Eating Disorders

A billboard depicting a common myth about eating disorders.
Missouri Eating Disorder Association

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.

SLU Psychologist Jillon Vander Wal, third from left, gathers for a portrait with the research assistants who work at the Eating and Weight Studies Lab.
provided | Jillon Vander Wal

In 2014 New Jersey college student Clarice Bourland spent most of her energy —and most of her day — deciding how much food she would allow herself to eat.

“The only things I ate were fruits, vegetables and egg whites, and I really limited that. I purged everything I ate. I was exercising, running over 50 miles a week. I was so afraid of food that I would hold my breath when I was going passed places with food because I was afraid that if I breathed in any particles of food I would become fat,” Bourland said.

Left to right: "Meltdown" "Puzzled" and "Missing Piece" by Judith Shaw. "Cover-Up," embellished with Band-Aids and "Figured Out," which has no adornment, are two more pieces in the show.
Judith Shaw

For most of her life, Judith Shaw didn’t think she had a problem with food and she certainly didn’t consider herself artistic.

Then 10 years ago at the age of 53, the Clayton resident sought treatment for her anorexia. She responded to one therapeutic assignment by tracing her gaunt pound body and gluing words like “help” and “pain” to the outline. Later she traced her fuller figure and added things like puzzle pieces.

“I’m spilling my guts in pictures and words and shapes and forms,” Shaw said.

‘Many people have a hole’

Rosie and Holly Nauheim stand outside their home in St. Louis on May 18, 2015.
Durrie Bouscaren | St. Louis Public Radio

When her health insurance provider told Holly Naunheim that it wouldn’t cover her daughter’s stay in a residential treatment facility for an eating disorder, she was furious.  

“I was hysterical,” Naunheim said. “My husband and her therapist said, ‘We’re going to fight this.’”

Naunheim's daughter, Rosie, 15, had struggled with anorexia for three years, going in and out of doctor’s offices and a treatment center. In the eighth grade, she was so sick that she had to attend her graduation with a feeding tube taped under her nose.  

Courtesy of the St. Louis Science Center

We've seen the St. Louis Science Center's planetarium decorated in various ways and in many lights. The building even dresses up with a red bow for the holidays and for its 50th anniversary it donned a gold one. But on Monday night it was lit blue and green for a different reason.

Judy Clifford, far left, Nancy Albus, Laura Huff and David Bachman talk to 'St. Louis on the Air' host Don Marsh about eating disorders on Feb. 19, 2015, at St. Louis Public Radio in St. Louis.
Alex Heuer / St. Louis Public Radio

Several sterotypes are associated with eating disorders. Among them, that the disease only affects teenage women.

Nancy Albus, CEO of Castlewood Treatment Center, told “St. Louis on the Air” host Don Marsh on Thursday that her facility is seeing more and more men. Because only about one in 10 people affected by an eating disorder seek treatment, there are probably a lot more men (and women) who need treatment, she said.

And it’s not just teens: Eating disorders can manifest at any age, said Laura Huff, director of the St. Louis Behavioral Health Medicine Institute.

Brain sculpture in Bloomington, Ind.
(via Flickr / Ali Eminov)

While it may be well established that our brains command our actions, it’s becoming increasingly clear that we can have greater control over the message.

Increasingly, research shows people can take steps to protect the health of their brain and as one aspect of that, may be able to sidetrack compulsive behaviors such as eating disorders.

The Missouri Eating Disorders Association is one agency which provides education, resources and advocacy to bring understanding and support to those treating or affected by the disease.