“Understanding and Supporting Those with Eating Disorders,” Ensign, August 2019
In order to survive, all of us must eat. But for some people, food is both a life-saving necessity and a struggle. These struggles may include unhealthy eating habits, negative body image, or—in the most serious cases—any of the many classifications of eating disorders.
Eating disorders are more widespread than you might think. Research estimates that 30 million people in the United States have an eating disorder.1 The effects of these disorders can be debilitating to those who battle them and heartbreaking to both the individual and their loved ones.
Thankfully, with Heavenly Father’s help, we can understand and support those who struggle and reignite hope for healing. The keys to helping those who struggle are (1) know the different types of eating disorders, (2) understand what causes them, (3) show compassion and empathy, (4) direct the struggling individual toward the Savior Jesus Christ and a loving Heavenly Father, and (5) introduce forms of professional help that can assist the person.
This disorder is characterized by recurrent episodes of eating large quantities of food and feeling unable to control the behavior. It can be life-threatening if left untreated.
Common signs may include:
Consistently eating large amounts of food in a short period of time
Regularly eating until one is uncomfortable
Preferring to eat alone or in secret
Experiencing shame or guilt about eating
Frequent short-term episodes of dieting or planning to diet
A sense of self-worth that is exclusively controlled by perceptions of body weight, body size, and appearance
A person with this disorder has recurring and repeated episodes of impulsive eating accompanied by immediate feelings of anxiety about weight gain. These intense feelings are followed by self-induced vomiting, inappropriate use of laxatives or diuretics, fasting, excessive exercise, or any combination of these behaviors in an effort to minimize or eliminate weight gain.
Common signs may include:
Severe depression or suicidal feelings
Chronic sore throat caused by vomiting
Worn tooth enamel as a result of exposure to stomach acid
Acid reflux problems
Intestinal problems from laxative abuse
Impulsive decision-making in other aspects of one’s life
A sense of self-worth that is exclusively controlled by perceptions of body weight, body size, and appearance, along with daily food intake
Those with anorexia may see themselves as overweight, even though they are underweight, and as a result, they mistakenly restrict their eating to the point of starvation.
Common signs may include:
Restricted eating due to a delusional perception that one is overweight
Expressing a fierce perception that one is obese, despite being obviously thin
An intense unwillingness to accept a normal definition of healthy weight
Deep-seated and constant anxiety about gaining weight
Severe depression or suicidal thoughts
A sense of self-worth that is exclusively controlled by perceptions of body weight, body size, and appearance, along with daily food intake.
Research suggests that there is no single, definitive cause for eating disorders. They are usually caused by a variety of factors unique to each individual. These may include any number of biological, psychological, and social factors. Often there are also other diagnosable mental and physical conditions that can contribute to, or co-occur with, an eating disorder, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder and related conditions, child abuse, depression, anxiety, and so on. With so many different causative factors to consider, it can be difficult to accurately identify what sparks an eating disorder in every case. In the end, what matters is that we show support and understanding to those who struggle and that we do what’s needed to promote healing, regardless of the cause.
Anyone can be affected by an eating disorder—men, women, married persons, singles, parents, the well-educated, Church leaders. In fact, people are often surprised to learn that those with eating disorders often outwardly appear to have it “all together” in most areas of their lives. However, they are usually hesitant to let anyone know they are struggling with an eating disorder because they feel embarrassed or fear being judged by others.
You can help more than you realize! The following are some specific suggestions regarding what you can do to support those who struggle with eating disorders:
Don’t judge them. Fear of being misunderstood, gossiped about, or rejected because of this disorder often stands in the way of their seeking support from others.
When those who struggle share their challenge, be sensitive and caring in your response. Encourage them to share with family and loved ones to enhance their support system.
Encourage them to seek help from qualified professionals. You may need to encourage them several times before they follow through.
Be willing to listen. People with an eating disorder may talk about things over and over again to the point of appearing irrational. Set a time limit on how long you will listen, then explain that you love them and encourage them to seek help from a professional.
Be patient with them. Outward signs of improvement are often very slow; change comes first from within—and sometimes takes years.
Encourage them to seek spiritual strength and comfort through prayer, temple attendance, scripture study, meetings with the bishop or other priesthood leaders, and priesthood blessings.
Most eating disorders are not easily resolved. However, you can help those with eating disorders move toward emotional, physical, and spiritual well-being by showing them your love and understanding, directing them toward Jesus Christ and Heavenly Father, and by encouraging them to seek professional treatment and counseling. When we do so lovingly and patiently, they will recognize that they are not alone in their struggle and will feel the hope that the Savior provides.