Loving one’s body is an important aspect of a healthy life, but it can be a slippery slope if you’re seeking perfection. In honor of National Eating Disorder Awareness Week (The last week of February), we took a deep dive with Dr. Allison Chase, Regional Clinical Director of the Eating Recovery Center, on eating disorders and self-love.
We all grapple with self-confidence and self-worth, no matter our age, gender, or athletic abilities. Oftentimes, the now popularized solution is focused on “learning to love yourself.” But, what is self-love? Self-love is defined as “regard for one's own well-being and happiness.” Self-love is often associated with fancy pedicures, expensive shopping sprees, or a few glasses of wine. On the surface, it’s the “treat yo’ self” mentality that often addresses physical desires and short-sighted gains in happiness. Sometimes, it's in that pursuit of superficial “self-love” that things go off the rails when it comes to how we care for our bodies and minds. From gym memberships to the newest diet craze, we all seek ways to find that instant happiness. For many of us, concern with our health is, well, healthy. Sure, we may not love the number on the scale or we may grumble about how our jeans don't fit the way they used to, but we can still socialize and enjoy the freedom of living a balanced life.
For others, however, the pursuit of perfection and superficial self-love can lead to behaviors that impede what may be considered a “normal” existence. Disordered eating or, even worse, a potentially fatal eating disorder, can tip the balance scale into the danger zone.
How do you even begin to discern disordered eating from an eating disorder? According to Dr. Chase, the lines can be extremely vague. She describes disordered eating as, “engaging in varied eating patterns and behaviors that stray from being normal.” It may occur with less frequency and less severity, but disordered eating can certainly lead to an eating disorder if left unaddressed. Subtle forms of disordered eating are also difficult to pinpoint because, according to common societal messages, they can also be categorized as “healthy” or even the norm. People with disordered eating may engage in obsessive exercise or have a pervasive obsession with what types of food they eat. They may also suffer from anxiety over how they look, even if they are within a normal body weight. In an effort to lose weight, they may temporarily restrict or over-exercise. For many, a disordered eating episode is all about instant gratification, like looking good for a wedding or an upcoming beach trip. Unfortunately, gyms and ads for health products use this common sales tactic all of the time.
A diagnosable eating disorder, Dr. Chase explains, is incredibly severe and, very often, deep-rooted in both biological and environmental factors, including but not limited to, emotional anxiety, low self-esteem, depression, trauma, and shame. Many eating disorders begin during adolescence and the medical and physical consequences that come from an eating disorder are significant, stresses Dr. Chase.
“Someone who is anorexic is setting themselves up for osteoporosis, and that is not reversible,” Dr. Chase says. “The biggest consequence, especially for [femals] athletes, is that you can lose your period due to weight loss and/or intense levels of exercise. With the loss of your period, your body’s reproductive system isn’t functioning. Without the estrogen your body needs, your bones aren’t getting the necessary levels of calcium.”
Someone who has bulimia is often able to hide their disorder because they can be in a normal weight range due to the excessive number of calories often consumed in a binge. However, bulimics also suffer devastating health effects from the compensatory behaviors like purging, abuse of laxatives, or over-exercising. Extreme dehydration and electrolyte imbalance are common. Teeth and esophagus corrosion are also prevalent.
An eating disorder that often gets overlooked, according to Dr. Chase, is binge eating disorder. These sufferers are seen as somebody who just cannot control themselves.
“It’s not that simple, and what gets missed is that they really are suffering from emotional issues tied to their eating disorder, and they need a different level of help,” Dr. Chase says.
Unfortunately, many binge eaters often resort to surgical measures like gastric bands or bypass and never address the underlying psychological factors.
Perhaps a condition that warrants more discussion in the athletic community is orthorexia, which includes symptoms of obsessive behavior in pursuit of a healthy diet. Food has become a religion and obsession within certain communities, and strict eating patterns are on the rise. Everywhere you turn, there is some new information about a restrictive diet that’s going to fix all your problems. While being concerned about eating a healthy diet isn’t inherently negative, the effects of being too consumed with the perfect diet can lead to severe anxiety, calorie and nutrient restriction, and avoidance of social situations. Dr. Chase will often ask her patients some basic questions: “Is this keeping you from being able to engage in other activities? Have you looked to see if you’re truly nutritionally satisfied?
"It’s the rigidity in their mindset that keeps them from really having a more fulfilled life," Dr. Chase says ." Anytime you’re that restrictive, there’s always a downside.”
Well, let’s be honest with ourselves here. Who among us doesn’t spend literally hours per day scrolling through Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest feeds of “the perfect lives” that others are seemingly leading?
“It’s concerning to me that there’s this idea that everything has to be out there and look wonderful," Dr. Chase says. "Nobody knows what real life looks like anymore.” Athletes, especially, are on a quest for perfection to achieve peak performance. People who suffer from eating disorders are also competitive. Anorexia, according to Chase, really lends itself to those personality styles who are more perfectionistic and obsessive. Just like an athlete strives for a personal best, someone with anorexia, for instance, also strives to attempt their own great feat through severe restriction.
Dr. Chase stresses the importance of spreading awareness. Also, we must take responsibility in confronting people—even with the risk of anger and backlash. This goes for coaches, trainers, teachers, friends, and parents. Offer to do research or find support for someone in need. Most importantly, show compassion. Confronting someone with a suspected eating disorder isn’t as simple as telling them to eat more or less. It’s reassuring them that you love them no matter what. Recovery, then, must become their journey to self-compassion and, you guessed it, self-love.
Displayed proudly across the Eating Recovery Center entryway is the quote “I am thankful for my struggle because, without it, I wouldn't have stumbled upon my strength.” It is this quote that Dr. Chase hopes will inspire her patients and so many others to continue their work and find a supportive environment to recover. And yes, recovery from an eating disorder is possible.
“There is a myth out there that once an eating disorder always an eating disorder," Dr. Chase says. "That just isn’t true. Recovery is most definitely possible.”
Recovery is a process that includes emotional work and nutritional education and support. Type and intensity of treatment can vary depending on the medical and psychological needs, but can include group therapy, meal planning, emotional work, art therapy, educational classes, and outpatient care.
Sometimes the hardest part about getting help is knowing whether or not you need it, especially since there can be a fine line between self-care and disordered eating. Eating Recovery Center offers free online assessments and phone calls with licensed clinicians to figure out what makes the most sense for treatment. In the end, many people with eating disorders learn to love themselves and accept their body as a gift and not as a punishment.
Just as love for others can be unconditional, so should love for ourselves. We have to treat our bodies and minds with compassion, care, and love, seeking help from experts when needed. If you are struggling with an eating disorder, know you are not alone and can recover. If you see a friend or family member struggling, take that first step and open up a loving dialogue.
For more information, call 877-711-1878 or visit eatingrecovery.com