by Nirmala Raniga, Founder and Director
It is estimated that eight million Americans have an eating disorder – seven million women and one million men.
People suffering from eating disorders either over-eat or under-nourish their bodies in an attempt to establish some control in their lives. They use food manipulation as a way to mask their emotions, to fill a void they feel inside and/or to handle the daily stresses. A key component in eating disorders is an excessive concern about one’s weight and shape and a negative, distorted body image. The underlying causes of these disordered eating problems are psychological, biological, cultural, and spiritual. Many people who cannot control their eating behaviors suffer from a low sense of self-worth, which leaves them susceptible to media messages that imply that those with ‘ideal’ bodies can be confident, successful, healthy and happy.
Of all the people with eating disorders, 90 to 95 per cent are female, many of them being in their teens or younger. Now, in addition, these illnesses are appearing among women in their later adulthood, even elder years. There is evidence to suggest that it is women in the Western world who are at the highest risk of developing these conditions, but the degree of westernization occurring around the globe is increasing the risk for women universally. The portrayal of women in the media, the preoccupation with body size and the tendency to measure a person’s worth by their physical attributes are all considered to be factors contributing to the development of eating disorders. But it’s not just a women’s disease. The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders Inc. says that an estimated 10-15 percent of people suffering from an eating disorder are male. While men aren’t as obsessed with their weight, per se as women are, they do work out and exercise, possibly to excess, to reinforce their sense of masculinity and self- worth. Among gay men, nearly 14% appeared to suffer from bulimia and over 20% appeared to be anorexic. Men are less likely to seek treatment for eating disorders because of the perception that they are “woman’s diseases.”
In an article appearing in the New York Times’ Vanishing Point on Feb 7, 2008, author G. Trebay said the fashion industry has long dictated that female models be tall and waif-like. However male models are now facing increased pressure to slim down and appear more androgynous in order to book fashion jobs. The emphasis on thinness (for women) and muscularity (for men) often goes beyond simple body image to leave the erroneous impression that slimness is associated with positive character qualities, such as reliability, trustworthiness and honesty.
There are many societal, familial and individual factors that can influence the development of an eating disorder. Individuals who are struggling with their identity and self-image can be at risk, as well as those who have experienced a traumatic upbringing or event. In addition, many sufferers of eating disorders report feeling powerless about their socioeconomic environment and view dieting, exercise and purging as an empowering means of controlling their lives. Though the root causes of disordered eating vary for each individual, it is important to include the contemporary role of media as well as sociocultural pressures, both of which emphasizes being thin as central to an ideal of beauty.
There are a number of types of eating disorders. One is anorexia nervosa, a condition defined as a drastic weight loss caused by self-induced starvation. People suffering from this condition may appear emaciated and unhealthy because of excessive dieting. Some individuals may lose 15 per cent or more of their body mass yet continue to diet and exercise obsessively. Even in their emaciated condition, they see themselves as overweight, wanting to lose even more weight.
Individuals suffering from bulimia nervosa experience weight fluctuations that correspond to periods of binge-eating, followed by vomiting or purging with laxatives, use of diuretics or diet pills, fasting and compulsive exercise. . Binges may be large amounts of food, or sometimes a normal meal is experienced as a binge. There is a tremendous fear of weight gain and most with bulimia are constantly pre-occupied with food and weight. About half of those with anorexia nervosa develop symptoms of bulimia, but most people with bulimia are normally weighted.
Men and Women living with Binge Eating Disorder suffer a combination of symptoms similar to those of bulimics. The sufferer periodically goes on large binges, uncontrollably consuming an unusually large quantity of food in a short period of time (less than 2 hours), eating until they are uncomfortably full. Unlike with bulimia, though, they do not purge following a binge episode. These individuals can be overweight, and they are usually aware that their eating habits are abnormal, but find little comfort because of society’s tendency to stereotype the overweight individual. They feel guilty for not being good enough, shame for being overweight, and generally have a very low self-esteem.
Binge eating can be used as a way to keep people away, to subconsciously maintain an overweight appearance to cater to society’s sad stigma, “if I’m fat, no one will like me,” as each person suffering may feel undeserving of love.
Eating disorders may cause individuals to feel tired and depressed and to experience decreased mental functioning and concentration. They can also lead to malnutrition causing risk to bone health, physical growth, and brain development. In addition there are increased risks of osteoporosis and fertility problems, a weakened immune system, and decreased heart rate, blood pressure and metabolic rate.
Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. A study by the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders reported that 5 – 10% of anorexics die within 10 years after contracting the disease; 18-20% of anorexics will be dead after 20 years and only 30 – 40% ever fully recovers. Up to twenty percent of patients with eating disorders eventually die of their illness, and another fifteen percent resort to suicide
The precise causes of eating disorders are not entirely understood, but there is evidence that development of the disease may be linked to other conditions, such as ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) in younger people or PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). People with eating disorders often have other psychological illnesses, including major depressions, anxiety disorders and substance abuse. They may also be caused by environmental situations including social isolation, parental authority and cultural pressures to name a few. Early intervention is important to restore healthy attitudes and habits regarding food and eating. The behaviors of these disorders have a strong component of addiction, as the behaviors are compelling, and have destructive consequences. People with eating disorders often deny they have a problem and avoid seeking treatment. Treatment is most effective if it can be inter-disciplinary. A medical assessment is crucial, as well as continued medical supervision. Individual therapy is important as well as nutritional support and education. Group therapy is also very helpful to support recovery as it helps to reduce the shame which is such a core element of these illnesses.
The Chopra Addiction and Wellness Center (CTC) in Squamish BC helps guests become free from their disordered eating patterns and discover the joy of a non-addicted life. During the 6-week residential program, the Center’s inter-disciplinary team helps individuals to gain insight into their disorder, learn about triggers and develop coping methods to help them deal with emotional difficulties in healthier ways, rather than resorting to food and weight manipulation.
Deepak Chopra, in his 21 Day Meditation Challenge on how to be healthy says:
“It is important that we appreciate and celebrate food and all that it does for our bodies. Eating with awareness, taking our time as we chew our food and sitting at a beautifully set dinner table with loved ones rather than in front of the television are habits that create an ideal metabolic environment for both our mind and body.”
Unique to other addiction treatment centers, CTC offers the first truly holistic addiction recovery method in North America, combining the latest breakthroughs in modern Western medicine with the mindfulness approach of the ancient Ayurvedic healing methods of the East to unlock the human potential and bring about a return to wholeness. Originating in India 5000 years ago, Ayurveda focuses on the individual as a whole; physically, emotionally and spiritually. In addition to group and individual therapy, residents at CTC benefit from the mind, body, spirit healing that addresses the needs of all five senses: touch (massage), sound (music), sight (art therapy) smell (aromatherapy) and taste (vegetarian cuisine), which, when combined with meditation, yoga and acupuncture, promote balance and integration of mind, body and spirit.
Ayurveda places great importance on diet. Most of the western diet is based on sweet, sour and salty foods, all of which carry too many toxins. At CTC, all the food is strictly vegetarian, made fresh daily using organic fruits and vegetables which incorporate all six tastes: sweet, sour, salty, pungent, astringent and bitter. This allows the body to absorb most of the nutrients to allow for better overall well-being. CTC’s chefs use variety of spices to enhance, give aroma and allow the digestive fire to ignite. Using this mindfulness approach and paying attention to all five senses, residents transcend and overcome addiction and other unhealthy behaviours.
Learn more about Chopra Addiction and Wellness Center’s Healthy Weight Program