For a long time I was embarrassed to tell people that I was a figure skater. I was afraid that someone would look at me and laugh at the idea that someone like me skated. I felt this way because I am in a larger body and have always been. Even though I loved to ice skate, I somehow knew that I was not in the ideal body for this sport. It never occurred to me back then that these thoughts and beliefs were biases that I had been taught both implicitly and explicitly.
Biases are preconceived ideas about something or someone. They can be negative or positive but often we associate biases as negative. For me, I grew up with the bias that “real figure skaters” were in small slender bodies. I only saw petite tiny women (and girls) glide across the ice when I would watch the Olympics or National Championships. I never saw an ice skater that looked like me.
In my personal experience as an ice skater I can remember a dance and ice skating store shop owner looking down at me as she said, “we don’t carry your size.” I had coaches that reminded me that I’d skate faster if I was smaller and applauded me when I lost weight. I was highly aware that some coaches weighed their students and told them what they could and could not eat. It is really no surprise that in the sport of figure skating there are increased rates of eating disorders and overexercise, and many skaters experience poor relationships to food and body.
I was surrounded by weight stigma as I was teased by kids at school for being fat. It definitely reinforced the belief that my body was wrong. Fortunately I had friends and family who didn’t judge me and supported my passion for skating. Regardless of my size I was a real figure skater. I wore the sparkly dresses. I could do difficult jumps and all types of spins. I competed in competitions and even took home a few medals and trophies. I learned to ice dance with a partner. I performed in ice shows and represented my college at the Intercollegiate Nationals three times. I even took home a silver medal for my event. Eventually I would go on to teach others to skate. I was in love with this sport and I guess in some ways I pushed some invisible boundaries by not succumbing to the negative messages about whether I belonged on the ice or not.
Biases can be so harmful because they create this belief that the size of your body cannot do a certain sport, wear a certain piece of clothing, or just feel like you don’t belong. It was not until I was into my coaching career that I truly saw how our biases could stand in the way of doing something that could be fun. I had two students who changed the way I saw what someone can or cannot do.
The first was a 60 year old man who wanted to learn how to ice skate so he could skate with his grandson who was a hockey player. He shared that he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and wanted to ice skate with his grandson before the disease progressed enough that he wouldn’t be able to do difficult physical activity like ice skating. He told me his left leg was already significantly weaker than his right leg, but he wanted to try so that he could surprise his grandson.
The second student was an eight year old boy who was on the autistic spectrum. His parents wanted him to learn to ice skate because his father was a hockey player and wanted to be able to ice skate with his son. Unfortunately, this student’s autism was severe enough that he would never be able to play on an ice hockey team or join in an ice skating class with others his age. Our one on one lessons focused on just teaching him to stand on the ice, feeling the cold ice with his bare hands, and marching his feet.
If we listen to what society says about only one type of body being right we might miss out on something pretty incredible. Too often in my work as a therapist I hear clients say they can’t do something because their body doesn’t fit the expectations of what has been deemed normal by society. My two ice skating students were people who many might presume were unable to ice skate because of their bodies. They did not struggle with weight stigma, but stigma around disabilities. Many coaches did not want to teach them because they felt it would be too hard to work with them. For me, it was a blessing.
I wish there was more representation of different types of bodies in figure skating and in all sports for that matter. I hope that we can tear down these negative fat biases and that more people in bigger bodies get the opportunity to do the things they wish. Maybe some things need to be modified and maybe you won’t be an Olympic champion, but body size should not be a limiting factor of what one is allowed to do. Think about how your own biases prevent you from doing something.
I am no longer ashamed to tell people I was a figure skater. I am proud to share about my ice skating experiences and the jumps and spins I was able to do. I do not care if there is judgement because figure skating is hard. I bet most people couldn’t do a flying camel spin into a sit spin combination. But, I could, and I deserve to show that off.
If you have an eating disorder, or your child has one, there is a good chance that weight gain will be an essential part of the recovery process. This is true not just for people in objectively small bodies, but also for people in larger bodies who are diagnosed with Atypical Anorexia, a weight-biased diagnostic category included in the DSM-5. It is even true for people recovering from bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder.
The eating disorders field lacks consensus on how to set recovery weights. I know a respected professional who argues adolescents should be routinely restored only up to the 25th percentile weight for age. They argue that this reduces their potential for experiencing weight stigma and reduces their anxiety. However, I see a problem with this, as do many of my colleagues and many families and recovered people.
This article discusses why weight recovery is a priority; what the research on weight suppression says; how we use growth curves in setting recovery weights; what evidence suggests that many providers set recovery weights too low; and how this applies to people in larger bodies.
Why Prioritize Weight Recovery
We know that while weight recovery in anorexia is not sufficient for recovery in and of itself, it appears to be a prerequisite for full psychological recovery. Eating disorder cognitions as well as most of the physical symptoms appear to recede only with full weight restoration. Food is medicine not just for the body, but for the brain as well. That is why we often say, “Food is medicine.”
The research on timelines for eating disorder recovery show that remission of eating disorder behaviors such as binge eating and purging takes an average of eight or nine months, and weight recovery takes on average 12 months. But it takes even longer to end eating disorder thoughts, including the preoccupation with shape and weight and urges to restrict, purge, or exercise. These thoughts can persist for nearly a year after a person has reached a normal weight, has stopped engaging in behaviors, or both.
Weight Suppression and Negative Energy Balance
We also know that weight suppression—defined in adults as the difference between a person’s current weight and their previous higher adult weight—predicts continuation of eating disorder symptoms including binge eating. In children and adolescents, weight suppression would be defined as a negative deviation from one’s expected weight curve (more on growth curves below). Therefore, at EDTLA we prioritize full weight restoration for all patients in all body sizes and with all eating disorders. Failing to fully restore a person to their recovery weight for body and brain could prevent them from a full recovery.
