Help and hope for eating disorders

Vernon therapist Karen McKinley shares some recent changes to diagnosis of eating disorders, treatment goals and ways to support recovery

If you or someone you love is suffering from an eating disorder, then you know all too well how every aspect of life can be affected. In this article, I’d like to discuss recent changes to eating disorder diagnosis, treatment goals, ways to support your own recovery, and most important, offer hope that recovery is possible!

Many people are surprised to learn that eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric diagnosis. They are serious, life-threatening illnesses; rarely do they get better without professional help. There are three main types of eating disorders currently recognized: anorexia, bulimia, and binge-eating disorder. Most people are familiar with anorexia and bulimia, thanks to improved education and awareness campaigns.

Binge Eating Disorder (BED) has finally been recognized as an official eating disorder in the latest version of the DSM-V, published in 2013. It is, in fact, the most prevalent eating disorder. BED is characterized by binge-eating episodes that are severe enough, and frequent enough, to cause a clinically significant level of distress. There are no purging behaviors, and most individuals suffering from BED are overweight or obese.

A significant percentage of individuals do not meet the diagnostic criteria for an eating disorder, but still struggle with food and weight issues. If you or a loved one are in this category, you deserve and will benefit from help too!

In addition to stabilizing eating patterns, common treatment goals involve overcoming the tendency to isolate, learning to identify and express feelings, processing past or current trauma, practising healthy coping strategies, exploring triggers to eating disorder behaviors, learning assertiveness skills, developing new hobbies/interests, and addressing co-occurring mood disorders or other mental health issues.

Some who struggle with bulimia or BED find that there is a food addiction component to their eating disorder. They find that their body responds in an addictive manner to certain foods, and drives the “more, more, more” response typical of binge-eating behavior. This physiological component is commonly overlooked, but can be a key part of the treatment plan for some individuals.

If you are struggling with an eating disorder, you may be feeling alone, hopeless  or scared. Here are some ways to support yourself:

1. Practise listening to, and honouring, your feelings. Ask yourself: “How am I feeling?”, “What do I need?” Then attempt to meet that need in the healthiest way possible. Maybe you feel overwhelmed and need some quiet time; maybe you feel angry and need to talk with a friend or write it out.

2. Practise radical acceptance. Work on accepting yourself as you are right now, and accepting your body as it is right now. This is a process, not a one-time event.

3. Spend time in nature. Time spent in the natural world — walking in a forest, gardening, kayaking/canoeing, etc. — has significant stress-reducing effects. Eating disorders are extremely stressful, and the outdoors is a non-commercialized, non-body-image-focused place to unwind and rejuvenate.

4. Notice what brings you joy. Living with an eating disorder can be exquisitely painful, and hopelessness is often a theme. Notice what gives you little bursts of happiness, and start building more of these simple pleasures into your life.

5. Observe when all-or-nothing thinking is present. You may notice this type of black-and-white happening often, and it can have a huge influence on your recovery process. Thoughts such as “I ate a cookie, now I might as well binge or binge and purge,” fuel the eating disordered behavior. Aim for the middle path in your thinking, avoiding extremes. This is a learning process and requires practice.

6. Reach out for help. Realize that as much as you’d like to, you just can’t do it alone. Share your struggle with a friend or family member. Support groups are wonderful for easing the isolation that almost everyone with an eating disorder experiences.

Most important of all, remember: there is hope, there is help, and recovery is always possible!

Karen McKinley is a Vernon therapist specializing in eating disorders and disordered eating. She offers individual therapy, and is currently taking names of those interested in attending a weekly support group. Please visit for more information. She may be reached at 250-307-4789 or