Dying to be Thin: Today's Eating Disorders

Bonnie Taub-Dix
March 13, 2014

Do you feel fat? Well, guess what: Fat is not a feeling. For some people, though, even the thought of feeling over-full, bloated or bigger than they should-be conjures up a wide range of emotions. The words "I feel fat," especially when spoken by those with eating disorders, are saying something else, like "I'm feeling sad, depressed, ignored or unloved." The latter are words that are harder, and the pain they bring is more powerful than the pain of feeling hungry.

I recently gave a lecture to high school freshmen and their parents on the subject of eating disorders. Although I didn't know anyone in the audience personally, I was certain that every one of them knew someone or was someone with an eating disorder or disordered eating. Between distorted media messages and the obsession with everything from skinny jeans to flat bellies, it's no wonder that a young teen could lose sight of how to navigate their plates, and instead only focus on losing weight. Pair this confusion with the push to play an instrument, join a sports team, cope with peer pressure and get into a good college, and you'll surely find a recipe for an overwhelmed child.

Here are some of my presentation highlights:

Don't believe everything you see. Supermodels on magazine covers are there to sell magazines and to sell beauty through the display of perfect or near-perfect bodies. What most people don't realize is that so many of these figures were created and modified by Photoshop, not put together by someone who knew how to food shop.

[See: The Eating Disorder Spectrum -- From Pregorexia to Drunkorexia.]

Don't believe everything you read or hear. I've have been working with the media for decades, and I can tell you that so much of what you hear and read is blown out of proportion. Sensational headlines are like magnets to an audience. The hottest diets focus more on how fast you could lose unwanted pounds than whether the plan will truly help -- or harm. The most popular cleansing diets do a better job of cleansing your wallets than your waistline.

Beware of celebrity endorsements. Consumers are often more attracted to the celeb pushing the diet than the diet itself. I don't know any stars who have a degree in nutrition. Instead of just looking like models, they should embrace their responsibilities as role models -- especially for younger audiences -- and try promoting healthy habits.

[Read: 5 Eating Disorder Signs in Your Child .]

Be selectively social. Although the buzz about eating disorders in not new, what makes today's media messages particularly dangerous is that thanks to social media, anyone can post anything anywhere. In other words, you don't need any credentials or credibility to get your words published on a blog or posted on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or Pinterest. Like moths to a flame, young audiences are particularly vulnerable to these types of communications. Active conversations can now take place among those who are suffering from eating disorders, where participants can fuel each other's unsafe habits. As highlighted in Everyday Health, "Hashtags like #thinspo and #thinspiration promote anorexia and bulimia through social channels." Though social media can be used to spread harmful messages about eating disorders, there is hope that it can also be used to do some good.

[Read: Orthorexia: An Unhealthy Obsession With Healthy Eating.]

Perhaps the most important take-away is that parents need to set an example when they set the table. A mother who asks a daughter "Do I look fat in this?" is asking for a potential eating issue in her family. And young people ought to be a good role model for their friends. Choose friends because of what they are inside, not what they look like on the outside. Most importantly, if you have a friend who you think is suffering from disordered eating, tell someone at home or school. Although you may fear putting your friendship at risk, the risk of losing your friend forever to a potentially fatal illness would be a greater tragedy.

[Read: How to Talk to a Friend About an Eating Disorder .]

Eating disorders are very real and dangerous medical illnesses, but they are treatable, especially if detected early. Some symptoms can become life-threatening if untreated. I came across a disturbing statistic that read: "People with anorexia nervosa are 18 times more likely to die early compared with people of similar age in the general population." Ironically, that immediately made me think of the number 18, which is a spiritual number in Judaism meaning "alive" or "life." Food fuels life -- and those with eating disorders need the right foods in the right amounts, along with a side dish of understanding and support.

Bonnie Taub-Dix, MA, RD, CDN, has been owner of BTD Nutrition Consultants, LLC, for more than three decades and she is the author of Read It Before You Eat It. As a renowned motivational speaker, author, media personality, and award-winning dietitian, Taub-Dix has found a way to communicate how to make sense of science. Her website is BetterThanDieting.com.