What would you say to a friend who stopped eating? Or to a relative who
couldn't stop? Eating disorder counselors deal with these issues every day.
They treat people who have developed dangerous eating habits.
Some patients may eat too much, some too little. Many need to learn to
manage their eating, as well as increase their self-esteem. Counselors help
people help themselves, and in some cases, help people who may end up dying
because of the disease they have.
Many eating disorder counselors work with teenagers and women who have
low self-esteem. They may work in clinics, schools, hospitals or in private
"Some of the diseases we treat are very nasty," says counselor Vanessa
Nyholm in South Carolina. She often sees women who are far below their healthy
"These diseases aren't like a cold or cancer. Eating disorders not only
affect your body, but they originate in your mind. You feel like you don't
deserve to eat, or you fill yourself up with food to make yourself feel better."
Eating disorders are characterized by an obsession with food, says Linda
McDonald, a professor and specialist in eating disorders.
"Women, and men too, are so driven to be thin that their obsession with
food drives them to punish their bodies through binge-eating, bingeing and
purging, or through starvation," says McDonald, who is a trained psychologist.
Anorexia nervosa is characterized by self-starvation, extreme exercising
and dramatic weight loss. Bulimia nervosa involves a secretive cycle of eating
a lot of food, followed by purging it from the body through vomiting, laxatives
or extreme exercise.
The binge eating disorder, sometimes referred to as compulsive overeating,
sees patients stuff themselves with food, followed by a period of distress
or depression from having eaten. Up to 15 percent of North Americans have
an eating disorder, according to Eating Disorder Recovery Online.
"The two most important parts of the job are recognizing the symptoms,
and helping a patient stop the cycle," says social worker Jack Knight. "It's
a progressive disease, meaning that it can end in death."
Eating disorder counselors can have a wide range of skills, from nutrition
training to mental health counseling to exercise training. Conquering the
disease affects all areas of a patient's life.
Counselors see patients in their offices or in special clinics, and work
closely with the families of sufferers, medical doctors and nutritionists.
If an eating disorder counselor has gone through medical school, they may
work in a hospital, or be a psychiatrist specializing in eating disorders.
Most counselors work 9-to-5 days, though they may be called to act in emergencies.
Some patients may have the disease for years, so counselors must be willing
to work with someone for a long time.