For the estimated 575,000 Missourians struggling with an eating disorder of some kind, a huge barrier to overcome is having the vocabulary to describe the problem. That was certainly the case for Ali Fields.
“I was an anxious and uncomfortable kid, I had low self-esteem and anxiety,” Fields told St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh. “I did not know that [an eating disorder] was what it was. At age 8, I did not have the language to communicate that something was wrong.”
Fields turned to regulating her food intake as a way to deal with the uncomfortable feeling of anxiety, which she said gave her momentary respite from the discomfort. By the time she was 14, she developed bulimia (binging and then purging food intake), which she did not recognize the definition for.
“What I didn’t know was that in those prior years I could have had treatment,” Fields said. “I didn’t know that what I was dealing with was a real thing, a problem … I just thought I was doing life wrong.”
After an extensive treatment and recovery process, Fields now considers herself recovered.
“That’s one of the biggest misconceptions about eating disorders: once you have an eating disorder, you have it forever; you don’t,” Fields said. “You can have a full and complete recovery. I am recovered. When I say that, I mean that I no longer have eating disorder thoughts or behaviors anymore and I’ve accepted my body as it is. I’ve been recovered for over a year now.”
This Saturday, the St. Louis chapter of the National Eating Disorders Association will host a walk to draw awareness to eating disorders and the broad range of experiences people with eating disorders can have when trying to overcome the disease.
Aisha Lubinski, an eating disorder dietician and therapist, said that eating disorders can be found in people as young as age six and as old as age 70. There are three main types of eating disorders: anorexia nervosa (reducing food intake), bulimia and binge-eating disorder (loss of control around food).
“Eating disorders start, generally, in the family,” Lubinski said. “People may not feel like they’re getting what they need from the family, or they may even have anxiety. A six year-old who has been struggling to say they are not okay, learns they can control food, their body. That helps reduce the intensity of emotions. Without realizing it, food becomes the thing they start controlling even though the issue is not the food but the emotion in their lives.”
David Bachman is the father of a son who is diagnosed with anorexia nervosa. He was first diagnosed with the disorder at age 12, “but we probably started seeing signs that we did not recognize at the time when he was 10 or early 11,” Bachman said.
“His OCD/obsession came with body image, he’s a very sports-minded young man who wanted to excel at sports,” Bachman said. “Food intake became an enemy to him, managing food intake. Then there was the elimination of entire food groups and extreme severe weight loss.”
Initially, Bachman intervened from a medical perspective, but he felt his son’s pediatrician did not really understand eating disorders. They later pursued help from a child psychologist. His son has now been involved in both in-patient and outpatient treatment.
“Eating disorders are not a choice,” Lubinski said. “It generally starts without noticing it. It’s ‘I’m going to skip lunch today because I don’t want to eat’ and before they realize, they can’t get themselves to start eating again. It is very much a mental health disorder and a medical disorder. It is serious.”
Lubinski said that the best place to start with a friend or family member you are concerned might have an eating disorder is from a place of caring and concern, asking them what’s going on, and then directing them to resources like the National Eating Disorders Association.
The Missouri Eating Disorder Association has also embarked on a broad-ranging educational program targeting middle school and high school students to raise awareness called “Feed the Facts.”
“Eating disorders are present in every demographic,” Lubinski said. “Even socioeconomic status, we have people in a poverty situation and they have an eating disorder but no access to treatment. We need to work on access for everyone.”
What: St. Louis NEDA Walk
When: Saturday, March 25 at 9 a.m.
Where: Tilles Park, 9551 Litzsinger Road, St. Louis, MO 63124
St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.