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What is an Eating Disorder?

I thought today would be the perfect day to write something, given that it’s eating disorder awareness week.

I find it sad that this is not something that we hear more about given that more and more people are being diagnosed. I also find it sad that there is still so much shame and stigma associated with it. It is so difficult to make people understand that you can’t just tell someone to eat and make everything better.

I could start by defining anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder and EDNOS (Eating disorder not otherwise specified), but this is not what I see when someone is struggling with this illness. These diagnoses are what the doctors use but from my perspective, regardless of which diagnosis a person is given, they present with similar issues. My clients are amazing women and men who struggle with poor self esteem, post traumatic stress disorder, very poor body image, etc…and they use the food as a means to try to cope with some or all of these issues. I tell my clients all the time: “An eating disorder is maybe 10% about the food”. If this is the case, then helping someone eat is not going to help them get over this illness.

For some clients, their eating disorder is what they feel is keeping them in control of their lives. When they feel like they can’t control anything else in this world, the sense of control they feel they get by counting calories, or weighing a specific number on the scale makes them feel better. What most don’t see in the moment is that the eating disorder takes over the control so it’s actually the eating disorder controlling them and not the opposite at this point.

So to sum it up, regardless of whether a person is starving themselves, throwing up what they eat, abusing laxatives, over-exercising, binge eating or anything and everything in between, they are really trying to cope with other issues and regain control of a world that feels so out of control to them. This is what people need to understand. You can’t expect a person to eat “well” and have any of these problems go away!

As a dietitian in the field, most people think I just put someone on a meal plan and give them nutrition education. While this is part of my job, I do so much more! Most clients can tell me the calorie count in food before I have a chance to look it up. Most clients can tell me all about every single diet that’s out there as well. They know the nutrition basics. Knowledge is not the problem!

The problem is that in addition to everything mentioned above, you have society throwing in our faces that we all need to look a certain way and eat a certain way and exercise a certain way! It is so frustrating. How can we accept the way we are and how we look if everything in society is telling us not to? Did you know that they have changed the dimensions of Barbie and GI Joe dolls to reflect that women should have no curves with big boobs and men should be muscular with no body fat? This is the message we are giving children and it only gets worse as we get older!

We need to stop listening to society’s cookie cutter approach and embrace our differences and accept ourselves for who we are! Changing your appearance does NOT change you as a person. This is the message that we need to be teaching and learning! We also need to stop focusing on every little aspect of food and exercise! Everything in moderation is key! Finally, we need to stop making food, exercise and appearances part of our everyday conversation.

It’s time to end the stigma and raise awareness that this is a real, scary and severe illness. In my short ten years working in the field, I have lost 2 former clients to this illness. I dedicate this post to them as well as to the many other clients from my past and present that still struggle with this. If you or someone you know is struggling, please ask for help. Let’s help people understand what this illness consists of and what they can do to help! Each person has the power to make a difference!

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