Q: What is an eating disorder?
In a general sense, eating disorders are experienced as disturbances in eating habits and are accompanied by physical and emotional distress. They lead to a deterioration of physical and psychological well-being, and ultimately can cause death. To understand what an eating disorder means for the person experiencing these difficulties, it is more helpful to think of the eating disorder as something that a person has developed, in order to feel that they can cope with their lives. However, the more the person relies on the eating disorder to cope, the more they need the eating disorder to cope, and very quickly they spiral into a situation where they feel they will only be able to cope and live if they hold onto the eating disorder. The person’s sense of who they are comes to depend on them holding onto the eating disorder and this is why it is so difficult and terrifying for a person to think about letting go of the eating disorder. Therefore, while it is clear to everyone else that the person is harming his / herself, the only way the person with the eating disorder feels they can survive is by maintaining the eating disorder.
Q: What causes an eating disorder?
It is impossible to say exactly what causes an eating disorder for any particular person. An eating disorder develops from a combination of factors (biological, socio-cultural, familial, and psychological) that are particular to each individual person. At some point, controlling food or engaging in disordered eating behaviors (skipping meals, repeated dieting, restricting food intake, vomiting, bingeing, over-exercising) gives the person a sense that they can cope with something they have experienced as overwhelming or distressing. Instead of experiencing the feelings and working them out, the person blocks them by controlling their food. However, the sense of security the person gains from the eating disorder is fleeting, and they need to continue to control their food in order to regain and hold on to this sense of security. This is how the eating disorder develops and establishes itself in a person’s life – they get trapped in a vicious cycle of having to progressively increase their control over their food (and body) in order to feel like they can cope and survive.
Q: Can you fully recover from an eating disorder?
The short answer to this question is YES. People with eating disorders can and do make full recoveries. People sometimes describe recovery as learning to re-connect with oneself, building up a trust in one’s ability to cope without needing to control, not translating life issues into food issues as a way of dealing with them, letting go of the need to control food intake in order to feel okay. Recovery has a very individual meaning for each person so it is difficult to generalise and give a time scale to the recovery process. Factors such as how long the person has had the eating disorder and the quality of support they receive will influence the length of time the recovery process takes.
Q: How do I support someone who is experiencing an eating disorder? What can I do?
It can be extremely difficult to support someone who has an eating disorder and is going through the recovery process. People often experience confusion, frustration, and desperation as they witness a person they care for experiencing the difficulties and set-backs that are a natural part of the recovery process. The person in recovery is facing the task of re-learning how to cope and live their life without using disordered eating behaviors. This can be extremely difficult and frightening for them. This is why recovery often occurs slowly and why the role of supporting someone can be very difficult. There are a few things to remember about supporting someone: try to accept the person as they are and show your willingness to be there for them; listen to their needs without judgement and without trying to fix or problem solve. Let the person know that you love them and value them for who they are. Communicate a belief that recovery is possible and your belief in their ability to recover. Take the focus away from food and eating and bring it to how the person is feeling. Communicate an appreciation of the energy it takes to struggle with an eating disorder. This same energy is the person’s most valuable resource for recovery. It is also very important not to put the needs for the person you are trying to support above your own needs. Looking after your own needs first not only models healthy behavior but will put you in a stronger position to be of support to them.
Q: How do I know if I have an eating disorder?
The following are a few questions you may ask yourself to try and answer this question:
Do you feel that the way you eat and behave around food is dependent on how you feel about yourself, on your emotional state? (Are you using food to make yourself feel better?)
What behaviors are you engaging in that lead you to ask this question?
Do you feel trapped into your behaviors around food and eating?
Maybe it’s not about getting an answer, but something prompted you to look up this website. What do you feel you need to do for yourself right now?
Please see our self-assesment to help you determine if you should seek help.
Q: My child is a picky eater. Does this mean he/she has an eating disorder?
Many children are fussy eaters and come to use food as a currency in their relationship with their parents and caregivers. This does not necessarily mean that they have an eating disorder. An eating disorder is a manifestation of something that the child is experiencing as difficult or overwhelming at an emotional level. The child copes with a difficulty by controlling food intake. It is useful then for a parent who is concerned about the way their child is eating to try to bring a focus on how their child is feeling rather than on what their child is or is not eating. Creating a safe atmosphere to explore feelings will be of huge benefit to the child who feels unable to express what they are feeling without resorting to eating behaviors as a means of doing this. If a parent has any concerns they should visit a physician or mental health provider who assess eating disorders. Remember that early intervention of a supportive nature is very beneficial.
Q: My child seems to be preoccupied with dieting, do they have an eating disorder?
There are many people who are preoccupied with dieting in today’s world, and not all of these people have an eating disorder. However, if you are concerned there are a few things to think about which may give you a clearer understanding of whether or not your child has an eating disorder. An eating disorder is a manifestation of something that the child is experiencing as difficult or overwhelming at an emotional level. The child copes with a difficulty by controlling food intake. It is useful then for a parent who is concerned about the way their child is eating to try to bring a focus on how their child is feeling rather than on what their child is or is not eating. Creating a safe atmosphere to explore feelings will be of huge benefit to the child who feels unable to express what they are feeling other than through their eating habits. If a parent has any concerns they should visit a physician or mental health provider who assess eating disorders.
