Sunday, February 23, 2014

I Had No Idea! Secrets About Eating Disorders

We can't always tell just by looking at someone 
that something isn't right.
There are no excuses for perpetuating misinformation about eating disorders. No justification exists for minimizing eating disorders based on BMI, for generalizing them by age or gender, or for continuing to blame parents for causing them. While the news media may sensationalize and sometimes distort research, social media can fight back to correct misinformation. So read on, and please share!

Today starts a week devoted to spreading the word about eating disorders with the theme “I had no idea!” Thank you NEDA, the National Eating Disorder Association and promoter of Eating Disorder Awareness Week, for inspiring this post.
Random thoughts come to mind when I consider what this theme means to me—and what it might mean to you.  My beliefs and knowledge about eating disorders have evolved over many years, to which I credit the Academy for Eating Disorder listserve, the FBT researchers and Laura Collins and FEAST, blogs like Carrie Arnold’s  and my many, many awesome patients and colleagues. 

What I’ve learned over the decades

Got your period? This doesn’t minimize your diagnosis of anorexia, if you meet the other criteria. And resuming menses after being without a period does not mean you have fully recovered. No, the work is not yet done.

Obese and anorexic? How can that be? You do not need to be below the BMI chart to meet criteria for anorexia. Really. Unfortunately, you are the ones who most often fall through the cracks. And you are continually subjected to messages that your weight is the issue. I am truly sorry for this. Health care professionals need to be educated

Eating disorders are quite common in males, straight and gay. Males get anorexia, and struggle with bulimia and binge eating. Their focus on bulking up their muscle mass may seem like a cultural norm, but may be the sign of an underlying disorder. Check out Roberto Olivardia’s work on men and eating disorders.

Time to look at eating disorders a bit differently.
Over 30 or 40 and struggling with an eating disorder? You are not alone! Eating disorders are not just a teen thing. You can be living with an eating disorder at any age—an eating disorder that never resolved, one that reared it’s head again after previously recovering, or one that developed later in adulthood. Check out Dr. Cynthia Bulik’s work on this population. 

Parents don’t cause eating disorders. And parents shouldn’t be sidelined in the treatment of kids with eating disorders. They play an integral part in recovery, particularly when your poorly nourished brain fights you on eating. Learn more about how families can help from FEAST, from scholarly articles and other from resources.

Barbie didn’t cause your eating disorder. Sure, the media may impact how we see ourselves but eating disorders are much more complicated, involving genetic predisposition, environmental triggers and support for maintaining the disorder. We don’t know exactly what causes eating disorders, but it won’t be long before we understand the genetics. See what research is underway and how you can help the study of eating disorders and genetics.  

People don’t plan to have an eating disorder. It’s not a decision sufferers made. Individuals with anorexia, bulimia and Binge Eating Disorder aren’t simply refusing to change when they maintain their behaviors. Change is complicated—by fear, anxiety, and hard wiring of behaviors. My patient shares some wisdom we can all learn from here

It’s not so easy to just do it as this post describes. In spite of my many years of working with clients with eating disorders, I don’t think I fully grasped how many obstacles to change there can be—that is until Cate. Writing Food to Eat and feeling I was living her struggle with her was beyond enlightening; it heightened my sensitivity to things I had taken for granted—the planning to eat, shopping, cooking, and ultimately eating. 

Let's work to not live by diet rules and restriction, 
but to trust what our bodies both need and enjoy.
Recovery is possible, even for those who have lived with an eating disorder for many decades. But it has to start with the belief that change is possible. Connect with a treatment team-a therapist, an eating disorder dietitian and an MD, and reach out to friends and family for support. I now know that it is not too late to.

Want to help others recover? Share this post to increase awareness of eating disorders, and check out this awesome new eating disorder support by Cate. 

Oh, and please tell me what you think! Thanks for reading.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Speak Up, or You Will Be the Biggest Loser. And That’s Not a Good Thing.

Rapid weight loss is incompatible with mental and physical health. Period.

I beg to differ with Daily Beast columnist Tricia Romano, who believes Rachel Frederickson’s extreme weight loss on the Biggest Loser is none of our business. And I disagree that her weight is just a tad lower than a healthy BMI. And Rachel’s BL trainer Bob Harper is simply wrong when he assumes that “…when contestants leave home ... they are in charge of themselves.” 

Admittedly, I’ve never watched more than a few minutes of TBL—I found it intolerable. Yet the show is unfortunately quite popular. Many of my plus size patients report being inspired, identifying with the desperate contestants, tolerant of the verbal abuse and crazy diet and activity demands. They're smitten by the fairy tale that rapid weight loss through extreme measures works. And that extreme weight loss equals extreme happiness. Let me inform you otherwise; I yearn to protect you from the damage, both visible and hidden, from this diet mentality.

