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A Blueprint for Disordered Eating

noun: eating disorder; plural noun: eating disorders

  1. any of a range of mental conditions in which there is a persistent disturbance of eating behaviour and impairment of physical or mental health.

I cut and pasted this definition from the Oxford dictionary earlier today, and am now realizing how broadly it could be applied to most Americans I know. Aren't we all a little bit "disturbed" with the many stressors of modern life? And don't we all, to some extent, use food and other behaviors as a way to cope with the mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual attacks that come our way on a regular basis? It's part of our human DNA and a sign of health to try to protect ourselves from harm, and to find an outlet for so many uncomfortable feelings. So there's no shame here. It's just a tragedy when we implement self-destructive behaviors to cope with pain, rather than self-affirming ones.

If you are taking the time to read this entry, I hope you'll keep this broader definition in mind. Even if you've never experienced an eating disorder as defined by the DSM-5, there is likely application buried in here for you or someone you know.

I'm not a doctor or clinician. I am not a therapist. I am not a scientist or researcher. I am just an individual who walked this lonely road in young adulthood, who witnessed friends, roommates, players, and acquaintances do the same, and who has spent many decades reflecting on the experience in the hope of sparing another person or family the same trial by fire. It was one of the most crushing seasons of my life, but also one of the most valuable and redemptive. Somehow - in God's great mercy and providence, He has used it to humble, refine, and rebuild me into a more resilient and compassionate person. It's a work in progress still!

What sets up a young person for disordered eating behaviors? Here are a few that applied to me and others I have known over the years:

  1. High achieving personality: These are individuals who work diligently at everything they do. They are goal-setters, self-starters, and competitors.

  2. People-pleasing tendencies: They have a reputation of being intelligent, dependable, and responsible, and they work hard to maintain it. One of their greatest fears is letting people down or not meeting the real or perceived expectations of those they love and respect. (Or worse yet, not meeting their own expectations).

  3. Involvement in certain athletics and activities: It seems to be that sports and activities in which extreme attention and criticism is directed towards body size and shape, and in which these characteristics are assessed as specifically favorable or detrimental, is when there exists the greatest potential to do significant emotional and physical harm. Gymnastics, dance, wrestling, modeling, and more all have an undertone of fickle praise or disapproval based on a body on display.

  4. Feelings of overwhelm and isolation: Being in a situation in which there is a sudden loss of familiarity, comfort, predictability, and control can be an especially debilitating experience. When tried and true formulas for success no longer lead to the anticipated positive outcome, confidence starts to flounder, and with it - the locus of control.

  5. Loss of security: Leaving for college, starting off in a new career, losing a meaningful relationship, witnessing significant family drama and relational brokenness...all of these and more can lead an individual to believe that their foundation of safety and security has failed them. Abandoned them. And thus, they set out with earnest intention in search of something else immediate and tangible that they can control and trust.

  6. Immersion in "diet culture": I define diet culture as an atmosphere full of self-loathing, inappropriate food restriction, continual quests for quick fixes, weighing, measuring, counting, calculating, emotional eating behaviors, and a general poor sense of self-worth and dignity that is based on outward appearance and numbers on a scale, rather than on inner strength and character. A culture in which achieving a certain look is more enticing and admirable than achieving true health.

  7. Careless words: Dads and brothers can be especially insensitive here, but it's not always malicious or intentional. What seems funny or like good-natured teasing to them can be devastating to their target - and maybe not even in the moment, but months or years later. Words stick, and they can harm. Moms and sisters, as well, can make side comments that they might think are helpful, or at the least harmless, but in fact cut like a knife. Friends, coaches, teachers, neighbors, extended family members, and even strangers who make off-hand comments about body types, parts, and sizes have the power to strip away layer after layer of self-confidence in an emotionally compromised individual. In my experience, these comments are directed mostly at females, but I have known a handful of men who have experienced the same sort of thing, and it's no less destructive.

  8. A misunderstanding of proper human nutrition: These individuals often know a lot about calorie expenditure and deficit, fat grams, and fitness, but they have no clue when it comes to essential vitamins, minerals, and macronutrients. To be fair, there are also those nowadays who know far too much - (thanks internet), and obsess over every morsel of food until they reach a state of paralysis by analysis. No food seems safe or perfect enough.

What have I forgotten? A few things, I'm sure.

Why some individuals match these characteristics and/or experience these scenarios and don't develop eating disorders, while others do...I can't explain that. My guess is that they find some other available method of coping that catches their attention and meets their needs.

Do you know someone who is struggling in this area? Are you wondering what to do and how to help them? It's such a sticky situation, and I feel like no two individuals respond to well-meaning interventions in the same way. What worked for me might lead someone else to spiral out of control. But if I had to provide some general advice in a few sentences... I would say -

~Give them plenty of space, but don't allow them to isolate themselves routinely and for an extended time.

~Involve them in events and activities that don't involve food or formal exercise.

~Speak frankly about what you see happening, but do so without judgment or condemnation - most likely they have lost sight of what is normal and what is not. They need your objectivity. In fact, they crave it. Pair this advice with the next -

~Focus comments on their mood, energy levels, sleep quality, mental clarity, and the like. Avoid commenting about the appearance of their body, or the way they do or don't eat. That is private, sacred space. However, if they bring it up and want to talk openly about it, accept that invitation and tread carefully.

~Offer support and love them in their brokenness, but don't force solutions upon them. Having a sense of autonomy is very important to them right now.

~Help them find the right person, professional, or organization who can meet them where they are and help them develop a plan of healing.

~Don't give up on them! Recovery is often a long and difficult road, but it is possible. I'm living proof!

~And of course - pray for them. Pray hard.

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