What Are Eating Disorder Compensatory Behaviors?
Eating disorders are about control and for many, a desire to be thin. Eating disorders revolve around food. A person with an eating disorder usually feels anxious and out of control when they eat, especially if they binge eat. These feelings of anxiety and shame will lead the person to want to do something to compensate for those calories consumed so that they do not gain weight and so they can regain a feeling of control. The goal of a compensatory behavior is to make up for an act you don't feel good about. An example not related to eating disorders would be if you lose your patience and say something hurtful to your significant other so you do something nice for them the next day to make it up to them. You are compensating for something you did and alleviating guilt for losing your patience.
What Conditions Might People Have That Will Lead to These Behaviors?
Any eating disorder can lead to compensatory behaviors. The most common are likely bulimia, anorexia, and purging disorder but anyone who is dealing with an unhealthy image of their body and/or has an unhealthy relationship with food may engage compensatory behaviors.
In the case of bulimia, the person binge eats and then purges afterward. You might notice that they have bloodshot eyes, roundness in the jaw area, swollen glands, and yellow, spotted, or decaying teeth. There are many other potential symptoms to watch for as well. The purging is the compensatory behavior. The goal is to get rid of the calories and reduce the shame and other negative feelings that come from eating. This is not just for binges. Someone with bulimia is just as likely to purge after eating a meal with their family.
With anorexia, the individual does not eat enough calories. Some of the physical symptoms of anorexia include cold hands and feet, sensitivity to cold, extreme weight loss, a tendency to bruise easily, low blood pressure, and dry or thinning hair.
There is less known about purging disorder. It is not an official diagnosis like bulimia and anorexia. It is characterized by purging after eating, the compensatory behavior, but unlike bulimia, those with this disorder do not binge. They purge after eating typical quantiles of food.
Some of The Most Common Compensatory Behaviors
Compensatory behaviors are a part of all eating disorders whether through food restriction or purging. There are other types of compensatory behaviors that may occur as well, such as compulsive exercise and self-harm. The frequency and severity will vary from person to person. Some of the most common compensatory behaviors are described below.
Food restriction is most common in anorexia but it can present in all forms of disordered eating. It could manifest in many different ways. A person might have a small group of foods they eat, such as low-calorie foods only. It could also be a cycle for some, eating normally or excessively, followed by a period of food restriction to make up for calories consumed.
Purging is the most common form of compensatory behavior for bulimia. It literally rids the body of the food consumed and people who purge report feeling relief after purging. As mentioned with purging disorder, this does not have to occur after binging. It could happen after a typical meal or snack. The goal is to get rid of the food and not gain weight so it does not have to have been a large quantity consumed. The other goal is retaining control and feeling relief from anxiety and purging achieves that.
Some people who do not have an official eating disorder but are struggling with body image may purge from time to time. It might be something they do if they eat a big or high calorie meal to make up for getting off their diet plan. Some individuals with anorexia purge from time to time though it is less common.
While exercise is healthy, when it is done to compensate for eating, it can be unhealthy. The reason this is a compensatory behavior is because the goal is to burn off calories from eating and prevent weight gain. It's most common with purging disorder, but it happens within other disorders as well. Typically, when exercise is a compensatory behavior, the person will exercise for hours and beyond what most people could consider typical, such as running on the treadmill for hours at a time.
How much exercise is excessive? This answer will different for everyone but in general, when a person "has" to exercise or their other activities and obligations are secondary to exercising, it is likely obsessive. Unless someone is training for an event or has another reason, exercising for hours a day and every single day of the week is generally considered excessive. If a person exercises despite injury or illness it is another sign it could be excessive and unhealthy.
Fasting is something that people do for many different reasons. Some religions require fasting on holy days because it is thought that doing so makes you more pious or puts you more in touch with a particular deity.
It can also be a compensatory behavior in eating disorders. The reason is because the time spent fasting can make up for a regular day of eating, or it can prepare the body for eating food later. For example, someone who fasts as a compensatory behavior feels less anxious eating dinner in the evening because they have fasted all day. Or, someone who has binged the previous day feels like fasting the next day makes up for the extra calories.
If someone is fasting, it might be something that you observe without them saying anything about it. They might also order food at a restaurant or put food on their plates at the dinner table to make it seem like they are eating, but then they will only eat a bite or two, or they will push it around the plate.
There are also people who have eating disorders who engage in other forms of self-harm because of feelings of guilt associated with what they are doing. You might see instances of cutting, which is where a person cuts their skin to alleviate feelings of sadness, anxiety, or depression.
This behavior, much like not eating, is something that they'll usually try to keep private. If you have a friend or a family member who you suspect is doing it, try to notice whether they ever wear outfits that show particular parts of their bodies. If they insist on wearing long sleeves even during hot weather, for instance, then they might be trying to conceal the marks from cutting.
What Can You Do If You Observe These Behaviors or Suspect Them?
If you think that someone you know is engaging in compensatory behaviors because of an eating disorder, you are probably worried about them and want to do something. It is hard to know what to do. Someone with an eating disorder works hard to keep other people from knowing about it and talking about it is likely very uncomfortable for them.
If you feel comfortable, you can start by sharing some of your observations in a calm, non-judgmental tone. Such as, "I realized that you haven't been coming to mom's house on Sundays like usual because you have had to go to the gym. It seems like exercising is really important to you. It has me wondering if maybe there is something wrong?" You can see what kind of response you get with a gentle opener and you might get more information, and you might be told nothing is wrong and to mind your own business. If the latter happens, don't take it personally. First, you could be wrong. Second, for someone to get treatment for their eating disorder, they have to want to. It will not do any good for you to pressure them. Of course, this advice is intended for adults. If you the parent of a child you think has an eating disorder, this suggestion is not applicable. You will want to consult with their doctor and a counselor.
Do You Need to Talk About Someone Who Has an Eating Disorder?
If you have an eating disorder or you know someone who does, then it can be a lonely feeling. It's imperative that you or the person you love get help. Eating disorders require treatment.It is both a medical and mental health problem. Counseling is very important in building a healthy relationship with food, a realistic body image, and challenging negative thoughts. You can search for therapists in your area who work with eating disorders. If you prefer online counselling, you can talk to someone who can help you create a plan to get on the path to recovery. You may find that your online counselor can meet your needs or they may recommend face to face counseling if that is what is appropriate for you. If you are worried about someone who may have an eating disorder, talking to a counselor can be very helpful. You can ask questions and get more information and talk about your own feelings. Eating disorders affect everyone, not just the person with the disorder. The main thing is do not wait. The sooner you reach out and get help, the sooner you can feel like you are moving toward a solution.