Long-term effects make eating disorder recovery difficult for students

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Seeking treatment for an eating disorder is not easy, but recovery can be even more difficult for some due to the lasting physical and emotional damages it can cause.

According to a study conducted by the Eating Recovery Center, 80 percent of those who seek treatment are able to achieve full remission. However, physical damage to someone’s body caused by binge eating disorder, bulimia, anorexia and other eating disorders can make emotional recovery even harder for the 20 percent who don’t experience full physical remission.

“Binge eating disorder is the most common eating disorder, but most people go undiagnosed,” said Dr. Bobby Nix, the director of UT Physicians Behavioral Health Outpatient Clinic. By going undiagnosed, Nix said, students may run the risk of altering their body’s set point weight and slowing their metabolism permanently.

“As you try to lose weight, your body’s metabolism actually slows down so you don’t go below your new set point weight,” Nix said.

For those who are overweight due to binge eating disorder and are trying to lose weight, this can be extremely disheartening. But Nix said proper exercise and a dietary lifestyle change can help improve thyroid production and therefore increase metabolism over time.

Other eating disorders such as anorexia, characterized by deliberate starvation, and bulimia, characterized by purging of calories, can have lasting effects that may lead to difficulty during the recovery process as well.

While most people associate bulimia with vomiting, laxatives are also a common way that students choose to purge. Nix warned that laxative purging can traumatize the digestive tract and could lead to lifelong medication to assist with bowel movements.

As for purging by vomiting, Jennifer Barnoud, a registered dietitian for the University Health Services at UT, said it can cause acid reflux that may or may not be reversible.

“That can be challenging for someone with a history of purging to not be able to keep food down when they finally want to,” Barnoud said. “It adds another layer to have to work through from an emotional level.”

Dr. Allison Chase, regional managing clinical director of Eating Recovery Center in Austin, said anorexia can cause damage to the digestive system as well as the skeletal system.

“If you’ve been starving yourself long enough to where you are no longer having a period and producing estrogen, you will end up with osteoporosis,” Chase said. “And osteoporosis is not reversible.”

Chase said that for women, messing with the endocrine system can affect the body’s ability to have normal cycles and can even decrease the chances of conceiving later in life.

While there are many damages eating disorders can cause the body, Chase said that the most common long-lasting side effect is the emotional trauma that eating disorders are born from.

“The body image part and the anxiety-depression piece that runs hand in hand with eating disorders, they take the longest to work through,” Chase said. “It’s not a miracle recovery all of a sudden, and you’re not experiencing that anxiety anymore or feeling what’s happening.”

By focusing on characteristics other than physical appearance, Chase said that students are able to love themselves again and take charge of their recovery.

“The kind of person you are, the kind of friend you are, your values, finding an occupation that you love, hobbies that you enjoy, things that light you up internally,” Chase said. “Those things are truly important. They make you realize that you are not that outside being, you are someone inside.”