Eating disorders affect millions in the US

Food, for many of us brings us joy. Our favorite pizza, or Chinese place or big Thanksgiving dinners. But food means something very different to others.  About 30,000,000 Americans, including 600,000 Missourians suffer from some form of eating disorder. K R P S’s Fred Fletcher-Fierro takes a closer look. 

(Left to right) Dr. Jenny Copeland, Susan Pitman, Aaron Dorland, Karen Vandiver of Freeman’s Ozark Center

First, let’s clear up some misperceptions about what eating disorders are and what they aren’t. The problem isn’t limited to skinny, well-off white women as Hollywood likes to portray; eating disorders can affect anyone of all body types, gender, races, ethnicities, and ages. They are also not a choice. According to Dr. Jenny Copeland, a licensed psychologist at Freeman Health Systems Ozark Center in Joplin, most of her patients aren’t what you would picture as having an eating disorder. 

“So, there’s often a fair amount of our patients that don’t have body image concerns. They come in with an eating disorder just as severe as what we would think. We would say that the majority of our clients don’t actually fit the stereotype of someone with an eating disorder.”

This week is National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, and throughout her career Dr. Copeland has worked to dispel the myth that eating disorders only affect those who appear to be too thin. Also, that eating disorders affect mostly women. According to a 2017 National Institute of Health and Care Excellence study, as many as 25% of men have had an eating disorder, many are athletes. Another myth is that the only eating disorders that exist are the well-known ones, anorexia and bulimia. But a disorder like eating can evolve and can even see-saw from overeating to not eating enough depending on your stress level. One cause of eating disorders, according to Registered Dietitian Susan Pitman, is shame. 

“There’s a lot of guilt and shame around food. It’s guilt and shame if you eat, or it’s guilt and shame if you don’t eat. So either way, they get in a lose-lose situation. And so, a lot of times, our main principle is just getting that food in.” 

Another myth is that eating disorders largely affect young people. Or that someone who has an eating disorder can snap out of it. Unfortunately, the truth is that eating disorders are the second deadliest of all mental illnesses in the United States.

“We have clients who tell us; you know they’ve gone two to three days without eating. And I’ve had clients say that nobody noticed that.”

(Left to right) Dr. Jenny Copeland, Susan Pitman, Aaron Dorland, Karen Vandiver of Freeman’s Ozark Center

Today, it’s less common for families to sit down and eat together. It’s more common to eat by yourself, which can make it difficult for others to notice whether you could have an eating disorder. There is another reason. Our society views eating more as a way to relax, enjoy, over-indulge, and less about nourishing our bodies. Aaron Dorland is a health coach at Ozark Center; he works with patients to get them on a healthy track. 

“I do a lot of intuitive eating. It kind of helps them connect to their body cues, if they’re full, if they’re hungry. What that feels like. I’ll even like to help clients go to the grocery store. I’ll go to the grocery store with them if they are really anxious cause a lot of people get really anxious shopping for food.”

Aaron explains that it’s more common than you think that people have not been educated on what’s healthy for them. Also, people get nervous about others judging them about what they’re buying at the grocery store.  Another tool that Arron uses to help patients overcome their eating disorders is called therapeutic meals.

With clients, we’ll both sit down and eat, and we’ll talk about any of their issues that they’re having while they’re eating, any of their thoughts, why it is uncomfortable to be eating with someone else?”

An eating disorder is nothing to be ashamed about. Millions of Americans struggle with some form of anxiety, bipolar disorder, depression, self-harm, such as cutting or substance abuse, and these can all feed into having some kind of eating disorder. It can affect anyone from any background, any gender, or age group.


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