If I had a nickel for every patient with anorexia that has told me that their doctor has remarked, “I wish you could teach some of my overweight patients your tricks,” well… I’d have more nickels than I’d know what to do with.
Unfortunately, physicians aren’t the only ones who often see these two groups as opposite. Many of us think of the underweight and overweight as existing on opposite ends of some wide spectrum: one group has an eating disorder and consumes too little, the other consumes too much. The fat can learn something from the thin, they surmise. Just don’t take it too far, of course.
In reality, people who eat too much or too little likely share space on one end of a different spectrum, with those who have a balanced relationship with food on the opposite side.
As a recent New York Times article points out, the recent inclusion of binge eating disorder (BED) in mental health’s diagnostic manual may help bridge the gap in how we think about these two groups. As we begin to recognize and understand BED, we start to see the many similarities the disorder shares with its more familiar counterparts, anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa.
But what happens when you treat these disorders together?
When I first started treating eating disorders, I thought it was important to have more diagnosis-specific programming. Would a larger person really want to sit in a room with someone underweight and talk about their body shame? Would someone underweight panic to face a person that they fear they will look like if they begin eating properly? Like some others in our field, I worried that the anxieties and differences in these groups would be a barrier to them really being able to benefit from treatment.
I felt that each population deserved their own specific programming that would target their specific eating issues. We could work on refeeding those who needed to regain weight and we could help those who overeat to learn how to feel comfortable eating less.
And then I learned a thing or two.
What I discovered was that the work was incredibly similar. Both groups were using food in a way that was not in line with their health, well-being, and values. They were using as a tool to manage their difficult experiences and feelings – whether they were restricting or binging wasn’t really the point.
Similarities in their personalities and struggles emerged quickly too. Both groups tended to be perfectionistic and have high standards for themselves. They both were known as caretakers and supporters to others among friends and family. In the midst of helping others, both groups tended to forget and deny their own needs. And both groups tended to be very critical of themselves and place a really high value on weight and shape.
The research tells us that those who continue to place a high value on weight tend to relapse, and I realized that lessening the power that weight wielded was the work that all of these patients needed to do.
Further, they all needed to eat. While the assumption might be that those who binge eat or are of a larger size just eat all the time, that isn’t the case. In fact, most of those I see who binge eat cycle between eating too little food and then eating a large amount. So, like the patients with anorexia, those with binge eating need to learn to eat full, satisfying meals regularly.
Perhaps most importantly, treating these two groups together allows for some really powerful work to be done and connections to be made. Having patients to come face to face with their hopes and fears allows them to discover that their is a real person on the other end of those stereotypes and assumptions. They discover that their expectations about what it means to be fat or thin are hardly the case, and they can begin to challenge their own beliefs. Sharing treatment allows us to combat weight stigma in a powerful way, and that’s an issue that we all face, regardless of size.
If you’ve been in group treatment, did you have mixed groups? Did you find it helpful or not? If you haven’t, what do you imagine the pros and cons or combining treatment might be?