A negative energy balance—taking in less energy than one’s body needs—may be a primary contributor to the development of an eating disorder in someone who has the innate susceptibility. Cindy Bulik, Ph.D. describes how a negative energy balance lowers anxiety for a person with this vulnerability, creating a trap. Restriction becomes seductive under these conditions. Couple this with the evidence that the weight loss leading to the development of anorexia nervosa could be unintentional—such as a side effect of an illness or an overexpenditure of energy for sports combined with undereating. Together these suggest the best defense against relapse is maintaining an adequate energy balance and a healthy weight where the brain is functioning well enough to not act on residual thoughts.
Using Growth Curves to Estimate Recovery Weights
In this section, I will discuss why using individual growth records is so important. We have received guidance from our colleagues specializing in adolescent medicine and eating disorders. Like many eating disorder dietitians, one of the things we do is look at childhood growth records when they are available. This method is more tailored than using population averages such as BMI to set recovery goals.
In the US, most pediatricians and family medicine doctors document children’s growth on the CDC growth chart, which plots height, weight, and body mass index (BMI) against age-based averages. In healthy children and teens, height and weight each increase along a consistent growth curve. Some children and teens grow steadily along the 95th percentile, some along the 75th percentile, some along the 50th percentile, and still others along the 25thh percentile.
But not every body is the same, and it’s normal for individuals’ height and weight to follow different growth curves. For some children and teens, a weight along the 75th percentile and height on the 25th percentile is normal. This defines the growth curves for that individual. Just as not every woman of average height wears a size 8 shoe, not everyone of average height is meant to be at the 50th percentile for weight. There is always a normal distribution in a population. These growth percentages appear to be largely genetically determined.
A deviation on an individual’s growth curve for weight, height, or BMI—even in the absence of actual weight loss—may indicate there is a problem such as an eating disorder. A child should be growing and gaining weight during this time, so the failure of a child or teen to gain the appropriate weight can be equivalent to weight loss. This means that when there is actual weight loss, the amount of suppression—the difference between current weight and where one should be on a growth trajectory—is usually even greater than the actual pounds lost.
Thus, a parent may come to us and say, “My child has only lost 10 pounds.” However, when that weight is plotted and we notice that the child also failed to gain any weight in the months before they lost weight, we might now look at their curve and see that in fact, the child should gain 20 pounds (or more!) to catch up to where they should be on their own unique growth curve. Some kids may not have lost any weight at all—but have fallen short of their appropriate gain for so long that they now should gain at least 10 pounds.
This is why we also often say that weight is a moving target. To remain in recovery, a year from now an individual’s goal weight must be higher than the weight that would be healthy at their age today. And this is true even for children who are no longer getting taller, as it is normal for weight to continue to be gained through about age 20.
Please be aware that some non-ED specialist pediatricians/health professionals may not be well-informed about this individualized process of setting goal weights. I once had a pediatrician who told a teen’s parents she would be happy if my patient got to a certain weight because that was the weight that the pediatrician—who was herself quite petite—had weighed at the patient’s age.
What? A pediatrician setting a goal weight for a patient based on her own unique growth history!?? When you take your clothes in for alterations, does the tailor cut the clothes to fit the tailor? Do you see the problem here?
Speaking of growth curves, the use of growth curves to spot early eating disorders is an underutilized practice. In a recent study on pediatric patients hospitalized with an eating disorder, 48% of patients experienced a deviation in the growth curve a median of almost 10 months prior to the first eating disorder symptoms being reported by parents.
We will also show you how your teen’s weight should be tracking on the weight curve. Teens generally gain 30 to 40 pounds in the course of puberty. While many children gain weight and grow naturally during this period, we find that children who have had an eating disorder may need continuing guidance to help their weight keep pace with their age and height. We encourage parents to keep an eye on their teen’s weight to make sure weight continues to track along the expected curve. We respect parents and educate them on this.
At EDTLA, we do our best to challenge our own weight biases and that of our patients and their families. We believe that facing the anxiety of a patient or a child restoring to a slightly higher weight has benefits that outweigh the costs. We help the family challenge the belief that being fat is worse than remaining ill. I never want to be the provider who set a goal weight so low that it contributed to prolonging a mental illness from which it may take a patient 9 to 22 years to recover.
Challenging weight bias and setting higher weights goals does not always make us popular. Teens with eating disorders are by definition, terrified of gaining weight. In her blog, eating disorder specialist pediatrician Julie O’Toole discusses the setting of goal weights and how parents fear that too much weight gain will make their teen more depressed and anxious. Dr. O’Toole emphasizes the importance of basing treatment goals on data rather than placating the eating disorder.
Remember that an irrational fear of weight gain is often a symptom of the disorder. The anxiety over one’s body size often improves significantly with recovery, which requires more regular eating patterns and—ironically—weight gain. Please note this is rarely immediate. It may take up to a year of being at one’s healthy weight and learning to tolerate a changed body before the eating disorder thoughts fully subside. On the other hand, appeasing the fear of gaining more weight can maintain the fear and potentially the disorder.
How Does This Apply to People in Bigger Bodies?
We are often asked why a person who has historically been at a higher-than-average body weight must be returned to a weight that is higher than average. We recognize that bodies naturally come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Some people are meant to be larger. We often encounter patients and families who say “but they looked better when they were a few pounds less” and want to use the eating disorder as an opportunity to keep a person’s weight suppressed. We believe that using an eating disorder as an opportunity to avoid returning to a previous higher weight could hinder the individual from reaching full recovery. And the research on weight suppression supports this. In the words of Julie O’Toole, “Rarely can a child who is genetically programmed to be larger than average be safely held at a ‘thin’ body weight. Size acceptance may be a part of the family’s treatment challenge.”
Of Course, Recovery is About More Than Weight
Remember, though, that an estimated recovery weight is just that—the best estimate of where recovery will occur. I think it is important for parents to have a roadmap and to know generally whether they might be needing to add (at least) 10 pounds or 20 pounds or 40 pounds because it gives you a realistic expectation of how long the weight recovery phase may take. Again, this may change over time and our estimates are usually a minimum weight and bodies may go higher.
