Carla Korn is a licensed marriage and family therapist who practices in Agoura Hills, CA and specializes in treating eating disorders. When I first met with Carla, I was captivated by her mission to help women experiencing pre and post natal disordered eating. She has a wealth of knowledge and experience, is passionate about the work she does and is a genuinely warm, caring person. Today she talks with us about Eating Disorders: the signs, how to help someone who’s struggling and breaking common myths.
May is Mental Health Month: Eating Disorders
A Guest Blog by Carla Korn, LMFT
It’s 9pm and here you are: polishing off yet another package of cookies . . .again. When you woke up this morning, you swore that today would be different. You would be “good.” All day long you followed your carefully portioned food plan. You spent two hours at the gym after work. But here you are, bingeing your way through the kitchen cabinets, eating package after package and feeling out of control: feeling like a failure. You make your way to the bathroom and force yourself throw up, in an all-too-familiar routine.
You’re stuck wondering, “Why can’t I just get my eating under control?” You ask yourself for the 500th time: “Will I ever stop hating my body? Why am I so disgusting?” You feel like something is fundamentally wrong with you. Your fierce inner critic asks, “Why can’t I just lose weight? It must be my lack of willpower.” You feel overwhelmed, exhausted, and alone.
This is what it’s like to struggle with bulimia, just one of the different types of eating disorders – that an estimated 20 million women and 10 million men in the United States will struggle with at some point during their lives. For the millions who are battling any of the clinical diagnoses such as anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, or other specified feeding or eating disorder (OSFED), it can feel incredibly isolating. However, the situation is far from hopeless: as a friend or family member, you can help and provide support for someone who is struggling. Treatment and recovery are entirely possible.
How can I tell if my loved one is struggling with an eating disorder?
Your friend seems to always disappear to the bathroom after meals, or perhaps they frequently announce they “just ate” when you go out for dinner and never seem to be hungry. You just know that something has changed with your friend or loved one, but you can’t quite put your finger on it. Here are some common signs that you can look out for that someone you care about has developed an eating disorder:
- They seem preoccupied by concerns about their weight: Maybe you notice them talking incessantly about losing weight or being unhappy with their appearance. Perhaps, they seem to be always looking for the next fad diet or talk a lot about “clean eating.” You hear them mention counting calories and are always on a weight loss mission.
- They focus increasing amounts of time and energy on their workouts: Your friend or loved one has taken up a strict new workout routine, and it seems like they are spending more and more time at the gym. You notice them making excuses not to take part in any plans that might keep them from their workouts.
- There’s a lot of attention on meal preparation: Perhaps you’ve noticed they always need to be the one preparing their own meal, have trouble eating out at a restaurant, or ask a lot of questions to whomever is making the meal about what ingredients they used. For example, “Are you sure there’s no butter in this?”
- You’ve noticed unusual behaviors at mealtime. Your friend or loved one doesn’t like to eat in front of other people and will make excuses to avoid this. You also might observe them engaging in “rituals” with food, like eating things in a certain order, cutting food into small pieces, eating very slowly or quickly, or separating the foods on their plate.
- You sense a shift in their energy and mood. You notice that they seem sad or withdrawn a lot of the time, or perhaps they are seem really agitated and anxious. Maybe you notice that they seem to alternate between being really low energy and highly energetic and productive. Eating disorder behaviors often accompany periods of perfectionism and obsession with accomplishment.
What can I do to help my loved one who is struggling with an eating disorder?
It can be so difficult to watch someone you care about battling an eating disorder. If you’re like most people, you probably have no idea what you can do to help. The support of someone who cares can be absolutely essential in getting your loved one on the path to recovery. Here are some simple suggestions for where you can start:
- Brush up on your knowledge about eating disorders. Just expressing a willingness to learn about what your loved one is going through is such a great place to start! Seek out articles and books that can teach you the facts about eating disorders. Equip yourself with information about treatment and recovery; this effort will go miles in helping your loved one on their journey.
- Plan a time to express your concern. Makes sure that you pick a private time to confront them. Approaching your loved one in front of others will likely cause more shame and may result in defensiveness. Many people find it helpful to write out the main points they want to bring up and even practice what they want to say.
- Speak from your heart. Try to focus on expressing your concern in a way that reflects your honest, true feelings. State how much you care about them in a non-judgmental way. Remind your loved one that you will be there to support them, no matter what. Tell them exactly what you have observed and why you are worried. For example “I’ve noticed you’re spending more and more time at the gym instead of spending time together.”
- Don’t focus on their body. Try to speak about concerns that are not directly related to a person’s eating habits or appearance. For example, “You seem like you’re really anxious lately, and I’m concerned you aren’t okay.” Often times, remarks about changes you’ve noticed in your loved one’s appearance can add fuel to the fire and reinforce the idea that behaviors are working. By pointing out what you’ve observed about their mood, you can shift the focus to the root of the problem.
- Check your expectations. For some people, they will be very relieved that someone has noticed and is willing to help them. For others, they may be angry or defensive and not want to talk about it at all. Most people will probably find a mix of these reactions. All of these potential responses are entirely normal.
- Encourage them to get help. Most people who are struggling with an eating disorder will greatly benefit from the support of specialized professionals. Let your loved one know that you would be happy to assist them in researching and finding a therapist, and even help them make the phone call and get to their first appointment. Getting help early on can often shorten the severity and duration of one’s illness. If the person you are concerned about isn’t ready to make the call now, let them know you will be there for them whenever they are ready.
Some common myths about eating disorders
Lastly, there are so many misconceptions about eating disorders and what it really looks like for someone who is struggling. If your loved one were battling an eating disorder, they’d probably want you to know:
- Eating disorders aren’t just about food. You can’t “just eat” to get better and recovery isn’t that simple. For some, eating is a terrifying experience. The eating disorder has likely been serving an important coping function for your loved one. In order to leave the disordered behaviors behind, one must learn new skills and develop a new mindset around food.
- You can’t tell if someone has an eating disorder just by looking at the size of his or her body. People with eating disorders come in all different shapes and sizes and someone doesn’t have to look “sick” or “underweight” to be struggling with an eating disorder.
- There is such a thing as “too much” exercise. In a culture that celebrates enthusiastic pursuits with physical fitness, it can be hard to acknowledge that someone’s activity level is actually damaging to their physical and mental health.
- Both men and women, young and old, can struggle with eating disorders. Eating disorders don’t discriminate by gender or age.
- Eating disorders are not a choice and they aren’t about vanity. Eating disorders are real, serious, life-threatening illnesses. They arise due to a complex mix of genetic and environmental factors and can’t be pegged as some sort of “lifestyle choice.”
If you suspect that your loved one is struggling with an eating disorder, it’s incredibly important for them to have access the support and resources that they need in order to get better. Eating disorder treatment can help them to shift their thoughts and behaviors around food, begin to heal from physical symptoms, and create lasting change in their relationship to their body. As a specialist in the treatment of eating disorders, I’d love to help. Call me today at (818) 584-1021 to find out how eating disorder treatment can assist your loved one in getting on the path to recovery.
Carla Korn, LMFT is a psychotherapist, eating disorder and body image specialist. She works with adolescents and adults struggling binge eating disorder, anorexia, bulimia, orthorexia, and OSFED at her private practice in Agoura Hills, CA and online for those in CA and NY. Connect with Carla through her website at http://www.carlakorn.com
“What are Eating Disorders?” (n.d). Retrieved from https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/what-are-eating-disorders.