An estimated 500,000 Missourians suffer from an eating disorder — discussing common myths about them

Feb 24, 2016

Eating disorders aren’t a “real” problem. Eating disorders are a “cry for attention.” Parents are to blame for eating disorders. Eating disorders only happen to white, middle class women. These are all common myths about eating disorders that guests on Wednesday’s “St. Louis on the Air” sought to address.

The Missouri Eating Disorders Association estimates that 500,000 Missourians suffer from an eating disorder. Neither gender nor ethnicity nor age make a person more pre-disposed to having such a disorder, said Lisa Iken-Sokolik, the executive director of MOEDA.

Lisa Iken-Sokolik, the executive director of MOEDA.
Credit Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio

“What’s interesting about eating disorders is that anyone can have one,” she said. “It’s a possibility for anyone.”

Joining Iken-Sokolik, three other guests discussed common myths about eating disorders and real experiences of having had an eating disorder. Kimberli McCallum, M.D., Medical Director and Founder, McCallum Place discussed the medical impact of an eating disorder on the body and the treatment process. Robin Jonas, an adult who is currently in recovery, and Melody Miller, a parent of a daughter in the recovery process, also joined the show.

What is an eating disorder and who suffers from them?

Robin Jonas is currently in recovery from an eating disorder.
Credit Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio

You may recognize the terms “anorexia,” “bulimia,” and “binge eating disorder.” Each of these is an eating disorder, an illness categorized by a person’s abnormal or disturbed eating habits. Eating disorders are complicated because they involve both psychological and physical issues.

Each guest made clear that eating disorders are not just a “girls’ disease.” Iken-Sokolik said that about 10-30 percent of men have eating disorders and that people well into their 60s suffer from them.

Jonas is currently in recovery from an eating disorder that started when she was a teenager into college. During that time she was hospitalized. Twenty-seven years later, she had a relapse, finding herself exercising in excess. She said, in retrospect, there was no rationale for her eating disorder.

“By the time you start losing the weight, you really cannot be rational," she said.

Melody Miller is a parent of a daughter in the recovery process.
Credit Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio

Miller has a 28-year-old daughter who is in recovery from anorexia nervosa. Miller first noticed her daughter’s condition when she went to visit her daughter in London. She wouldn’t eat anything except carefully-selected foods in front of her parents and was losing weight rapidly. Now, her daughter sees a dietician and therapist weekly.

How to recognize an eating disorder

Internally, someone with an eating disorder may realize they have an eating disorder if they start secretively eating, binge eating, losing the ability to eat with family and friends, said McCallum.

Iken-Sokolik said that excessive weight loss is not an uncommon sign of an eating disorder to external parties. Other signs include seeing someone faint or get dizzy, excessive body comparisons or opting out of meals. At that point, she said, it is imperative that the person restricting or controlling their caloric intake get help from a professional.

"An eating disorder is not a phase and it is not a choice," said Iken-Sokolik. "The only way anyone can get beyond it is to get treatment."

Kimberli McCallum, M.D., Medical Director and Founder, McCallum Place.
Credit Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio

It can be hard for people to admit they have an eating disorder. In some cases, parents of adult children may need to intervene legally to get their children hospitalized. Many people with eating disorders don’t think they can change what has become habit.

"They can't imagine giving up behaviors to cope with stress," said McCallum. That’s part of what treatment seeks to confront. First, a patient is evaluated from medical complications due to lack of nutrition. Second, a bevy of psychological and nutritional care is given to the patient. The psychological component aims at both what is causing food restrictions and also other underlying issues like anxiety or depression.

The recovery process

There are many kinds of treatment that include hospitalization, 24/7 residential treatment and out-patient appointments.

"The good news is that full recovery is possible for most people with an eating disorder," said McCallum, estimating that for most people there is  two to 15 year range of recovery. For some, however, there may be relapses, such as in Jonas’ case, which may be because treatment was not applied fully or for the necessary length of time.

Length of time is where many hurdles begin. Insurance companies can be restrictive with how long a patient is allowed to receive treatment for an eating disorder. Miller said her daughter was lucky because their insurance recognized the need for a lengthier treatment where many other patients did not have insurance that took this into consideration.

"This is not just something that leaves overnight."

"This is not just something that leaves overnight," said Jonas.

Untreated eating disorders can lead to a variety of complications including a heightened risk for osteoporosis, cardiovascular compromise and gastro-intestinal problems, McCallum said.

If you’re looking for help for yourself or for someone you know, check out for physician referrals and treatment options. The Missouri Eating Disorders Association will also host a panel discussion and answer more questions about eating disorders tomorrow night at Maryville University. Information below.

Related Event

What: MOEDA and Maryville University Present Eating Disorders Panel Discussion
When: Thursday, February 25 at 5:30 p.m.
Where: Reid Hall Room at Maryville University
More information.

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.