Ultimately, recovery is about state, not weight. And recovery means more than just weight recovery. We are looking for recovery of physical health—normalization of heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature and resumption of menses when appropriate—as well as psychological recovery which includes improved mood, decreased eating disorder thoughts, return of normal hunger cues, and more regular eating, a less fraught relationship with food, improved social functioning, and a return of interest in other age-appropriate activities.
In one informal survey of 29 parents whose teens were given a recovery goal of 19 BMI, most reported recovery actually occurred at a BMI of 23 or greater and none achieved recovery at a BMI lower than 21. Parents will report that often, with an additional ten extra pounds, their teens were more likely to attain state recovery. If someone is not doing well at what we initially estimated to be a recovery weight, we will review that and may suggest after a few months that we raise the goal weight a little.
This post has described our thinking, which is informed by research, parent feedback, and expert opinions by leaders in the intersection of adolescent eating disorders, FBT, and Health at Every Size ®. We hope it helps you understand our recommendations.
But you don’t have to take our word for it. We invite you to do your own research. Below we’ve compiled some resources from leaders and colleagues in the field. And we strongly suggest you watch this video by Eva Musby.
This quote has generated a lot of reaction. In this podcast, Shira—who lives in a larger body when she is not using eating disorder behaviors—details how she has suffered from fatphobia in the world and in treatment centers. She shares that she has been significantly harmed by both well-meaning treatment providers and highly-regarded treatment centers.
This blog addresses two questions:
How is fatphobia affecting therapy and patients?
When is someone well enough to treat?
Shira is my friend and colleague. I regard her above quote to be a challenge to all treatment providers who have not faced their own fatphobia, including those who seemed afraid of Shira’s weight gain, tried to reassure her she was not gaining weight or would not gain weight, tried to help her keep her weight down, and limited her portions. These actions have harmed her by making her afraid to eat enough to sustain her healthy body weight and making her unable to fully recover after a 19-year history of an eating disorder.
Weight Stigma in Treatment
One incident Shira experienced in treatment was relayed to her friend, Sam Dylan Finch who described it in a blog post:
“The dietitian said, ‘You three get two scoops of ice cream.’ She then looked at me and said, ‘You’ll get a kiddie scoop.’”
Some of you won’t understand the gravity of that comment. To be clear, a dietitian told a patient with anorexia nervosa to eat less food than her peers, because she is a patient in a larger body.
The message here being, of course, that Shira needed to eat a child-sized portion of ice cream, because she wasn’t thin enough to “safely” consume more than that.
This plays directly into the eating disorder’s conviction that she needed to tightly control her food intake and her body. Her peers could eat a “normal” amount of ice cream. But she couldn’t and was singled out, because something was “wrong” with her body.
“This was the message I received my entire damn life,” Shira told me. “That I couldn’t eat like everyone else.”
— Sam Dylan Finch
The mixed messages of “eat ice cream” but “only a tiny serving” have further strengthened Shira’s eating disorder. The message treatment providers delivered over and over again was that her body needed to be controlled in order to avoid fatness. She yearned to be able to eat freely.
Shira also acknowledges that there were times in the past when she thought she was fully recovered. She only discovered years later after a relapse that what she thought was fully recovered was only partially recovered. How is this possible? Because we live in a culture where it is considered desirable and virtuous to maintain a low weight, deny ourselves tasty foods, limit the amount we eat, and exercise intensely. No other mental illness is so unfortunately reinforced by our cultural ideals.
And in terms of who is well enough to treat people with eating disorders, is recovery from one’s own eating disorder the only criterion that matters? How would we ever be able to vet that? How do we define recovery anyway?
I agree with Shira that there are many providers in the field who have not faced their own fatphobia. Focusing exclusively on providers who have had an eating disorder and whether or not they are recovered ignores a large portion of the provider community who do not have diagnosable eating disorders but may still be casualties of diet culture, wrestling with internalized weight stigma. These providers may be doing much more harm, but their impact has unfortunately received limited attention.
Providers With History of an Eating Disorder
Research indicates that a significant number of eating disorder treatment professionals have personally experienced an eating disorder. A study by De Vos and colleagues (2015) found that 24 to 47 percent of eating disorder clinicians reported a personal eating disorder history. An unpublished 2013 Academy for Eating Disorders online survey indicated that out of 482 respondents from professional eating disorder organizations, 262 (55%) reported a personal history of an eating disorder and half of those reported working directly with eating disorder patients. If we added subclinical eating disorders and disordered eating I have no doubt the rates would be higher.
Some have suggested over the years that providers with histories of eating disorders should never work in the field. This would be a mistake. Many professionals with their own personal histories (disclosed or not) have made major contributions to the field and to our understanding of eating disorders. Carolyn Costin, MEd, LMFT, CEDS and Mark Warren, MD, MPH, FAED are two public examples of prominent recovered professionals. In the broader field of psychology, one need only look at Marsha Linehan, Ph.D., who developed the leading evidence-based treatment for borderline personality disorder and other conditions based on her own experience of recovery from a severe mental illness to see that blanket restriction like this make no sense. In various surveys, patients have consistently reported it is helpful to work with providers who have had an eating disorder.
But even more complicated is the fact that we do not have a solid definition of recovery. In eating disorder research studies, recovery is often defined by three components:
Physical—BMI higher than 18.5 or another universal marker like expected goal weight;
Behavioral—absence of binge eating, vomiting, laxative use, or fasting; and
Cognitive—EDE-Q subscales about shape and weight concerns within 1 standard deviation of age-matched peers.
With dieting widespread (a 2018 study reported 36 percent of Americans were dieting), how many providers with disordered eating and their own extreme weight control behaviors go under the radar? How many providers may be engaging in their own intermittent fasting, keto diets, counting calories, or excessive exercise? I would agree with Shira that we should be equally if not more afraid of these providers.
Who is Fit to Treat Eating Disorder Patients?
If the field can’t decide who is recovered, who is to decide who is fit to treat eating disorder patients? Are therapists who acknowledge they have clinical eating disorders worse than fatphobic dieter providers who deny their own food issues and go on to shame patients, recommend any kind of dietary restriction, and limit the weight gain necessary for full recovery? How do we decide when someone is well enough to treat others?
