Forming a Healthy Relationship with Food: West Michigan Dietitian Discusses Keys to Conquer an Eating Disorder
Eating disorders are complex conditions. Most people are aware of the harm they inflict on the body, but it can be overlooked that they are officially categorized as mental illnesses. The stigma that surrounds eating disorders can bring shame, embarrassment, and isolation to the person struggling with one. This can all lead to a vicious cycle that damages every aspect of a person’s health.
Experts say the single most important step a person suffering from an eating disorder can take in hopes of eventually overcoming the condition, is reaching out for help.
“It’s a long process, but once someone is actively receiving the help they need, I’ve never heard anyone after the fact say, ‘I regret recovering from my eating disorder.’” said Jenna VanVeldhuisen, a registered dietitian and the founder of West Michigan Eating Disorder Specialists.
Though there are many different types, eating disorders can broadly be described as an excessive preoccupation with food coupled with a dissatisfaction with one’s body shape and weight.
Anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder. Though it’s a common misconception that only women are affected by eating disorders, women between the ages of 15 and 24 who suffer from anorexia nervosa are 12 times more likely to die from the illness than any other cause of death.
Signs and symptoms
In general, VanVeldhuisen said these signs and symptoms could indicate that a person’s relationship with food is not in a healthy place:
- Unhealthy relationship with exercise or excessive exercise
- Skipping meals or neglecting certain food groups altogether (possible fasting)
- Obsessively counting calories or tracking food
- Running off to the bathroom after meals (possible self-induced vomiting/purging)
- Eating in secret
- Eating large amounts of food at one time
Forming a healthy relationship with food and finding “food freedom”
VanVeldhuisen’s passion for working with people suffering from eating disorders stems from witnessing their serious effects firsthand.
“My sister had an eating disorder,” she said, during an interview with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. “My relationship with her became very different, it was altered. Eating disorders cause you to do that, they cause you to isolate, they cause you to sometimes be deceitful. They absolutely have an impact.”
One of VanVeldhuisen’s primary goals with clients is helping them establish a healthy relationship with food. The term for that eventual end game, she said, is “food freedom.”
“Often times what I see with my clients is this mental block and the idea that certain foods are causing harm to their body,” she explained. “And that if they eat those foods there will be this extreme result that happens or extreme reaction to their bodies. So, food freedom is being able to recognize that all food can be viewed as equal. When we assign those labels, we really build up that barrier that causes people to view food in a negative way.”
Food freedom is not assigning a moral value to food and believing that some foods will have this immediate, drastic effect on the body. It is, of course, important to eat the appropriate amounts of food over time, but it’s important for someone struggling with an eating disorder to learn not to assign judgment to food. Laboring over labels can prevent people from finding food freedom, and from consuming nutrients that are essential to a balanced diet.
“A lot of clients will cut out carbs, and we know carbs are our body’s primary source of energy,” she said. “Or they’ll cut out fat, and the body needs fat. When we get to that place where we’re doing that, that’s far more harmful than any food will ever end up being. We want people to be able to enjoy food and have that satisfaction factor.”
Reaching out for support, even while vulnerable
“We are not meant to obsess about our food and every last calorie,” VanVeldhuisen said. “There’s a better quality of life out there, and a freedom that comes from obtaining true health.”
VanVeldhuisen said most eating disorders begin with a healthy intention in mind. She said she noticed a trend among some teenagers during the COVID-19 shutdown of early 2020, when there was a stronger initiative to exercise more and adopt a balanced diet. However, it wasn’t long before unhealthy habits derived from those good intentions for some.
“It can take a wrong turn when it becomes your everything and your sole consumption, and you’re not showing yourself some grace,” she said. “It can start with a healthy intent and go wrong.”
When discussing eating disorder misconceptions, VanVeldhuisen made note of two points that she considers extremely important; one of those is that eating disorders aren’t something we can control, as they often symptoms that can accompany anxiety and depression.
“A lot of time people aren’t choosing to have an eating disorder, and that can get lost,” VanVeldhuisen said.
She added that avoiding help and minimizing symptoms should happen if someone thinks they are struggling with an eating disorder.
“So many of our clients don’t believe they are ‘sick enough,’ she said. “We hear this all the time and it makes us sad as providers. We see how damaging the (disorder) is to that individual and to their family, but the client struggles to truly believe they deserve help because of the nature of it. If your relationship with food and your body is altered and it’s tearing you away from your normal life, you are absolutely sick enough to get treatment.”
Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan (BCBSM) and Blue Care Network (BCN) members can find in-person support, self-guided care, and if necessary, crisis assistance by logging into their member accounts and learning more about behavioral health support at this link.
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