But first, about Rachel—the latest victim 

My summary of The Biggest Loser.
It was a media frenzy as Biggest Loser Rachel Frederickson returned to the show, 45 lbs below her “healthy” weight of 150 pounds when departing TBL. She weighed in at 105 pounds, a 155 pound total weight loss. And the $250,000 reward money was likely the least of the motivators. If you’ve ever known anyone who’s lived with an eating disorder, you know the situation well. It may start with a seemingly reasonable weight loss goal, typically with a common diet. And then once that goal is met, their goal gets reset. “Just five more pounds”, they think. “Then I’ll be happy/ satisfied/thin enough.” Yet for some, no amount of weight is ever quite enough, and the struggle continues. It moves from perhaps a sincere interest in losing some weight—perhaps at the recommendation of their doctor, even—to something completely different. 

And while it is frequently said that eating disorders are about control, the experience of the eating disorder sufferer hardly feels like being in control. Rumination about food and weight and eating consumes thoughts, and normal life comes to a halt. Social activities are put on hold to accommodate diet rules, and isolation becomes the norm. They may be visibly underweight, or appear to be of average or even over weight. Starvation can occur at any size. Really.

As for the Daily Beast writer’s comment “at 5 foot 5 inches and 105 pounds, Frederickson’s is slightly below the recommended BMI. But she’s also small-boned and lithe”, allow me to respond. For her height, midpoint of a healthy range may be 125 pounds by the charts, but at less than 90% of that weight (under 112 pounds), most women lose their periods. As for athletes (she was apparently a world class swimmer prior to her weight gain) a higher weight range is generally expected as healthy, with increased muscle mass. 

Of course there are small boned, women who were always petite, for whom a lower weight certainly may be okay. Weight, as I mentioned, is not the best measure of health. But a significant weight drop below one’s highest weight, referred to by researchers as weight suppression, may have undesirable effects, including precipitating eating disorders. 

Rachel reports feeling fine, but the evidence tells us otherwise. Exercising 3-4 hours per day strikes me as a big red flag for preoccupation with her weight. It’s not her fault, though. The Biggest Loser promotes rapid weight loss and unrealistic goals. We know from a classic starvation study by Dr. Ancel Keys in 1944 that starvation resulting in even a 25% weight loss—much less than her almost 60% drop in body weight—impacts thoughts, moods, sexual desire, and eating behaviors. All that, in addition to the slowed heart rate (no, it is not an athlete’s low pulse), low body temperature, and abnormal menses. 

Three, maybe four exercise classes a day, is her reported activity, while consuming under 1600 calories from a 'healthy' diet. Excuse me? 'Healthy diet' is a term that simply doesn’t apply to this intake relative to activity. I don’t care how healthy the individual foods are, whether they are organic, whole grain, whatever—there’s nothing healthy here. This is a severely restrictive intake for this level of activity.

It’s none of my business, Tricia? On the contrary. I can’t simply sit and watch and not shout out how outrageous and unhealthy this is. I am not, however, faulting Rachel. The Biggest Loser took a vulnerable contestant—perhaps no different than other contestants—a woman who reports emotional overeating resulting in a 100 pound weight gain following a breakup. They turn out an excessive exerciser, who’s restricting her calories and likely quite unhealthy by many measures. 

Call it the flip side of the same coin—first likely struggling with binge eating now struggling to trust her body and her signals and eat to meet her needs. Are we to view this as success? Not in the least. Were her eating behaviors addressed? Was she given strategies for coping versus using food or food restriction or compulsive exercise? Was she guided to learn to trust her hunger and her fullness again, or simply instructed to count calories? 

A former contestant, Ms. Hibbard acknowledges the unhealthy behavior she and others practiced on the ranch, particularly preceding weigh-ins (similar to what Weight Watchers report). Contestants, she claims, “dehydrated themselves through excessive workouts in warm layers of clothing, drank only coffee because it acts as a diuretic and ate little to nothing.” She adds: “I feel I did a vulnerable disservice by not saying on television the night of my finale. ‘I’m sad, and I’m sick from being on this show’”. (

Hibbard might have been late to speak up. But we don’t have to be silent. The impact of a show like The Biggest Loser is dangerous—to its contestants, and to its viewers. It promises health, while causing harm; and it delays and potentially complicates contestants’ preexisting eating disorders. It shames participants through their weight loss struggle, and turns viewers to criticizing the Loser, like Rachel, for whom continued weight loss may feel out of her hands. 

Don’t accept the promise of rapid weight loss, or believe that extremes of eating or exercising will work. Because they never do.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Essential Weight Loss Tips? There Has to be a Better Way.