The following quote from Carolyn Costin M.A., M.E.d., LMFT, FAED, CEDS and Alli Spotts-De Lazzer M.A., LMFT, LPCC, CEDS in their article for Gurze (2016), “To Tell or Not to Tell: Therapists With a Personal History of an Eating Disorder,” highlights an important point:
“Even if the field reaches its consensus on a definition of recovered—and then holds it up as the criteria for being able to be work with eating disorder patients—how would we verify a recovered status? Could standardized measuring and monitoring happen? When substance abuse facilities hire individuals who identify as recovering alcoholics or drug addicts, drug testing can verify if the person is considered clean and sober or ‘using.’ There is no similar test to determine if a person is ‘using’ his or her eating disorder symptoms. Some have suggested that therapists with personal eating disorder histories be subjected to clinical eating disorder assessments and ultrasound checks for ovarian size to determine if they are at a healthy weight (Wright & O’Toole, 2005). Without even discussing the actual merit of these as determining factors, would these tests be administered to all therapists who wish to work with eating disorders or just those who say they once had an eating disorder? And couldn’t those with an eating disorder history be able to avoid such testing by not disclosing they ever had an eating disorder?”
Costin and Spotts-De Lazzer go on to state, “It seems interesting and confusing that there could be so much proposed attention on therapists who have recovered from an eating disorder but not for therapists who have histories of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, or another diagnosis in their past.”
Perhaps we should be focusing on assessing providers for awareness of weight bias instead.
Further, if we shame Shira for being a provider with an eating disorder, how do we make it safe for other providers to acknowledge their own struggles and receive help if they have a lapse or relapse? Shira has reported that a significant number of providers have shared with her that they have struggled or are currently struggling. This says a lot.
So back to the question—how do we decide when someone is well enough to treat others?
I don’t have the answer to this question. The field has been unable to even define recovery.
Am I more afraid of fatphobic dieting therapists who may not be aware of their potential for harm than therapists who believe in and espouse Health At Every Size ® while acknowledging their own mental illnesses? Ultimately, yes, I am.
I think we need to look inward and address the rampant weight bias in the field. With dieting so widespread we have a lot of work to do. I believe everyone deserves treatment to full recovery and safety in their bodies. We need to address structural issues that limit access to care and safety. We need to make it safe for providers to receive help for eating disorders. I think it behooves every professional working with eating disorder patients to look at their own weight bias and work to practice from a weigh-inclusive approach. Only this way can we reduce the harm done to people like Shira.
Costin, C. & Spotts-De Lazzer (2016). To Tell or Not to Tell: Therapists With a Personal History of an Eating Disorder. Gurze Salucore, Eating Disorders Resource Catalogue.
Stych, A (2018). Percentage of Dieters More Than Doubles. Bizwomen: The Business Journals.
On September 18th, 2019 Instagram instituted an official policy that all ads promoting diet and weight loss products would only be able to be viewed by users 18 and over. Any ads that have false claims can be reported and subject to removal. This is a huge victory in the world of challenging diet culture. For years, celebrities and social media influencers have been advertising diet and weight loss products that, for the most part, are bogus, promise false results and can be just downright dangerous to someone’s physical and mental health.
Most celebrities who promote these products are doing so for a paycheck and not because they are actually finding these products useful. Unfortunately, advertisements like these can impact impressionable viewers, especially those struggling with poor body image, disordered eating and eating disorders. And while the celebrities may say, “Take this and look like me,” the reality is that these products have no true evidence that they can change anyone.
Emma Collins, Instagram’s public policy manager, made a statement after this policy went into effect, “We want Instagram to be a positive place for everyone that uses it and this policy is part of our ongoing work to reduce the pressure that people can sometimes feel as a result of social media.” While this is a great step forward, it does feel like the next step should be eliminating diet and weight loss products altogether.
There are some major problems with advertising weight loss products. As a Health at Every Size® activist and promoter of body positivity, I can tell you that these products merely reinforce the idea that your body isn’t good enough. They teach that there is only one ideal body, and usually, it is the body of the celebrity promoting the product. It can be really dangerous to tell people that tea will flatten their stomachs or a lollipop will give them curves in the “right” places.
These advertisements put people at risk for developing eating disorders. They promote the very behaviors that are symptoms of eating disorders. These products try to normalize appetite suppression or compensating for what one has eaten via a laxative pill or tea. The messages are not health-promoting. They reinforce diet culture beliefs of certain foods being bad and needing to atone for eating.
A major issue is that there is absolutely no evidence that the products being advertised actually help with weight loss, detoxing your body of toxins, or changing the shape of your body. Most of these products are not even approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA is charged with regulating medications and while there are a few that have been approved, most that are advertised on social media are not. Most of these products carry false claims and use ingredients that can be more harmful than helpful. And that is a huge problem.
We do not often see celebrities sharing disclaimers of potential side effects from using these products. Diet pills may increase heart rate, heart palpitations, the likelihood of a stroke, and even death. The detox teas carry the risk of dehydration, electrolyte imbalance and stripping our guts of the nutrients we need. Side effects can also include an increase in stomach cramping, bloating, and diarrhea. Our bodies were designed to naturally flush out toxins. It is why we have a liver. And for those users of the products looking for a way to lose weight, well the weight “lost” from these teas are usually just water or stool mass. These products place a huge toll on the body and put vital organs at risk.
For these reasons, we should not only be protecting social media users who are under 18. We should be protecting everyone from viewing these ads. Adults are probably more likely to purchase these products and adults are just as susceptible to false promises as adolescents. It is great that places like Instagram are giving us a choice if we want to view these ads. It is definitely a step in the right direction. But, there is nothing safe about these products. From taking a physical toll on our bodies to mentally placing shame on our bodies there is no room for diet pills, detox teas, or any other weight loss product.
