Eating disorders are more prevalent than Alzheimer’s, yet in comparison are largely misunderstood, associated with stigmas and studied very little. Three employees at Walden Behavioral Care — adolescent clinician Christine Bartley, Coordinator of Nutrition Services Bridget Komosky and adult clinician Erin Gilmore — were brought to the Women’s Center on Monday by Active Minds to kick off National Eating Disorder Awareness (NEDA) Week.
Many people don’t understand what eating disorders are, are unable to recognize them in others, have no idea how they develop or unintentionally contribute to the current culture which perpetuates them. Bartley, Komosky and Gilmore did their best to clear up these confusions. According to Bartley, eating disorders are any sort of distress or anxiety that comes with eating food. This means that even if someone isn’t technically anorexic or bulimic, they may be struggling with something just as real and serious. It can be hard to tell if someone has an eating disorder. While an overweight person may not fit the skeletal image of an anorexic, they may be eating far below the healthy caloric intake in order to lose weight. While someone may look to be a healthy weight, they may be secretly binging and purging. So trying to figure it out physically can get tricky.
The best way to identify if someone is struggling with an eating disorder is to catch certain red flags such as being unable to eat in front of other people, avoiding certain functions or cutting out entire food groups. The best way to recognize an eating disorder in yourself is to acknowledge anxieties about eating certain foods or exercising less than a set large amount. It can be hard to recognize this in yourself or in those close to you because developing an eating disorder is a slow progression. It doesn’t stem from poor body image; in fact, body image is just a by-product. Eating disorders usually begin when someone makes a change in their life such as eating healthy or exercising more. After awhile, these changes may lead to weight loss and, in turn, positive feedback from peers. This encouragement slowly turns weight loss into an obsession. Besides societal or inward encouragement, it has also been linked to zinc-deficiency and genetics in recent years.
“I learned about the causes [of eating disorders] they were talking about — with the zinc — and I’m gonna read up about those things because I found that interesting,” Matthew Henderson, an eighth-semester linguistics major, said. “And also some of the things they said about eating disorders serving a purpose in everyone that has them, like they function in some way. I found that an interesting statement. That kind of resonated with me.”
The best way to stop contributing to this cycle is to promote body-positivity and to never comment on someone’s weight, whether or not they lost or gained it.
The best way to help someone who appears to be struggling with an eating disorder is to encourage them to get help.
Walden Behavioral Care is a leading outpatient eating disorder facility in South Windsor. According to Komosky, Walden offers incredibly individualized care. This means the clinicians and nutritionists provide one-on-one sessions with both the patient and with their families. They help the patient build a structured meal plan and make steps with the patient in accordance with how they feel. Nutritionists, specifically, talk with the patient about labs, diets, exercise, weight status and weight history. They also provide group sessions, such as nutrition groups where discussion happens on why people need to eat certain foods, how much exercise is too much and what proper portions may be. During both the one-on-one and group sessions, structured meals and snacks are provided in accordance to each patient’s meal plan. This is done to promote mindful eating, eating without labels and eating with others.
Gilmore brought up the importance of having family sessions for the recovery of a patient. Children and adolescents often learn behaviors from their parents. If a parent uses body-negative language, such as calling themselves fat, or body-negative behavior, such as undergoing diets, children will be more susceptible to picking up similar behaviors and language. By holding family sessions, clinicians can ensure that the child or adolescent will go home to an encouraging, body-positive environment. This is especially important considering that before 1985, treatments for eating disorders didn’t really exist, so many people in the older generation, including doctors, have never been taught about eating disorders and many more have gone undiagnosed. This means that the child may have been raised by someone with an eating disorder of their own.
“I really liked hearing about the family treatment because that’s something that I — with my nutritional sciences background I’m very much sports focused, so when I look up papers and stuff, that’s an area I focus on, especially with eating disorders,” Shayna DeLuca, an eighth-semester nutritional sciences major and SHAPE intern, said. “So learning about how they incorporate family into the treatment was something that was new to me and interesting.”
Members of SHAPE attended the panel in addition to its intern.
“SHAPE came here today obviously because it’s NEDA Week, and that’s something that we’re trying to shed light on and bring awareness to,” DeLuca said. “SHAPE has combined with groups such as Active Minds and the Women’s Center, who sponsored this event, and we came to support those groups but also to educate ourselves on eating disorders because of how relevant it is to our group.”
When treating a patient with eating disorders, it’s important to empathize with the fact that the eating disorder serves a purpose in that person’s life. If the purpose of the eating disorder is validated, then the patient may be more likely to open up about its effects on their life and become more willing to take steps to get better. Treating a patient is a slow progression. They should never feel overwhelmed by recommended or enforced changes to their lives, especially since that will only inflame their anxiety about eating. Instead, clinicians try to meet their patients halfway, slowly negotiating positive change over time. Eventually, their hope is that the patient will be able to filter out negative-body language and thoughts overtime.
With eating disorders becoming more prevalent among college-aged kids, it’s important to be aware of them and aware of the struggle of others. Keep in mind that it’s a lot easier to promote positive body-image than it is for someone to open up and seek help for their eating disorders.
Rebecca Maher is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.