A winter storm has its risks. The biggest? It keeps me home with time on my hands trolling the Twitter feeds and Facebook messages. I read, filter my thoughts, read, filter, read—and then I can’t take it any more and feel the need to speak out. Earlier, I tweeted: ‘The only #cleanse you should be doing is a facial one. You know, soap & water or alternative. GI cleanses are disordered’, after reading an MD’s unintelligent praise of ‘cleanses’ (in quotations, because there’s nothing cleansing except your perception that you are removing those treacherous toxins.)
Then I came upon my professional organization’s tweet, “If you're hoping to lose weight before winter's end, these tips can help!” with this link.

It’s hard for me to say just why it annoyed me, but I’ll try my best to explain.

Is this the best message we as RDs can offer? It’s a message of calories in/ calories out. Pick from all food groups! Exercise! Eat smart (as opposed to stupid, I suppose). Personally, I’d run the other way if I were looking for weight management guidance. It feels insulting to intelligent, well-informed readers. And it fails to acknowledge a couple of major points.

1) Actively dieting is not the answer and 2) eating and activity are not simply information-based decisions.

Were the authors thinking readers would respond with “Wow, I had no idea calories and activity were involved?” or “So simple! I’ll just choose from all the healthy food groups! That should work.” Or “Ohhh, it’s about moderation!”

As for BMI

For some, self-acceptance of a weight higher than the population-based weight and BMI charts is in order. A high BMI based on the population charts may be perfectly acceptable for you, if you maintain a healthy lifestyle. Similarly, a normal BMI hardly defines you as healthy (or normal) if your behaviors aren’t so healthy—if you engage in restricting and overeating, use purge behaviors, including compulsive exercise, have a rather restrictive diet, or poor quality intake.

Perhaps instead of having a “Calculate your BMI” ad on their page, they could include a ‘plot your personal BMI’, to help you evaluate whether you’ve been maintaining a healthy pattern over the years; a high BMI at the earliest ages suggests that genetics may play a role in your weight and size. Just as you wouldn’t expect that your shoulders would become narrower or your eyes would change shape, you shouldn’t believe that your BMI percentile should be changing much. Acceptance of this not-so-minor-point may be the best medicine for many!

But if your weight or BMI have been climbing inappropriately, you could use much better guidance than my national organization provided.

So in an effort to redeem them from the pitiful piece, I’m pulling a few thoughts together. Ask yourself:

Is it legitimate to be concerned about your weight? Has it changed inappropriately? Or are you focusing unnecessarily on your weight, the New Year’s phenomena, when really you are a reasonably healthy and fit person? I caught an episode of Sex and the City today at the gym, and Carrie said a most fitting line: “the problem isn’t with your thighs, the problem is with your head.” (This, in response to her friend kvetching about the size of her thighs and her body image.)

If it is legitimate, explore what’s in place, and what needs to change.

Are you aware of your hunger? Do you allow yourself to respond to it, or are you living inside your head, counting calories, or points, or carbs, for instance?

Do you let yourself get to the point of famished, only to overeat, then regret it, then set more rules again, perpetuating this cycle?

Do you eat beyond a comfortable level of fullness? Do you let your black and white thinking get in the way, suggesting that you’ve already blown it, resulting in you throwing in the towel, so to speak? Some CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) may be in order.
Yes, there are other ways to self-soothe.

Or do you eat for comfort—because you’ve had a hard day—or as punishment, because you feel you don’t deserve any better? Maybe you’ve simply given up, feeling that nothing you do can even make a difference.

Are you overeating as a rebound to years or months of restrictive, rules-driven eating? Are you overeating only on ‘forbidden foods’? Time to learn how to work those in with permission to eat all foods that you enjoy—not just those foods that fit ever-so-nicely into the food pyramid! “Eat desserts less often”, the Academy for Nutrition and Dietetics recommendation, is hardly the advice you need. Setting more rules is not the answer.

Must we view desserts as forbidden?
Is your eating chaotic? Do you have balanced meals and snacks? Perhaps some help with planning is in order.

And have I mentioned patience? You've been living with your eating behaviors for a very long time, many years, no doubt. Let's not expect that they will consistently change after just a week or two.

Do you set realistic goals? You’re not stupid—of course you know exercise might help if your activity is low (and your intake is adequate). But maybe the obstacle is your belief that if you don’t have 60 minutes to spend, or can’t sustain exercise at 85% of your target heart rate range that it’s not worth doing any activity! 

Perhaps it's time you acknowledge your frustration—with messages from the media and the medical community, with false promises of quick fixes for your weight, with conflicting messages about what’s the right way to eat, and with insulting guidance from those who should know better. Yes, there is another way, which includes self acceptance and insight about the limits of what you can change. And, a shift to understanding how your thoughts and behaviors play a critical role in your eating.

Your thoughts? Thanks for reading (and in advance for commenting and spreading this advice!)