SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) – Eating disorders are one of the most common issues experienced by people all over the world, but often the least talked about. 

National surveys estimate that 20 million women and 10 million men in America will have an eating disorder at some point in their lives.

Wanting to have a place locally in Savannah for individuals who have eating disorders and their families, a licensed professional counselor Mieke Kramer started Solstice Point Counseling, LLC in 2015 — a holistic counseling center that seeks to provide a compassionate and thriving approach to therapy. Solstice Point specializes in eating recovery, trauma recovery and addiction recovery.

Mieke Kramer, LPC, CEDS, CEDS-Supervisor, CPCS started Solstice Point Counseling, LLC in 2015. Photo Provided

“The 90% of our caseload is going to be made up of individuals with eating disorders. It’s a large number,” said Kramer.

“I hate to put it into a large number because at the same time, that makes me sad to think about that many people who do have eating disorders that seek us out,” she said. ” Ultimately we’re talking about at least over 100 people that are contacting us for eating disorders in the Savannah area alone.”

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), an eating disorder is a serious and often fatal illness that is associated with severe disturbances in a person’s eating behaviors and related thoughts and emotions. Preoccupation with food, body weight and shape may also signal an eating disorder.

Common eating disorders include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder.

Anorexia nervosa is a condition where people avoid food, severely restrict food or eat very small quantities of certain foods. They may weigh themselves repeatedly. Even when dangerously underweight, they may see themselves as overweight. 

Symptoms include extremely restricted eating, extreme thinness, a relentless pursuit of thinness, intense fear of gaining weight and distorted body image.

“Some of the character traits that can be seen in individuals that can develop anorexia would be perfectionism,” explained Kramer, “that overachiever, the individual who is people pleasing, who goes out of their way to make sure other people are happy versus making themselves happy.”

“People who sometimes can have an overbearing parent,” she continued, “so they may have learned to be a people pleaser because they had this overbearing parent. We can have a combination of both nurture and a temperament. So if somebody, for example, has a people-pleasing temperament born into a family that had an overbearing parent — what a powerful mixture.”

Bulimia nervosa is a condition where people have recurrent and frequent episodes of eating large amounts of food and feeling a lack of control over these episodes. This binge-eating is followed by behavior that compensates for the overeating such as forced vomiting, excessive use of laxatives or diuretics, fasting, excessive exercise or a combination of these behaviors.

Symptoms include a chronically inflamed and sore throat, swollen salivary glands, worn tooth enamel, acid reflux disorder, intestinal distress and irritation, severe dehydration and electrolyte imbalance.

Those with binge-eating disorder lose control over their eating and have recurring episodes of eating large amounts of food. People with binge-eating disorder often are overweight or obese.  Symptoms include eating large amounts of food in a specific time period, eating even when you are full or not hungry, eating fast during binge episodes and eating until you’re uncomfortably full.

“Sometimes individuals self-soothe through food. This is where we may have individuals that may have had a parent that nurtured them a lot through food,” said Kramer. “These individuals as adults have been called emotional eaters.”

“It might have been something that was taught to them early on, to soothe yourself through food, or use food as a way to make yourself feel better. Emotional eaters may have a character trait that they are not regulating themselves,” she said. “They may always want to use something outside of themselves, like food, to control their mood. However, what we have found is that’s a very ineffective way to self-regulate.”

According to the NIMH, researchers are finding that eating disorders are caused by a complex interaction of genetic, biological, behavioral, psychological and social factors.

“It does have some components to it that are brain based. That is part of how someone’s brain actually develops,” Kramer said. “For example, someone may have a natural temperament to be a perfectionist. So that perfectionism is one of the things that if we combine it with an eating disorder, could really have significant negative impacts on someone’s mental health and physical health.”

Kramer, who had an eating disorder, said that a lot of eating disorders also come from the need to control things.

“The beginning of an eating disorder sometimes has nothing to do with food. It can have more to do with maybe a mental health case, like anxiety, for example,” said Kramer. “Then someone tries to find, like in my case, a way to manage anxiety.

“So, instead of having really great skill sets, to cope with the anxiety, I projected the anxiety onto food and started calorie counting. I started looking at food in not so much a way for me to nourish myself but in a way to count calories. I saw that as numbers. I saw myself as a number as well. A number on a scale, a number in the size of clothing. That can get really out of control, really quickly.”

It is important to seek treatment early for eating disorders. People with eating disorders are at higher risk for suicide and medical complications and can often have other mental disorders (such as depression or anxiety) or problems with substance use. Complete recovery is possible.

“For my own personal story, it was about realizing that I needed a better coping skill for anxiety than food for my body,” Kramer said. “Learning to manage the things that caused my anxiety helped turn my recovery into something I actually could do.”

Steps towards recovery require a lot of help. Friends and family are often key to encouraging loved ones with eating disorders. Whether they are unaware that there is a problem, they are afraid or ashamed to seek help or they are ambivalent about giving up their concerning behaviors, many sufferers find it difficult to seek available help.

“You could have just the start of an eating disorder, we would rather help you manage stress in your life than move into more of the severe spectrums of eating disorders,” Kramer said. “So, no matter where you are on that line, we open the door.”

“Having a team of people support an individual through their recovery is probably one of the biggest things I learned from my recovery, that I don’t want to do it alone,” she continued. “I think when I tried to do it alone I kept failing, which is a real self-defeating process that can lead to depression and feeling like you’re not capable of doing things. 

“But, when you have certain people that understand eating disorders around you like counselors, dietitians, they can really provide the support to help you move forward in a recovery.”  

The National Eating Disorder Hotline is available via phone at 800-931-2237 (call or text) or through online chat.