Words associated with disordered eating swim across a plate, while food fills the background. (Aylin Salahifar)
Words associated with disordered eating swim across a plate, while food fills the background.

Aylin Salahifar

Eating on the edge

Society’s struggle with food

February 19, 2020

Sleep tugs at your eyelids, beckoning you back into your warm bed, but the beeping of your alarm makes you shake it off. Groggily, you get ready and walk to the kitchen to make breakfast. Oatmeal sounds good. But wait, first you have to check the back of the packet. Two hundred and fifty calories, 25 carbs? That’s insane. 

You put the oatmeal away and grab a handful of grapes. You’ll be fine until lunch. 

After a whir of classes, your lunch break finally comes around. You’ve successfully ignored the dull ache in your stomach until now, but suddenly the gnawing pain intensifies. Opening up your lunch box, you spy a wrap your mom bought from Trader Joe’s. Without even thinking about it, you check the nutrition label. Five hundred calories? No way. 

You eat a pack of carrots. You’ll be fine until dinner. 

Several stomach-rumbling hours later, you’re home studying. A fragrant smell wafts up to your room from the kitchen. Is that lasagna? You follow the scent and watch as your mom scoops pasta onto your plate. “Here sweetie,” she says and extends it towards you. Ignoring the rumbling of your stomach, you give her a weak smile. 

You throw the lasagna away secretly. You’ll be fine until breakfast tomorrow. 

For about 70 million people worldwide, this is a reality. 

Whether it manifests as obsessing over caloric intake or eating uncontrollably, eating disorders do not discriminate based on age, gender, ethnicity, or race. According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD), eating disorders take a life every 62 minutes. 

Rachel Fearn’s fight against anorexia

Food is a daily part of life; it fuels people’s actions and provides the calories to keep their bodies healthy. While many disagree on which foods are “good” and which are “bad,” one thing remains clear: without it, no one can survive. 

For those with eating disorders, however, the obsessive desire to lose weight distorts their relationship with food, making it the enemy. 

Having lived under the shadow of anorexia for nearly three years, 17-year-old Rachel Fearn felt trapped in a vicious cycle. Fearn describes her eating disorder as if it had a mind of its own. When her body told her to eat, her disorder told her to stop. When she wanted to take a break, it told her to work harder. 

“Living with an eating disorder is hell, but hell disguised as heaven. It’s a constant war in your mind of what to do and what not to do: mental calculations of what you’ve eaten and what you’re allowed to eat, how long you’ve exercised for and how much more you need to do, all hidden under the layer of ‘I’m doing this to feel better,’” Fearn said.

A toxic combination of pressure from social media and the constant scrutiny she felt from “health gurus” online played a major role in the start of Fearn’s eating disorder.

“This new phenomenon of so-called online ‘health experts’ is spreading false information. You see people touting these messages, ‘Eat only X every day to see immediate weight loss,’ but this is unrealistic because we are all so varied and unique,” Fearn said.

Another factor that led to the emergence of Fearn’s eating disorder was the need for control. 

According to Shelby Marie Waldner, a support group leader at the Eating Disorder Resource Center (EDRC), eating disorders start with an obsession to fight for control over one’s life, and then, ironically, spiral out of control.

Due to the stress of society’s unrealistic expectations and her own need for control, Fearn began many unhealthy habits such as skipping most meals, exercising obsessively, and avoiding social interactions. 

Such behaviors are not unique to Fearn and are typical markers of an eating disorder. However, some people with anorexia often manage to hide such markers so successfully that no one notices anything is amiss until the disease has reached its most severe stage: organ failure and death. 

Because of the dangerous nature of its symptoms, eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental health condition. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 20% of people who do not receive treatment for eating disorders will die.

Despite these worrisome statistics, Fearn’s story is one of triumph. Last year, she took her first steps toward recovering from anorexia.

On the day she decided to change her life, Fearn made her Instagram account, @rachel.is.recovering, to document her journey. She created a platform on Instagram to influence more people to seek help for their eating disorders. 