Do you feel that the way your child eats or diets depends on her / his emotional state? Is she dieting to make herself feel better? Are there issues about body image that could be talked about and addressed? Do you feel your child is trapped into a dieting cycle? How would your child be if she were not able to diet? Are you aware of what was going on in your child’s life when she began to get preoccupied with dieting, and has this preoccupation intensified since then? These are all questions that will help you to gain a better understanding of the role that food (and eating / not eating) is playing in your child’s life. There would be concern around an eating disorder if your child is depending on food and body control to feel ok about herself / himself.
Q: What role do the media play in causing eating disorders?
Media influence is frequently blamed for breeding a normative discontent in relation to body image and this is often seen as being a causal factor in the development of eating disorders.
The causes of eating disorders are multiple and very complex. A whole range of factors combine to contribute to the development and maintenance of an eating disorder. However, two of the major risk factors for eating disorders are low self-esteem and dieting.
A culture which promotes obsession with appearance and which markets a particular body shape (thinness in women / leanness and muscularity in men) as desirable and as a means of achieving success and/or happiness can contribute to the erosion of self-esteem in vulnerable individuals. In this context, the constant promotion of dieting also can contribute to creating an unhealthy relationship with food and body. It is in the light of this that the media can be seen as playing a part in the development of eating disorders.
The effect of the media is to further undermine those individuals who are already vulnerable to developing an eating disorder; and to exacerbate and maintain eating disordered thinking where it is already established. This is why it is so important that the media take responsibility for what they report and recognize the potential impact of messages that have the capacity to undermine healthy self-image and self-esteem which are the cornerstones of mental well-being.
Q: My daughter has lost a lot of weight and has been diagnosed with anorexia. Why can’t she just eat?
It can be extremely frightening and frustrating for a parent when trying to understand why their child just can’t eat. This seems to contradict everything that they take for granted about being ill, about feeling hunger, and about how they have brought their child up as a healthy individual. This is why it is really important to understand the role the eating disorder plays in your child’s life. The eating disorder, and the disordered eating behaviors that are part of it, are ways your child uses to feel safe and in control. He / she can’t just eat (at the moment) because it takes some time to re-learn how to cope with life without using the disordered eating behaviors. Through the recovery process, your child will slowly begin to eat and re-learn what feeling hungry is like and why it is ok to eat and nourish him / herself. The eating disorder works as a coping tool because it helps the person disconnect from their feelings, which also includes feeling hungry. So, the person often does not feel hungry when they are in the midst of the eating disorder. When a person starts to eat again, it can be very frightening to suddenly begin to reconnect with their feelings. This can be experienced as overwhelming. This is why it is so important not to rush or force a person to eat. They might feel so threatened that they will defend themselves by further retreating into the eating disorder.
Q: My child is very unwell and the doctor is looking at referring him / her to an eating disorder program. They do not want to attend, what should I do?
This is a very difficult situation and a very difficult question to answer. The most important thing to try and keep at the centre of any decision making about what course of action to take, is that in so far as this is possible your child needs to feel that they are as much in control of what is happening as all of you are. An eating disorder is in many ways all about control and any decisions about treatment need to be made in a way that is not experienced as threatening. Achieving this can present many challenges, depending on how ill your child is. Have you discussed what your child’s fears are about attending an eating disorder program? Can these fears be addressed before your child takes up a place on the program? Have you explored with your child all the various treatment options, to see whether there is another appropriate course of action that your child feels less frightened by? What supports have you sought for your child and yourself both prior to and following a treatment program? Being open and honest with your child will benefit them in the long run. Allowing your child to feel as in control as possible of what is happening to them is as crucial to laying the foundations for recovery. Involve them in any decision making process and even if you may not feel that you can accommodate their wishes, ensure that your child knows that you have demonstrated that you value their feelings and respect their views. When a person with an eating disorder feels threatened, or pushed into doing something that they are not ready for, then the fear is that they will further retreat into the eating disorder. This is very frustrating to those around them, and difficult to understand. Allowing the person to take their recovery at their own pace will benefit them in the long term.
Q: Do men/boys get eating disorders too?
Yes. Eating disorders are not specific to women and girls. Most literature asserts that one in ten people with an eating disorder is male, however, more recent studies suggest that the figure may be substantially higher. It is often more difficult for men to seek out help because eating disorders are still perceived by many to be something that only affects women and girls.
Q: I have just discovered my son has been making himself sick after meals. He doesn’t know that I know. What should I do?
The question to ask yourself is what do you feel is the right course of action for you to take right now? In some ways, the fact that he doesn’t know that you know, gives you some time to think through how you are going to handle this situation.
This is a delicate issue. Rushing into reacting may cause your son to retreat and defend his behaviors more. Before approaching him about this, you might find it helpful to read through our information on approaching someone. This will allow you time to think through how you can approach the situation in as constructive and supportive a manner as possible.