If you are currently struggling with how you feel about your body, help is available through support groups, therapy, and even body-positive accounts and groups on social media. The wonderful thing about social media is that there is a community for promoting Health at Every Size® and working on self-love and acceptance. Most of these groups do not cost anything and can have to have positive effects on your mind and body.
A disclaimer: I have no vested interest in Weight Watchers’ new Kurbo app. This app will in fact create more work for me. But let me be clear: I do not want this kind of work!
I know that you mean well and are merely concerned about your child’s health, but I can assure you that Weight Watchers does not share your concern. They are a commercial enterprise interested in making money and their business model is based on preying upon insecurities.
You would only need to spend a short time in my waiting room to hear from other parents who were once like you—moderately concerned (or maybe unconcerned) about their child’s weight and happy when their child committed to “eating healthier.” The story is nearly always the same. This child has been in what I would call a larger body—you might have called them “overweight”, pediatricians might have labeled them “obese”. It starts with them giving up sweets and then progresses. They start to restrict meat and starches and exercise more. It looks healthy. Over time, some switch gets tripped, and with very little warning the kid has anorexia, a lethal mental illness.
While most cases of anorexia are triggered by dieting, unintentional weight loss can be a trigger as well. It appears that people predisposed to anorexia respond to a negative energy balance in a way that flips this switch and they cross a dieting point of no return. Many of the teens I work with have been hospitalized for life-threatening low heart rates and electrolyte imbalances.
I cannot adequately express the guilt that parents feel from having allowed their teens to start these diets. I don’t blame them. I understand the pressure they are under.
Two of my three children grew out before they grew up. They had gained the weight their bodies needed to fuel puberty and impending growth spurts. I too received the warning from my well-intentioned pediatrician about their weights and weight gain. I knew enough to ignore the implied suggestion of helping them trim down. I cringe to think what might have happened if I had followed it. My children grew just fine and became more proportional according to their genetic predisposition.
My other child was lauded by the same pediatrician for growing up before growing out. It was only years later when I plotted her growth that I realized she had totally fallen off her expected weight curve at the time the pediatrician praised her weight. Yet, I did notice that she didn’t seem to be eating enough. (For more information on the intervention I did with her, read this post.)
The Kurbo app should come with the following warning:
“This app may trigger an eating disorder
from which your child could take 22 years to recover.”
Yes, 22 years! The most rigorous longitudinal study we have of anorexia has shown that at 9 years, only 31% of individuals with anorexia nervosa had recovered. Almost 63% had recovered at 22 years. If this is the path you follow, you may be facing many long years in and out of costly treatments to help your child recover.
Incidentally, Kurbo has made my job tougher. It classifies foods as “green”, “yellow”, or “red”. “Red” foods, such as ice cream, fried chicken, and pizza are “bad” — Kurbo advises kids to avoid them.
I work with children who suffer from anorexia, may be hypermetabolic, and may require ingesting upwards of 6000 kcal per day for several years to recover. I can’t express the difficulty of convincing an anorexic child to eat highly caloric foods to recover, when they immediately parrot back all the health messages they’ve received about these foods being dangerous. It’s terribly confusing to be told that the foods they’ve learned are bad for them are in fact the medicine that will cure them. This is but one reason why we cannot take a one size fits all approach to foods.
Back in my waiting room, maybe you would hear from some of the adults with eating disorders. They might tell you that years of dieting have contributed to weight gain, weight cycling, binge eating, and misery. They will typically remember that this pattern started in childhood with a diet. Dieting disconnects people from their own internal regulatory system (as does tracking calories and exercise).
What Can Parents Do Instead? The following advice is for parents of kids of all sizes.
I suggest teaching kids that bodies naturally come in all shapes and sizes and that body size is largely genetically determined. I recommend viewing the Poodle Science video from ASDAH. This video does a great job illustrating body diversity and the risks of subjecting everyone to a single body standard. I suggest teaching kids that fat bodies are great too. We have to make it safe for people to be fat in order to prevent and treat eating disorders. Eating disorders are a more lethal problem. Parents can avoid judging or criticizing their own or other peoples’ bodies.
I suggest giving kids access to a range of foods — prohibiting “fun” foods leads kids to overvalue and overeat them. We don’t need to label foods as good or bad. Parents can serve nutritious food as well as fun food and model that they are of equal moral value. They can also model that food is supposed to be pleasurable and offers the opportunity for social and cultural connections.
Parents can also help children to move in ways that are fun, rather than teaching that exercise is penance for eating.
For more specific advice on helping kids develop as strong intuitive eaters with healthy body images, I suggest the work of dietitian Ellyn Satter and my psychotherapist colleagues, Zoe Bisbing and Leslie Bloch, The Full Bloom Project.
A difficult concept in recovery is knowing when to let go of an activity or even a job that could potentially re-ignite the eating disorder. As a therapist I find myself guiding my clients towards the realization that the sport or career path they had loved so much might be the very thing that holds them back and sets them back up for relapse. It isn’t always an easy decision.
Letting go of something that may have predated the eating disorder can lead to questions as to why it cannot remain in someone’s life in recovery. Many clients in the early stages of eating disorder treatment have to face the fact that they have to stop their sports if they are trying to regain weight or are working on eliminating behaviors that could leave the body physically weak. It is no surprise that once stabilization begins there is an urge to return to previously enjoyed activities. However, returning to these activities could potentially hinder full recovery.
Sports like gymnastics, running, figure skating, wrestling, and dancing are incredibly wonderful. As a figure skater myself, I can attest there is no greater feeling than gliding over the ice. But these same sports, especially at the elite level, can be incredibly demanding on the body. Behaviors required for full recovery can go against what a coach may be preaching to athletes to be in top physical form. What is expected of top athletes could look like disordered eating and poor body mentality from an outside perspective. The eating disorder itself may take what is used to condition a top athlete and manipulate it for its own gain.
It can be difficult to find the balance between a recovered mindset and meeting the demands of a sport or career. With some of my clients in the entertainment industry, there are pressures to look a certain way and fit a mold that their bodies may not be meant to fit. It can be difficult to navigate knowing they need to eat a certain amount of times a day and then have an agent say, “Lose five pounds for this role.”