A study done by the Eating Recovery Center (ERC) states that 70% of those who suffer from eating disorders will not seek treatment due to stigma, misconceptions, and lack of access to care. 

Fearn went public with her story because she wanted to diminish this stigma and provide support to her followers from all over the world. She uses social media, which initially played a role in the start of her eating disorder, to fight back against the messages that led to her misery. 

“I try to show my progress, provide tips for recovery, and show that recovery isn’t always easy, but it is the best thing you will ever do. I get so many messages from people telling me they’re too scared to begin recovery, and it breaks my heart, so I try to set a good example and always be there to talk if they need help,” Fearn said.

Along with online support, many organizations specializing in eating disorder recovery are becoming more available to those who need them. 

EDRC, a non-profit organization that links resources for eating disorders in Silicon Valley, views treatment as a multi-faceted approach tailored to each individual’s needs. Some treatment options EDRC suggests are therapy, medication, working with specialists, and hospital treatment. 

“I believe there is not one specific plan for every person. The most important thing you can do is appreciate foods for what they are and realize that they are healing and fueling your body with the proper nutrients,” Waldner said. “Food is nothing to fear.”

As she started to regain her health, Fearn utilized resources such as EDRC to learn how to eat again. Now, she is in full control of her recovery journey and feels hopeful for the future. 

“Everyone’s road to recovery is unique, but to recover you must be willing to have an on-going, honest dialogue with yourself. There is no such thing as perfect; progress is the goal,” Fearn said.

Eating disorders at school

One hundred and nineteen percent. 

In less than a decade, the rate of children under 12 being admitted to hospitals for eating disorders rose an alarming 119%, according to the ERC.

Some believe that this growing epidemic of eating disorders should be addressed at a young age through the education system. 

Others view school as a potential source of the problem.

For Carlmont High School P.E. teacher Irene Oliveira, her main priority is to keep students healthy and informed. With 19 years of experience under her belt, Oliveira guarantees that all of her students are well equipped to make proper decisions about exercise and nutrition later in life. 

The only aspect of her job that Oliveira disagrees with is the annual body mass index (BMI) exam, a part of the state-mandated California Physical Fitness Test (PFT). Unfortunately, she is forced to administer it year after year.

The BMI, a number based on the age, weight, height, and gender of an individual, is one of the most common methods of screening for obesity. For high school students, however, such a test can be problematic as teenagers experience growth spurts at different rates.

Oliveira, who views the BMI as a very inaccurate measurement of one’s health, has opposed giving students data about their BMI’s from the beginning, as she believes that giving students information about their BMI has directly led to eating disorders in both female and male high schoolers.

“When you give teenagers, many of whom already suffer from body identity issues, a statistic about whether or not they fit into a tiny box, it creates anxiety. Everyone telling you to be within these strict guidelines, especially when your body is changing so much, can absolutely lead to eating disorders,” Oliveira said.

To address this issue, she has several practical solutions including higher dietary standards for school lunches and a permanent school nutritionist to help students.

“Nutrition is everything. The state needs to create legislation to protect the students and provide them a healthy school environment,” Oliveira said.

Carlmont High School student James Smith*, a junior, also voiced his views on the BMI. 

To substantiate Oliveira’s theory that releasing BMI information results directly in the emergence of eating disorders, Smith confirmed that in the past, the exam has negatively impacted his and other students’ eating patterns.

“I hate the BMI [test]. It makes students feel super insecure. If the state needs the test for data, at least don’t show students their scores afterward,” Smith said.

Smith, who personally has bulimia, is part of the Students Offering Support (SOS) group at Carlmont. SOS serves as an outlet of support at Carlmont and gives regular presentations to students about difficult topics such as eating disorders.

During these presentations, Smith has had the opportunity to describe life under the constant shadow of an eating disorder. 

For him, as well as many other bulimics, the urge to vomit after eating creates never-ending stress, not to mention the damaging health effects it can accentuate. Repeated vomiting can result in stomach acids tearing the esophagus and cause life-threatening bleeding.

