When Should Someone Seek Treatment for an Eating Disorder?

What is the difference between someone with an eating disorder who should explore eating disorder treatment centers and someone who follows a highly restricted dietary plan? What should be understood first about anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa or binge eating disorder is that eating disorders are not about health or staying “skinny.” Instead, eating disorders are serious mental health problems often involving low self-esteem, depression and distorted self-perception.

When to Get Professional Help from an Eating Disorder Recovery Center

Anorexia Nervosa

Teens and adults with anorexia nervosa should present at least three of the following symptoms:

  • Maintaining a body weight significantly low for their age, gender, physical health and developmental trajectory
  • Distorted self-image, especially concerning their physical appearance. In some cases, a person with anorexia nervosa understands others think they are too thin and will cover up their frame with oversized clothing
  • Constantly evaluate what they eat (fat grams, calories)
  • When eating with others, they may chew their food excessively and constantly rearrange food on their plate to make it look like they are eating (“food rituals”)
  • Obsessively exercising, despite feeling ill or exhausted
  • Increasingly becomes isolated, secretive and withdrawn
  • May have severe dizziness and/or fainting spells due to anemia, low hormone levels and low potassium
  • Using diuretics and enemas as a way to keep from gaining weight

Eating disorder treatment centers strongly recommend residential therapy for people with anorexia nervosa symptoms before serious health problems begin affecting them. If untreated, anorexia nervosa could result in dangerous metabolic/electrolyte imbalances, suicidal ideation and permanent organ damage. Hospitalization may be necessary before someone with anorexia nervosa can begin therapy at an eating disorder recovery center.

Bulimia Nervosa

Unlike anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa does not typically involve calorie restriction. Instead, it is characterized by a cycle of binge eating episodes and subsequent purging behaviors. Some bulimia nervosa patients seeking help through an eating disorder recovery program understand their binge eating episodes will lead to weight gain. Consequently, they may abuse diuretics/laxatives or force themselves to vomit after eating large amounts of food.

Signs that someone may have bulimia nervosa and should seek treatment at eating disorder treatment centers include:

  • Disappearing suddenly after eating meals with others (going to the bathroom to vomit or to take laxatives)
  • Engaging in food rituals
  • Hoarding food in their room or home (for example, a family member may find dozens of boxes of cookies or other snacks stashed under their loved one’s bed or many empty food containers hidden in a trash can)
  • Intense fear/dislike of eating in public
  • Diminished oral health (stained teeth, halitosis, gingivitis) due to repeated vomiting
  • Withdraws from family and friends

Teens and adults with bulimia nervosa may also gain weight, lose weight and regain weight repeatedly. This “yo-yo” dieting can lead to the same kind of serious health issues suffered by people with anorexia nervosa.

What Do Eating Disorder Recovery Centers Do?

Getting help for a teenager or adult whom you suspect has an eating disorder does not mean you have to wait until they have suffered immense physical and emotional harm. With a deep understanding and knowledge about the complexity of anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa or binge eating disorder, eating disorder recovery therapists will perform a complete evaluation on someone presenting symptoms of an eating disorder to determine if they need residential treatment.

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