Eating disorders are more common than most of us know. In fact, according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, more than 30 million people in the United States suffer from some type of eating disorder. That is nearly 10% of Americans!
Eating disorders can affect anyone, regardless of race, age, gender, or ethnicity and may exist as any spectrum of symptoms related to abnormal or disordered relationships with eating and body image. They can range from insidious and difficult to recognize (even by the individual affected) to completely debilitating. Treatment is carried out by trained providers and may be done in an outpatient or inpatient setting, depending on severity.
Because identification and management can be so complex and eating disorders can be scary and confusing to struggling individuals and family members, I asked a local expert to answer some questions that might be helpful to those affected.
Ella Walker Henderson is a licensed professional counselor and Certified Eating Disorders Specialist. She is the founder of Living Bread where she is also a counselor. Living Bread is a local professional counseling center that provides nutritional and mental health counseling for patients with eating disorders as well as prayer ministry, mentorship, and a financial assistance program.
What are some of the signs that might suggest an individual should talk to someone about their eating or relationship with food?
When thoughts about food or body image become obsessive and take up a high amount of space in your daily life, it can be a good idea to reach out for an assessment. Also, when a parent notices their child has lost weight, this is a good time to start asking questions – what’s driving this weight loss? A preoccupation with thinness or even health can be a contributing factor to an eating disorder. Another red flag is when body image becomes not just a struggle but more central to someone’s self-esteem or way of evaluating their life. These are all areas that can be good to evaluate in your own life or your child’s.
What should a person do if they suspect that they themselves or a loved one is suffering from an eating disorder?
Start reading and educate yourself about eating disorders – there are so many myths and misunderstandings about eating disorders. One I frequently encounter (and recently): believing that if someone is struggling with Bulimia Nervosa, they should be underweight. When someone struggles with bulimia, they usually maintain their weight or gain weight. (If they lose weight, this is usually a sign of Binge/Purge Anorexia). Also, reach out for help. There is no harm in simply getting an evaluation and talking to a professional to start examining what harmful messages from society about dieting and health you or your child may be absorbing to your/their detriment.
What advice would you give to parents that are concerned about their child’s weight or eating habits?
Don’t panic. Start asking questions and initiating open conversations with your child. Model “normal” or intuitive eating (I highly recommend learning more by reading Intuitive Eating by Tribole and Resch). Re-examine or re-think any diet behaviors in your life – dieting is often the gateway to eating disorders. Talk to your child’s health care practitioner and consider talking to a counselor who specializes in eating disorders. There’s never harm in asking questions, both with your child and professionals!
What steps can parents take, starting at a young age, to cultivate healthy habits and relationships with food and body image?
Learn more about intuitive eating and health at every size. Move away from a diet approach and instead incorporate ideas of balance and self-care with food and exercise. There are some great resources out there for both adults (like ‘Intuitive Eating’ by Tribole and Resch mentioned above) and social media accounts/courses like Feeding Littles (@feedinglittles on instagram) that give advice for how to begin practices of intuitive eating with babies and toddlers.
What are some of the major barriers to eating disorder treatment in our area?
In Greenville and beyond, stigma about mental health and needing help is often a barrier, especially for eating disorders in males (remember that exercise can play a large role in eating disorders).
What is one thing that you would like the general public to know about eating disorders that they might not know?
Eating disorders come in all shapes and sizes. Please don’t assume that because someone is a normal weight or may appear overweight that they don’t struggle with an eating disorder.
If there was one thing that you could tell an adolescent or child that is struggling with an eating disorder, what would it be?
Recovery is worth it! Yes, it takes a lot of hard work, but the more you engage in your journey towards recovery now, the less an eating disorder will steal joy and purpose from the rest of your life.
Thank you to Ella Walker Henderson and Living Bread for answering our questions! You can find out more about Living Bread at www.livingbreadgreenville.org and more about eating disorders at www.anad.org.
If you or your child are struggling, please reach out for help. Feel free to talk to your Parkside provider at your next appointment. We would be honored to help you get the resources you need to be on the path to living a full life, free of this great burden.
Nathan Heffington, DNP, FNP-BC
Ella Walker Henderson, M.A., LPC, CEDS