you can about the eating disorder and its treatment will reassure you and help you support both their recovery and your own wellbeing. Reach out to your own support network for practical help, seek counselling for yourself, and remember to care for your own physical and mental health. The groups listed below, under ‘Resources and links’, offer valuable support to parents and caregivers of people with eating disorders.
Thanks to Dr Roger Mysliwiec, Director New Zealand Eating Disorders Clinic, for reviewing this content.
Date last reviewed: March 2023