Eating Disorders, Nutrition and Recovery
By Marcie Vaske, MS, LN
November 18, 2014
Eating disorders. When you read that, what comes to mind? Do you think of yourself? Do you think of a friend or loved one? How has an eating disorder affected your life? According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD), 24 million people of all ages and genders suffer from an eating disorder in the United States and only 1 in 10 will receive treatment. Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental disorder. Have I gotten your attention?
I’ve battled a lifelong fight with disordered eating, which turned into a 10-year struggle with anorexia and compulsive over exercising. Eating disorders have affected my life in so many ways. My family relationships, personal relationships, friendships, parties and events, eating out, work, even seemingly simple everyday tasks have been impacted by my eating disorder. I know the struggle both emotionally and physically; it depletes you and consumes every thought, but I also know there is hope to live a happier life. If you or someone you love struggles with an eating disorder, know that there are ways to feel and live better once you’re ready to make changes.
Types of eating disorders
Eating disorders are defined as abnormal feeding habits associated with medical factors which have complex underlying psychological and biological causes.* Many of us may initially think of anorexia and bulimia, but you may be surprised to learn there are actually eight different types of eating disorders:
- Anorexia Nervosa: Characterized as a refusal to eat, maintain healthy body weight based on age/height. An intense fear of gaining weight and body dysmorphia.
- Bulimia Nervosa: Cyclical binging and purging episodes, occurs at least two times per week or more for a period of at least three months.
- Binge Eating: Recurring episodes of binge eating that occur twice a week or more for at least six months.
- Anorexia Athletica: Several disordered behaviors that lie on the eating disorder spectrum, but is characterized by excessive, obsessive exercise.
- Overeating: Begins when it manifests into a compulsive or obsessive relationship with food.
- Night Eating: Characterized by eating little food during the day. Bulk of the food is consumed during the evening and with a person waking several times to eat during the night.
- Orthorexia Nervosa: Obsessive behavior about eating “pure” or “right” or “proper food” rather than on the quantity of food consumed.
- Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified: When people exhibit behaviors in the spectrum of disordered eating, but do not meet all the criteria for anorexia or bulimia.
Who is at risk for eating disorders?
Eating disorders are more common in women, but the disorder doesn’t discriminate, 10 percent are male.
What’s happening in the body of someone with an eating disorder?
Let’s take a brief journey into the gut-brain connection to better understand what’s happening biochemically when someone has an eating disorder.
When an individual restricts or purges food, the body becomes malnourished and dehydrated and experiences electrolyte imbalances. Over time, this leads to vitamin and mineral deficiencies which can affect the body and brain. In addition, the digestive tract becomes compromised and key nutrients are not absorbed. Important brain chemicals called neurotransmitters are not made. The new science of the gut-brain connection has found that 95 percent of brain chemicals are made in your intestinal tract. Neurotransmitters are the feel-good chemicals which help the brain maintain healthy thought patterns, give a sense of calm and keep carbohydrate cravings in check.
People with eating disorders are typically not producing sufficient amounts of these feel-good brain chemicals. It’s common for people with eating disorders to experience recycled or obsessive thoughts, depression or feelings low self-esteem. This out-of-balance brain chemistry leads people to restrict eating, overeat, binge or purge. All of these behaviors continue to propel the eating disorder further and further down a dangerous road.
Looking back, I can see how this cycle escalated with me. The more damaged my gut health became, the more out of control the eating disorder became. It was a vicious pattern of behavior that left me feeling anxious, obsessively thinking of what I could eat, if I should eat and when, or if I decided to eat at all. I had chronic stomachaches and was instantly stressed if my daily pattern was changed or had to be altered.
How can nutrition help?
There are several hospital and therapy-based treatment centers for people with eating disorders, however, the therapy and treatment programs won’t be as effective until the underlying biochemistry is repaired. This was true for me and also for Nutritional Weight & Wellness client Jennifer. Nutrition is critical to re-balance brain chemistry.
As I explained earlier, when we eat protein, neurotransmitters are made in the digestive tract. So a key first step for someone with an eating disorder is to increase protein intake. For an individual who is struggling to eat or keep foods down, this may be overwhelming, but there are ways to ease into it. Here is one that worked for me.
I used whey protein, made from dairy, to increase my serotonin levels. Whey protein can be used in a smoothie or yogurt. I found in my recovery process it was easier to consume liquids or softer foods. At Nutritional Weight & Wellness, we a have recipe called the Serotonin Sundae.
- ½ c full fat plain yogurt
- ¼ c berries
- 1-2 T. whey protein powder
- 1 T. unsweetened coconut (or 1 T. almond butter or 1 T. chopped nuts)
In addition to increasing protein, it is important to eat more fruits and vegetables and to add healthy fats such as butter, olive oil, coconut oil, avocado and olives.
Eating disorders are becoming an epidemic in our country. You may be affected or know someone who is suffering from one. It is critical, due to the complexity of eating disorders, to receive professional help emotionally and physically. My recovery was a slow process and took time, but every day I woke up knowing I was going to win the battle. I made the choice—even when it was so difficult to think of putting food in my mouth—to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner. Whatever I ate in addition to that was a benefit. If I wasn’t able to get a snack in, I reminded myself that the next day was a new day and new start. I had a motto that I said daily and find myself still saying, “This is who I am today.” It represents all the moments I succeeded, and when there were times that I didn’t, it wasn’t a reflection of my character, just a little step back that day. At Nutritional Weight & Wellness we are ready, when you are, to help you use nutrition to re-balance your brain chemistry. It wasn’t an easy task at the beginning, but I have more good days than bad. I believe you can too. Contact me at 952-345-0766 or firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions.
For more information, listen to our podcast: Food, Brain Chemistry, and Eating Disorders.