Eating Disorders Awareness Week: Foster a Healthy Relationship with Food

by MC1 (SW) Liz Vlahos
Naval Medical Center

PORTSMOUTH, Va. (NNS) -- Though National Eating Disorders Awareness Week runs Feb. 21-27, it is important to recognize the hazards of disordered eating habits and to emphasize a healthy relationship with food year-round.

Naval Medical Center Portsmouth (NMCP) offers several services that can help those affected with the use of nutrition and mental health experts.

Eating disorders are much more complicated than the image of the diet gone out of control. Disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder include extreme emotions, attitudes, and behaviors surrounding weight and food issues.

A person with an eating disorder may try to use food and the control of food to cope with feelings and emotions that may otherwise seem overwhelming. Ultimately these behaviors have the opposite effect on the sufferer's self-esteem and sense of competence and control adversely affecting his or her physical and emotional health.

"Eating disorders can be biological and situational, they can be influenced by society, and they can also be trauma-related," said Laurie Cutlip, a nutritionist at NMCP. "Most people with an eating disorder are overachievers. If you have a personality type where you want to be the best at everything and can't accept imperfection in yourself, that can trigger an eating disorder."

Though eating disorders have often been mischaracterized as "teenage girls' problems," they cut across all age, gender, racial and cultural demographics. Approximately 20 million women and 10 million men will suffer from a clinically significant eating disorder at some point in their lives.

Stressors within military service can potentially lead to eating disorders as well. Some service members feel pressure to lose weight in order to fall within standards for the semiannual Physical Fitness Assessment, and this may lead to an eating disorder if they habitually uses drastic measures to lose weight for the Body Composition Assessment (BCA).

"Many Sailors don't PT until about two weeks before their BCA and their [Physical Readiness Test] come up," Cutlip said, "and they have too many pounds to lose and a short period of time to lose it in. They're worried about their careers and their families, and they go to extreme measures to lose this weight, such as eating very minimally, using laxatives or purging through exercise. When Sailors get into the habit of doing those things, it starts to become normal for them."

Eating disorders are serious, life-threatening conditions with disastrous consequences for a person's emotional and physical health, and they can happen to anyone.

Anorexia nervosa occurs when someone has an intense fear of gaining weight and intentionally restricts his or her food intake in order to lose weight. A person with anorexia becomes obsessed with his or her weight and will often resort to persistent and extreme behavior to prevent weight gain.

Bulimia nervosa occurs when someone frequently eats large amounts of food and then purges what he or she has just eaten, by means of self-induced vomiting or the use of laxatives. Bulimia nervosa is just as dangerous as anorexia nervosa.

Binge eating disorder occurs when someone frequently eats large amounts of food, but doesn't purge what he or she has eaten. Similar to bulimics, though, binge eaters often feel out of control during periods of binge eating, and they experience feelings of shame as a result.

In addition, plenty of other eating disorders fall into the category of Eating Disorders Not Otherwise Specified, or EDNOS.

"Certain criteria have to be in place for a doctor to diagnose someone with either anorexia or bulimia," Cutlip said. "An eating disorder NOS can be where the patient's condition just doesn't meet all the diagnostic criteria."

Recovering from an eating disorder is not as simple as deciding to eat a full meal or deciding not to purge what one has eaten. People with eating disorders need to seek professional help. Treatment for an eating disorder must address the symptoms and the medical consequences, as well as contributing psychological, biological, interpersonal, and cultural factors that may aggravate the disorder.

"Treatment entails a lot of cognitive behavioral therapy with a psychologist, which is the most important thing," said Cutlip. "Where nutrition comes in, you have to remember that you're dealing with people who obsess over food, so you don't want to add to that by having them count their calories. Meal plans work best with eating disorder patients. For example, you could have them eat at least five foods from three different food groups. We're trying to promote healthy eating and give them guidelines without holding them to rigid criteria, such as calorie-counting, that may trigger more stress."

If you suspect a friend, family member or shipmate may have an eating disorder, voice your concerns in a forthright and caring manner, and encourage that person to seek trained professional help. Early diagnosis and intervention significantly increase the patient's chances for recovery; left untreated, however, eating disorders can become chronic, debilitating, and even deadly.

"If you have an eating disorder, get help and get help quick," said Cutlip. "You can't do it on your own. The sooner you get help, the quicker your recovery generally is."

For more news from Naval Medical Center Portsmouth, visit

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