The Highlands Eating Disorder Treatment Center Blog
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Eating Disorder Recovery: Focus on the Problem, Not the Symptoms

Consider this analogy. You come down with a sinus infection. You’ve got sniffles, a headache, and a bit of a cough. Obviously, you want to do something that will alleviate the sniffles, get rid of the headache, and sooth the cough—but you don’t just want to do those things. Ultimately, you want to treat the sinus infection itself. If you only treat the symptoms, and not the underlying cause, you won’t actually get better—and the symptoms will surely return. All of that’s to say that, when dealing with any kind of a disease, it’s critical to identify the root cause of the problem, not just the symptoms that are giving you grief. That’s the case with eating disorder treatment, to be sure. Sadly, keeping focused on the disease and not the symptoms can be especially difficult in eating disorder treatment. It is easy to make it all about food. It’s the simplest thing in the world to act as though eating disorders all center on what and how we eat. This simply is not the case though. Eating disorders are about feelings, not food—and if we focus on the symptoms rather than the problem, we shouldn’t be surprised when we don’t make any progress in our recovery.

It’s All About Control

Consider some of the facts about eating disorders. At least 20 million American women and 10 million American men suffer from an eating disorder, yet nobody has ever woken up in the morning and simply decided to have one of these conditions. Rather, eating disorders develop through a complex combination of different factors. Most basically, eating disorders can be seen as coping mechanisms—ways of dealing with what’s going on in the environment. An eating disorder is sometimes developed in response to trauma, abuse, a volatile family environment, or an abnormality of the brain—but never by choice. In short, those who experience eating disorders may feel as though they have little control over their lives—like there are different facets of their life that they cannot shape or harness. One thing they can control is food. That’s exactly what food becomes, then: A means of control. The individual can remove the focus from external, uncontrollable things—the things that are really bothering them—and instead place the focus on what they are eating. They seek refuge through binge eating, purging, or other forms of unhealthy behavior.

Not About Food

Food is a means to an end. It is a symptom. It’s not really the problem. The eating disorder creates an unhealthy relationship with food, but it is not caused by an unhealthy relationship with food. To place the focus of eating disorder recovery entirely on food can be misleading, then—like focusing so much on drying up the sniffles that you never actually treat the underlying sinus infection. Certainly, it is important to mend the damage done to your relationship with food, something we seek to do through our nutritional standards and the work of our dietitians. Attention must also be paid to underlying issues, though, like trauma. That’s why we offer dual diagnosis care at The Highlands, and place an emphasis on treating the whole person. For those in eating disorder recovery, remember that it’s not all about your relationship to food. You want to restore a good, healthy relationship to eating, but you don’t want that to be the long focus of your recovery. You want to get to the heart of the matter—and often, that can only be done through clinical treatment. Share this article with someone you know who’s dealing with an eating disorder.

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