Eating disorders vary in the symptoms they cause and the consequences they can bring, but nearly all of them seem to have one thing in common: the desire to compensate or "make up" for something. In many cases, this something is the intake of food. Because compensatory behaviors are generally rooted in anxiety and a desire for control, they can easily spiral into something that poses a serious risk to your health. In this article, we'll discuss common compensatory behaviors caused by eating disorders and outline what you can do to stop them.
What Are Eating Disorder Compensatory Behaviors?
The goal of compensatory behavior is to make up for an act you don't feel good about. An example not related to eating disorders might be doing something nice for a partner after snapping at them; a bouquet of flowers, in this case, acts as a way to compensate for something you did and alleviate the guilt you might feel for losing your patience.
What Conditions Might Lead To These Behaviors?
Any eating disorder can lead to compensatory behaviors. The most common are likely bulimia nervosa, anorexia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder. However, just about anyone with an unhealthy relationship with food and body image may engage in compensatory behaviors.
In a way, many behaviors that characterize eating disorders are, by nature, compensatory. A person with anorexia may severely restrict their food intake to make up for their perceived excess weight. A person with bulimia may purge after a binge or eating in general to make up for calories consumed. The desire to manipulate what we eat and why is often deeply rooted in the belief that an individual has to work to be considered worthy, valid, or loveable.
Understanding these behaviors for what they are and being able to identify them can help us better support those with eating disorders. If you have an eating disorder, it may be beneficial to be able to recognize these tendencies, as many of them pose significant risks to mental and physical health.
Some Of The Most Common Compensatory Behaviors
Compensatory behaviors can look different depending on the eating disorder in question and the individual themselves. The frequency and severity of these actions will vary from person to person. Some of the most common compensatory behaviors are described below.
Food restriction is most common in anorexia but 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; a period of eating normally or excessively may be followed by a period of food restriction to make up for calories consumed.
Purging is perhaps the most common form of compensatory behavior for bulimia. It literally rids the body of the food consumed. As mentioned above, 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, often because of a perception that failing to do so will lead to unwanted consequences (like weight gain). 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. They might do it 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, too. In fact, experts recognize purging behavior as a subtype of anorexia nervosa; those with this condition may purge in addition to restricting their food intake.
While exercise is generally healthy, when it is done to compensate for eating or in excess, things can quickly take a turn for the worst. The reason this is a compensatory behavior is because the goal is to burn off calories from eating and prevent weight gain. Typically, when exercise is a compensatory behavior, the person will exercise for hours and beyond what most people consider typical, such as running on the treadmill for hours at a time.
How much exercise is excessive? This answer will likely be 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 compulsive. 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, something bigger may be going on.
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 that the fasting time can make up for a regular day of eating, or it can prepare the body for eating later. For example, someone who fasts as a compensatory behavior may feel less anxious eating dinner in the evening because they have fasted all day. Or someone who has binged the previous day might feel like fasting the next day makes up for the extra calories.
Seeking Professional Help
If you have an eating disorder or know someone who does, you may be no stranger to compensatory behaviors. Though they often serve to lessen feelings of anxiety in the moment, their long-term consequences can be significant. That's why it can be so vital to seek help if you or someone you know is exhibiting signs of this sort of behavior.
Professional mental healthcare can be important in terms of building a healthy relationship with food, cultivating a realistic body image, and challenging negative thoughts. You may find that online therapy makes it easier to find a professional who has experience working with patients with eating disorders. In addition to having a wide range of providers to choose from, you can take advantage of online therapy's convenience; all you need to receive care is an internet connection.
Working with a therapist online can significantly improve your symptoms, too. One review of studies analyzing the effectiveness of online cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) found that web-based treatment options led to a significant decrease in symptoms of anxiety and depression. Even if your eating disorder isn't related to another mental health disorder, the symptoms you're experiencing can likely be improved through online therapy.
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