Before you approach your son, inform yourself as much as possible about eating disorders. Your son may be experiencing feelings of shame around his behaviors and it will be important that you approach him in as gentle and safe a way as possible. Try to view your son’s behavior as a way he has developed of coping. It then becomes possible for you to understand to what extent it will be important for him that this coping mechanism isn’t threatened by how you approach him. So, it is about trying to dialogue with him in such a way that he feels he can talk to you about why he is doing this at the moment.
Eating disorders are manifestations of underlying emotional distress. The most important thing for him will be that he feels listened to and not judged. Try to accept him where he is at, and to focus on how he is feeling rather than what he is doing.
Q: I am a teacher in a school and I am concerned about a particular student. What should I do?
The first thing you can do as a teacher is to inform yourself of the issues that can be involved when a person develops an eating disorder. Early intervention in eating disorders greatly improves the outcome. It is important for you to take clear concise notes of the incidents and observed behaviors that have led you to believe there is a problem. Although you cannot “diagnose” what the issue is with the student in question, your notes will assist a health professional in the assessment and diagnostic process should this need arise. It is important that you share your concerns with the school counselor, or the person in charge of pastoral care. Then decide who is the most appropriate person to approach the young person and his / her family.
Please check out NEDA’s Educator Tool Kit for more information on how to help your student.
Q: I am a manager of a gym and we are quite concerned about one of our members. What should we do?
If you are concerned about somebody using your gym, it is important that, before you approach the person, you are very clear in your own mind about what your concerns are and about what you have observed. It is also really important that you make yourself aware of what the gym’s health and safety policy around this issue is. It will be very helpful if you inform yourself about eating disorders and about what help and support there is available to somebody with an eating disorder.
When approaching the person in question try to find a way of taking the person aside privately and at a time when you have the available time to express your concerns about what you have observed and to listen to them without judging them. They may not wish to talk to you about it and may even react negatively.
Make sure you have information available for them about where they can get support and help so that you can offer it to them. Even if they are not ready to seek help now, they may feel ready to do so at a later stage. Knowing that you were supportive in your initial approach will make it possible for them to approach you again if they feel they need your support at a later stage.
Q: What services does Living Bread offer?
Living Bread offers mental health and nutrition counseling services to individuals with eating disorders. We also offer prayer ministry and faith based counseling services.
Q: My friend has told me about their eating disorder. I am concerned that they need help quite urgently but I am afraid of breaking their trust. What should I do?
The answer to this question somewhat depends on how ill your friend is and what age she or he is. Someone with an eating disorder can be dangerously ill, both psychologically and physically and may not be able to recognize that they are in need of urgent help. In those situations, it is necessary that a friend does take action. This could entail informing their next-of-kin or accompanying them to their family doctor. When the person recovers, they will understand that you have acted in their best interest. Where you feel urgent help is required, it is best if you can in some way communicate your concern to the person, and try in some way to find a way in which you decide together what help to get.
Q: Can you get better without professional help?
The road to recovery from an eating disorder is different for everybody. Some people do manage to recover on their own, with the right level of support. However, it can be more difficult to recover from an eating disorder on one’s own without access to support services and / or some form of professional help and support. A big part of recovery is creating the right environment that is conducive to and supportive of effective change, and this can be more difficult to do without some form of regular support / professional help. Some people try repeatedly to recover on their own, but often there comes a point when they realize they cannot sustain any changes they are trying to make and they recognize that they need to get some help. The need to seek out professional help should never be viewed as a failure to cope. It is more a matter of a person having reached a point where they can recognize that they need further support. It is also about valuing themselves enough to get the help they need. The move towards help can be seen as a move towards engaging with others and with life in general in a healthful, growthful way.
Q: How do I know if my therapy is working?
This is a question that people often ask because therapy is a process, which ebbs and flows, and often change occurs very slowly. This slowness can be experienced as frustrating for the individual because they are making a huge effort and expect to see results. If you are worried that your therapy is not working then it is really important that you bring this concern to your therapist/counselor for discussion. If you feel you cannot do this then that in itself is something to bring back to your therapist. If you have concerns that you are not getting better, or that you are unclear of how you are progressing then the thoughts and feelings you are experiencing around this can provide valuable input into your therapy sessions and can often free things up and provide a sense of movement again. The most important element in therapy is that you manage to establish a trusting relationship with your therapist in which you feel safe to be as you are. It can take some time to develop trust in any relationship so you will need to give the therapeutic relationship some time too before making any decisions about whether or not your therapist is the right person for you.
Q: Who funds Living Bread?
Living Bread relies on support from the community. We are a registered 501(c)3 and donations are tax deductible. This funding does not cover the entire running costs of our growing organization. We rely on funding opportunities from individuals, community organizations and churches.
Q: Who works at Living Bread?
Currently at Living Bread we have three counselors and two dietitians. All support services are provided by trained volunteers. See our clinical team for more detailed information.
Q: Who is on the board of Living Bread?
Please see our Board of Directors page.
Q: How do I volunteer with Living Bread?
Please contact us if you are interested in volunteering with Living Bread.
Q: How can I donate to Living Bread?
To find out more about how you can make a donation to support Living Bread services, see our Donate page.
Q: How many people have an eating disorder?
For the most recent statistics available see our Statistics page.