This is part one of three posts I’m sharing in observance of the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) awareness week, February 21-27, 2016.
My guess is that somewhere around 70% of dietitians and nutritionists have a personal story to tell about eating disorders. I’m not saying every registered dietitian (RD) has had an eating disorder (ED), but chances are if we didn’t, we’re close to someone who did. That’s powerful, and that’s a big chunk of us — a guess, but I put it out there because I doubt I’m far off. Chances are it has shaped our career path, usually for the best. According to the NEDA website, “20 million women and 10 million men suffer from a clinically significant eating disorder at some point in their life.” And that’s just in the States! 30 million people. And while the word “suffer” sounds strong, that’s exactly what happens. It’s a widely misunderstood struggle.
My other guess is that maybe half of us (dietitians) are honestly speaking up. I’ve toed the line, but mostly stayed safely on the “not speaking up” side. I mean, how often do you hear a Doctor admit he/she used to smoke? Or meet the investment banker who admits he/she was 25K in credit card debt right after college? (Quite a feat, given those cheap bar tabs that we’ll never see again.) It’s not easy to share our past or present demons, much less with the risk of hypocrisy and putting credibility on the line. But it is easy to see that when we’re honest, it matters.
When we share the stories that reveal our human nature and have taught us important things, people can relate. That’s a moment when change can happen. Real talk may be just what you need to hear, bringing not only awareness to the reality of eating disorders but also hope to the healing process that can begin anytime you’re ready.
Real talk: there are a lot of eating disorders that go undiagnosed, that disguise themselves as “healthy eating” in overdrive, and I know first-hand exactly what that looks and feels like.
Part one: The (Negative) Freshman 15
There’s a name for it now, orthorexia, but if you asked 18-year-old me I’d just say “I eat pretty healthy, most of the time!” What I wouldn’t say: I counted calories, felt a little bit anxious in restaurants, and I exercised in order to see a certain number of “calories burned” on the cardio machines. (The one time a kinesiology professor talked about how inaccurate those calculations are I was like, “Oh NO you di’nt…!”) I would not have told you it was something to be concerned about it.
Wavering between Architecture and Nutrition was really just an internal debate between whether I could handle more math or more science. Little did I know one day I would much prefer writing, but essays were definitely one thing I wanted to avoid. One glance at the Nutrition syllabus had me quickly signing up for a few general credits and architectural theory classes. Chemistry? Uh, no. Not again. Biochemistry? As in a combination of sciences? Not happening. Introduction to Nutrition? Well, that sounds pleasant. I think I can handle that. Sure, let’s go meet Nutrition!
The first few Nutrition classes were a review of things I already knew (thanks to extensive magazine reading), which was not a feeling I had frequently as a college freshman, so damn was it a good one. I also felt a strange pull to know more, which felt like an interest I should pay attention to. I vividly remember our professor lecturing about calories and macronutrients: “One French fry is basically one gram of fat, so if you have ten fries you’ve already had 100 calories!” I remember our food logging exercises. I remember studying outside on the Hub lawn for our exams, thinking “I’m getting some Vitamin D!” and “OMG IT’S NOT RAINING!”
I remember thinking, at one point, that it felt like I was starting to know too much.
If only my brain was mature or aware enough to stop right there. If only I could have recognized where that would lead, and what it might result in. This certainly wasn’t my first step on the disordered eating path, but it felt like the point at which I picked up the pace and started running. Now I had all the knowledge I (thought I) needed to control it. What “it” was would change — calories, weight, intake, output — and that may be the closest thing I would know to addiction.
I came home for the summer at least fifteen pounds lighter than when I left, which wasn’t a good thing. But it would take me a while to admit that…
If any of this sounds familiar, let’s chat. My inbox door is always open.