Fortunately, Smith is currently taking steps to avoid a similar fate. 

With persistent work, he has progressed to eating breakfast and dinner regularly. Although he still skips lunch and finds it difficult to explain this to his friends, Smith is proud of his progress. His message to others currently suffering from an eating disorder is one of hope and positivity.

“Throw your scale away. You’re perfect and beautiful. You don’t need to fit into a certain category because you are your own category,” Smith said.

*Due to the sensitive nature of the content, this name has been changed to protect the anonymity of the source.

Ashley’s struggle with binge-eating disorder

For some who suffer from eating disorders, finding a community made of others with the same struggle is the best path to recovery.

The line between dieting and eating disorders

Although struggling with an eating disorder may seem far-fetched for some, the idea of going on a diet is sure to be quite familiar. As a commonly accepted tool for losing weight, diets can be found throughout society.

Recently, however, studies by the American Journal of Psychiatry indicate that many chronic dieters exhibit similar behavior patterns to those with diagnosed eating disorders. 

Wendy Sterling agrees that the diet culture established in our society has created disordered eating in many people. Sterling, owner of Sterling Nutrition Clinic and certified eating disorder specialist, is well-versed in the topic. 

“Dieting is the number one risk factor in the development of an eating disorder. Obsessing about food and fear of weight gain is found in most people who are dieting. They might not have clinical eating disorders, but chronic dieters usually have a very poor relationship with food and their bodies,” Sterling said.

As Sterling puts it, this attempt to be healthier through dieting can often lead to something much more sinister. 

For Carlmont sophomore Nanami Oiwa, dieting is something she experiments with to feel confident both mentally and physically.

This summer, she is taking it a step further than ever before by eliminating all the carbs from her diet. 

“As long as it is making me happy, I do not have anything against dieting,” Oiwa said.

Oiwa is not alone in her ventures to try different eating plans. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, one-half of teenage girls and one-quarter of teenage boys have tried dieting to change the shape of their bodies.

The problem with uniformed dieting is that it can often blur the line between a structured meal plan and a disordered eating pattern. Without being properly educated, many dieting teenagers are prone to be caught up in the common food misconceptions that characterize the diets marketed by media and online “health gurus.”

These food myths can be easily observed, even with a simple scroll through Instagram. 

While looking through a “healthy living” Instagram account, one quickly finds repetitive themes. For example, the idea that “all carbohydrates are bad” is a regular message. 

Sterling acknowledges that the lack of sufficient knowledge surrounding proper nutrition is a substantial problem. The circulation of food myths and unreasonable dieting advice on social media contributes to the situation.

“I often see that people who diet think in terms of extremes, and this can be a red flag that something more serious is going on. The person may also be cutting out other areas of their diet, or may have become overly preoccupied about food and weight,” Sterling said.

Bryan Lian, the clinical director for Nutrition Support Clinic, shares the same views as Sterling. 

One common question he has heard from clients is about what foods they need to cut out or avoid.

“Many people try to regain a sense of control by doubling down on what is a ‘good’ food and what is a ‘bad’ food. Rather than drawing a hard line on what you are allowed to eat, use balance, variety, and curiosity to plan your meals,” Lian said.

Both Sterling and Lian recognize that the abundance of nutrition information may seem overwhelming, but agree that the basic principles of leading a healthy life are simple. 

While it may seem difficult to stay well-informed about what is “healthy” and what is “unhealthy,” the main takeaway is that food is there to provide energy and should never consume daily life. 

Whether one lives under the shadow of an eating disorder, suffers from disordered eating habits, or is confused about proper nutrition, there is always a path forward. 

“Life should be about friends and family, about reaching your goals and making memories. Food is there to fuel your success and should never get in the way of achieving your dreams,” Sterling said.

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    oliviaFeb 20, 2020 at 1:26 pm

    This is such a powerful, well-written article.