The hardest decision is when there is a realization that staying in either the sport or career is just too detrimental to your health. It is certainly not easy to walk away from something you’ve put work into. And that can also be said about your recovery. Are you willing to give up a healthy body and mind for a potential chance at a gold medal or lucrative career even if it means killing yourself along the way? I’ve worked with a client who was a dancer who recognized as she was going through treatment that going back into a dance studio would be too triggering. She knew that staring at herself in a mirror and comparing herself to her classmates would lead to restricting her meals. It wasn’t an easy decision to walk away, but she knew there was no way she was in a place to be able to dance without being triggered.
In some circumstances, you may not have to completely quit your previous passion. You might be able to approach the activity differently. You may not be able to return to a sport as an elite athlete, but you could still engage in the activity at a more recreational level. I’ve seen some of my clients shift from being an athlete to being a coach. Actors going from television and movies to doing local theater. Sometimes you can still do what you love but it just needs to be re-configured to fit into your recovery lifestyle. For many, it can be comforting to know they can still act or model or run, but just do it less intensively.
You may also have the option of challenging what a sport or career emphasizes as far as body image and diet pressures. There are many models and actors who are embracing bigger bodies and not letting the pressures to lose weight define them. With this option, there is a risk of rejection along the way as we do still live in a culture that overvalues thinness. With that being said, this may be a safe option primarily for those who feel stable in recovery and are able to actively use coping skills to fight urges. If your recovery has reached a place of advocacy this definitely could be a path to take.
Leaving a passion behind or re-defining how it fits into your life can be a huge change. You may feel sad or mad. That’s okay. Ultimately, the decision you make will be the one that supports you in your recovery. If staying in the activity is going to trigger calorie counting, weekly weigh-ins or criticism for not looking a certain way, is it worth it? If you know where the eating disorder thrives then why play with fire? Ultimately, the decision will be based on what will make you healthy and happy and not allow you to compromise with the eating disorder.
One of the cardinal rules of dieting is “Eat only when you’re hungry.” I often find that the fear of eating when not hungry is one of the most difficult bits of dogma to overcome. People with eating disorders and good dieters everywhere have been taught that this is all that stands in the way between us and complete loss of control and utter disaster in our lives. Many don’t even see it as an actual choice or symptom of the eating disorder.
Successful recovery from an eating disorder or disordered eating or chronic dieting requires overcoming and challenging this rule.
Just off the top of my head, I can think of a lot of reasons to eat when not hungry. Here are a few related to disordered eating:
You have overridden your hunger cues for years from cycles of dieting, bingeing and purging. You don’t recognize normal hunger cues or satiety. Your treatment team has told you to eat regularly—three meals and two to three snacks per day. You feel like it is too much food and you’re not hungry. Should you follow their meal plan? Yes! Eating regularly is a crucial step in recovering from any eating disorder and it helps to regulate your hormones and circadian rhythms so you can regain your hunger and satiety cues and become a more intuitive eater.
You are in recovery from a restrictive eating disorder and rarely feel hunger. You are told you need to eat more, but you don’t believe it. Isn’t it better to delay eating until later in the day? Should you really eat breakfast and lunch at the times scheduled by your dietitian? Yes, absolutely! Regular meals are critical to getting all of your body functions to work properly again. One of the reasons you may not be feeling adequate hunger could be delayed gastric emptying, which occurs when someone is undereating and food remains in the stomach far longer than it should. One of the consequences is low appetite. The solution: eat regularly as prescribed, even if you’re not hungry.
I can think of many more situations that apply to all of us, not just those with eating disorders:
You normally eat dinner at 7 pm and your circadian rhythm is conditioned to get hungry then. But your sister has scheduled a family dinner at 5:30 to accommodate her children so they won’t be cranky at the table. Should you eat at 5:30 before you are hungry? Absolutely! Adjusting our schedules allows us to have meaningful social interactions that typically revolve around eating.
You have a meeting that is scheduled from 12 to 3 pm. You’re not hungry at 11 am; breakfast was only at 8:30. You have the option to have a proper lunch at 11:30. Should you? Of course! Be practical—it’s better to eat before your meeting. Then you’ll be properly fueled and will be better able to concentrate during the meeting. Our brains don’t function as well when they’re low on glucose. Planning ahead and adjusting mealtimes accordingly is an important act of self-care.
You are traveling to another country. You arrive at your destination and it’s dinnertime. Your circadian rhythms are all thrown off. You feel like you’ve been eating constantly. Should you eat? Yes! Acclimation to a new time zone is ushered along by institution of regular eating at the times appropriate to the destination. You will adjust faster if you get your body in synch.
You just had a rough breakup. You’re eating meals, but sad. Your friends show up and want to take you out for ice cream to cheer you up. You’re not hungry. Should you go and eat ice cream with your friends? Absolutely! Food is not solely about nutrition – it’s also about bonding and comfort, and you should let the ice cream and your friends soothe your broken heart.
You’re stressed and preparing for a presentation tomorrow. You’ve eaten adequately throughout the day and are not truly hungry. But you know that crunching on some popcorn will soothe your nerves. This is an old behavior that you’ve overused in the past. Contrary to popular belief, emotional eating is not itself a problem. Food is our earliest comfort and humans are designed to find food to be rewarding. If it were not, we would have died out as a species. There is no shame in using food as comfort—what can be problematic is if there are no other tools in your emotional toolkit. If eating is your only coping skill then I encourage you to learn some other strategies for managing negative emotions to give you a broader range of alternatives.
So, not eating when you’re not hungry is a rule that should be confronted. How can you start to challenge this rule and, if you have one, the eating disorder that uses it as an excuse?
You must face it head-on with new behaviors, deliberately defying it. If you have been instructed to follow a meal plan: follow it. If you have been told you are undereating: practice eating one thing per day when you are not hungry. The next time you have something in your schedule that interferes with a normal meal time: eat beforehand. Accept invitations to eat at times to which you are unaccustomed. Eat something spontaneously when it shows up, even if you are not hungry.
