Our emotional lives are closely intertwined with food. We eat to celebrate. Our moms give us chicken soup when we’re sick. Food is our comfort when the world treats us badly. “Healthy emotional eating is OK. It’s when eating becomes a way of numbing ourselves, as in binge eating, or as a way to control or punish ourselves, as in anorexia, that we have a problem,” notes Dr. Kim McCallum of McCallum Place, a comprehensive treatment center for adolescents and adults struggling with eating disorders.
McCallum points out that binge eating is not just a female disease; men are just as likely to engage in it, although bulimia is less common in men, and only 5 to 10 percent of anorexics are men.
McCallum finds that body dysmorphia is a big part of the eating disorder equation. People with this disorder have a distorted view of themselves. “Men have a different kind of dysmorphia,” she points out. “Women see themselves as fat; men never have enough muscles. They are much more focused on muscles than thinness. Excessive exercise occurs across all types of eating disorders as a strategy for weight loss and muscle building.”
Obesity and anorexia form the ends of the eating disorder spectrum, and both result in medical complications, McCallum explains. She says the causes of eating disorders are complex and may stem from anxiety disorders in childhood, loss or trauma, puberty, depression, parents divorcing, peer teasing, or even the toxic message our culture sometimes gives us about body image. She says society seems to have an accepted prejudice against obesity. It’s seen as OK to shame a fat person.
McCallum says at least 50 percent of eating disorders are related to genetics, in the same way that bipolar disorders or autism are. And, like any mental illness, the environment can encourage the expression of that tendency. “Families can either mitigate or exaggerate societal messages,” McCallum explains. “Even if we didn’t have the genetic predisposition, we might dabble with these behaviors. Inappropriate dieting actually can lead to obesity. Fad diets create loss of muscle mass, and then the yo-yo dieting and weight regain decrease metabolism; it’s a downward spiral.”
The medical effects of eating disorders and disrupted nutrition are numerous. McCallum sees many teens and young women with osteoporosis. She always starts with a comprehensive medical evaluation because eating disorders don’t travel alone. These patients can have problems with cardiovascular disease or low blood pressure; gastrointestinal problems such as delayed gastric emptying and gastric reflux; and the mental effects of malnutrition, including insomnia and obsessive compulsive disorder.
Cheryl Shea, a chiropractor at Complete Wellness Center, sees both the emotional and physical factors in eating disorders. She does muscle testing and structural and nutritional assessments prior to treatment. Poor carbohydrate digestion can lead to cravings and bingeing behaviors. She treats them with a combination of nutrition counseling, chiropractic and acupuncture.
“Eating is very much an emotional issue,” Shea notes. “We eat when we’re upset, or we can’t eat when we’re upset. So many family dynamics enter into this, and those relationships have to be assessed, and so does how food figures in. I do enzyme work to improve digestion and stabilize blood sugar. Fluctuations in blood sugar are linked to mood, cravings and sleep disruption, among other things.” Shea finds that people who have been bulimic or anorexic often are lacking in specific nutrients. She tries to balance electrolytes and enzymes with diet and acupuncture.
Maya Bradstreet, a certified health coach, sees clients one-on-one in her practice, a Recipe for Wellness. “When someone comes to me with a problem with food, it’s often a signal of a larger issue, so I step away from the eating behavior and look at how they are feeling, really listening to what’s happening in their lives,” Bradstreet says. She works with them on nutrition and developing a healthier relationship with food. Some clients have bingeing and purging issues or overeating ones. When she detects an established eating disorder, she refers to an eating disorder specialist and other practitioners. Her clients are often seeing physicians, chiropractors, acupuncturists, or career counselors in addition to her work with their nutrition.
Bradstreet says that once they start to pay attention to what they want in their lives and how they can really nurture themselves, their diet changes as well. She steers them to whole foods with nutrients they may be missing: dark leafy greens, whole grains and good carbohydrates. As those diet changes are incorporated, clients report that cravings for junk food go down and they start having longer periods of time between food binges and purging. “We may meet twice a month for six months to deconstruct their diet and introduce new foods that supply needed nutrients,” she explains. “By the end of six months, their diet is different, and they have more resources for dealing with the underlying problem. Food is associated with love and comfort, but it is also needed for health and survival. It should be enjoyed and not a source of stress.”