By practicing these behaviors, you will become less fearful of eating when not hungry. You will learn that this, too, is a normal part of being a human. You will be more relaxed around food and you will see that nothing horrible happens if you eat when you’re not hungry. You do not have to continue to be a victim of diet culture.
Food for us comes from our relatives, whether they have wings or fins or roots. That is how we consider food. Food has a culture. It has a history. It has a story. It has relationships. –– Winona Laduke
Food is about more than sustenance. It is about pleasure and joy and connection. Food is one of the ways we connect with our cultural traditions and our ancestors. This is one of the reasons I am so passionate about my work to help people with eating disorders. When someone has an eating disorder and they are fearful of eating or of eating certain foods, they miss out on the pleasures of food and they miss out on the opportunities to connect with others through food. They also miss out on their own connection with their relatives and their cultural heritage.
In my own family, my 103-year-old Nana has always been known for her piano playing and her delicious poundcake. While her prized Steinway piano now stands in my home, I did not inherit her piano-playing her abilities. I did, however, learn her poundcake recipe.
From the time I was a young girl, I have memories of “Nana’s poundcake.” Simple to make with only 5 ingredients, buttery and yummy. During visits to Kansas City, I looked forward to making it with her. And when she visited us in New York we would make it together. And, occasionally my mom and I would make it without Nana. My kids have had the experience of making poundcake with my Nana, their great grandmother. And they have made it with me. After she eventually passes, we will retain this connection to my Nana and my kids will hopefully continue to make and share her recipe with future generations.
Photos of my daughters making poundcake with Nana back in 2012 at her apartment (she was 96)
I am glad to have this connection to Nana and to be able to fully enjoy making and eating poundcake with all its rich butter and sugar. What joy and connection I would be missing out on if I were afraid of eating it. To be able to make it and eat it with enjoyment enriches my life and allows me to have a shared experience through four generations of my family. I will always have joyful memories of baking and eating poundcake with the different generations in my family.
Bonus Feature — Nana’s Poundcake Recipe
1/2 pound salted butter (2 sticks) – softened
1 3/4 cup sugar
2 cups sifted flour
2 T vanilla
Cream butter and sugar
Add eggs one at a time while beating constantly
Add flour and flavoring
Pour into well-greased loaf pan (or bundt pan)
Bake at 350° for 90 minutes
Photos from a poundcake I made with my daughter in 2019.
In November of 2018, my boyfriend proposed to me. It was one of the most exciting days of my life thus far. With a proposal comes the next exciting chapter: wedding planning. For many brides-to-be, this entails finding that perfect gown.
Sadly, although not surprising, once I got on bridal mailing lists, I learned I was also being targeted by gyms for “Bridal Boot Camps” and “Sweatin’ for the Wedding.” The weight loss industry found yet another way to weasel their way into a life event that should have nothing to do with changing one’s body.
Why is it that you could be with someone who you love for a certain amount of years, and suddenly the moment they place a ring on your finger you need to change your body? Why does looking beautiful equate to weighing less?
Unfortunately, it has become the norm in our culture to experience pressure to lose weight for special events. A friend once shared that when she was dress shopping her consultant actually wrote down smaller measurements because “all brides lose weight.” When my dress consultant mentioned letting her know if I lose weight, my initial thoughts were, “Are you telling me I need to lose weight? Am I supposed to lose weight? What if I like my body where it is? What if I want to gain weight?”
Granted, our bodies can change. But, hearing about weight loss, exercise programs, and diets specific for the big day can be detrimental to our physical and mental health. The diet industry has found another market and doesn’t care how it impacts the people getting married.. Wedding planning can be stressful enough with trying to create a special day without the added pressure to create a “perfect” body.
But, here is the thing. Your fiance asked to marry you not because of what you’ll look like on that one specific day, but because they are in love with you and everything about you. Getting married is about making a commitment of love to one another. Your wedding day should be a celebration of that.
As brides or grooms, we should dress up and present ourselves the way we want to on this day but, it should not be at the expense of our health and well being. Remember what this day is about. Your wedding is not about the celebration of the size of your body but about the love between you and your significant other and making a commitment to one another.
What to do Instead of “Sweatin it”
Here are some tips I have developed to use myself and also with my clients who were wedding dress shopping:
Buy a dress that fits you now. Don’t buy something a size smaller. Don’t use words like “my goal size” or “I’ll be pretty when I fit into this.” Fighting your body to go to a size it isn’t meant to be is only going to add more frustration, stress, and sadness. If the person selling you a dress keeps harping on “when you’ll lose weight” or “all brides lose weight” speak up and tell her that isn’t your plan. You do not have to be a victim of diet culture. Buy the dress that makes you feel pretty right now. Also, do not forget that many dresses you try on are just sample dresses. It’s okay if it doesn’t fit perfectly when you try the dress on. The one you get will be tailored to your already beautiful body,
With that, remind yourself of the things that not only make you look beautiful but what makes you feel beautiful. One of my bridal consultants asked me when picking out a dress, “Do you want to feel whimsical? Do you want to feel like a princess? Do you want to be sexy vixen?” Wedding dress shopping became ten times more fun when I could close my eyes and imagine what style of dress would make me feel the most beautiful.
Write down what you want to feel on your wedding day. Write down your hopes and excitements for this day. Think about what memories you want to hold onto. While the idea of “looking perfect” in your wedding photos may be a strong drive to engage in diet culture, think about what those photos are truly capturing. Most likely, you’ll want to remember this as a day of celebrating love and new beginnings with your partner.
It’s okay to exercise and it is okay to eat. It’s okay to follow your normal routine, As you plan for your wedding continue to follow your intuitive voice. For many people, weddings take months if not years to plan. Do not remove fun foods out of your diet for the sake of just one day. Listen to your body when it comes to exercise. Exercise because you want to give your body the gift of movement, but know it is okay to take days off too. Exercise should not be a punishment to your body.
You do not need to lose weight for your wedding day. Ultimately, remember what this day means to you and your partner. Your wedding dress should be the accessory to the already amazing you. You know, the person that your partner wants to spend the rest of his or her life with. So, when it comes to “sweatin’ for the wedding,” say, “I don’t.”
by Elisha Carcieri, Ph.D., a former associate therapist at EDTLA
One of the hallmark features of eating disorders is placing a high value on body weight and shape in determining one’s self-worth. In addition, people with eating disorders often believe that body shape and weight can be controlled through diet, exercise, or, in the case of bulimia nervosa, purging. Individuals with bulimia nervosa purge in an attempt to eliminate calories consumed (which is actually ineffective), empty or flatten the stomach, modulate mood, or as a self-imposed negative consequence for binging. Bulimia carries serious mental and medical health risks. The road to recovery from bulimia usually involves (at least) outpatient therapy with a qualified mental health professional such as a psychologist.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is the most well-researched and effective treatment for bulimia. Therapy begins with an initial goal to immediately stop purging, monitoring weight and food intake and implementing regular eating, which usually looks like three meals and two snacks spread out over the course of the day. Over the course of therapy, the patient and therapist address the various factors that keep the eating disorder going including the over-evaluation of weight, shape, and one’s ability to control these factors, dietary restraint and restricting food intake, and mood and anxiety-related factors associated with the eating problem.
Most patients with bulimia nervosa present to treatment at a weight that is in a “normal” range for their height. This is in contrast to those with anorexia nervosa, who are typically underweight. Despite being at a normal weight, the characteristic weight and body dissatisfaction associated with bulimia is strong at the beginning of treatment, and patients believe that they are controlling their weight via their purging behaviors. People with bulimia often restrict food intake in various ways, only to eventually binge and purge. Because treatment involves eating meals at regular intervals without purging, a common fear at the outset of treatment is whether changing eating patterns will result in weight gain. The answer is…maybe.
For most patients with bulimia nervosa, treatment will not result in a significant change in weight. However, some patients may gain weight and a small percentage of patients will lose weight as a result of eliminating binge eating. It is not advisable for patients in recovery from an eating disorder (or anyone, for that matter) to have a specific goal weight in mind. Focusing on weight loss is incompatible with CBT strategies to eat balanced and sustaining meals at regular intervals. Weight may fluctuate over the course of treatment, and, when a person is eating normally, the body naturally gravitates toward a biologically determined weight that is largely out of our control. Indeed, learning to focus less on body weight as a determinant of achievement or self-worth is a valuable treatment goal.
What is Weight Suppression?
Some patients with bulimia may start treatment at a weight that is in the normal range for their height or even on the high side but low in the context of their adult weight history. Weight suppression is maintaining a body weight that is lower than an individual’s highest adult weight. Recent research has begun to shed light on the effects of weight suppression on eating disorders, especially bulimia. Bulimia is often kick-started with a desire to lose weight and attempt at weight loss through dieting. Research has demonstrated that living at a suppressed weight has a significant impact on bulimic behaviors, increasing the likelihood of binge eating (potentially through a brain-based biobehavioral self-preservation mechanism), and subsequently purging. Relatedly, and counterintuitive to what people with bulimia believe about their ability to control their weight, weight suppression is associated with weight gain over time, which further promotes dieting and purging given the strong aversion to weight gain that most sufferers experience.
Will I Gain Weight?
So, what does this mean for treatment and recovery? For patients seeking treatment, this means that yes, you may gain weight, especially if your weight is lower than a previous higher adult weight. This may feel scary, especially at first. Clinicians may even feel uncomfortable having this discussion and feel tempted to reassure patients that they will not gain weight. However, this message is inconsistent with what we now know about weight suppression and reinforces the idea that gaining weight is to be feared and avoided at all costs. Gaining some weight may actually be the key to breaking the cycle of binging and purging, which is much more valuable than maintaining a lower weight.
Greater weight suppression is associated with persistent bulimia symptoms and relapse, so gaining some weight may actually increase the likelihood of recovery from bulimia and also serve as protection against future eating disorder relapse. Weight gain may not just be a side effect of treatment, but it may be an appropriate treatment goal if you have bulimia and are living at a suppressed weight, just as it is an important goal for someone recovering from anorexia.
If you have had previous treatment, but are still binging and/or purging, it is important to explore whether weight suppression might be a contributing factor. You can discuss whether gaining some weight might be appropriate with your clinician. Understanding the role of weight suppression on maintenance of the eating disorder should serve as motivation to continue treatment and work toward managing negative feelings related to weight gain. Indeed, it is helpful to explore the motivation behind the importance of thinness or maintaining a certain weight and challenging fears associated with gaining weight. You may find that living at a slightly higher weight, once acceptance is achieved, can be much less stressful and time-consuming than forcing your body to weigh less than it is biologically programmed to.
Fairburn, C. G. (2008). Cognitive behavior therapy and eating disorders. New York, NY: Guilford.
Juarascio, A., Lantz, E. L., Muratore, A. F., & Lowe, M. R. (2018). Addressing weight suppression to improve treatment outcome for bulimia nervosa. Cognitive and behavioral practice, 25(3), 391-401.
Lowe, M. R., Piers, A. D., & Benson, L. (2018). Weight suppression in eating disorders: a research and conceptual update. Current psychiatry reports, 20(10), 80.
Elisha Carcieri, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist (PSY #26716). Dr. Carcieri earned her bachelors degree in psychology from The University of New Mexico and completed her doctoral degree in clinical psychology at Saint Louis University. During her graduate training, she conducted research focused on eating disorders and obesity and was trained in using cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for eating disorders and other mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression. Dr. Carcieri completed her postdoctoral fellowship at the Long Beach VA Medical Center, where she worked with Veterans coping with mental illness, disability, significant acute or chronic health concerns, and chronic pain. In addition to cognitive behavioral strategies, she is also a proponent of alternative evidence-based approaches such as mindfulness, and acceptance and commitment-based strategies, depending on the needs of each client. Dr. Carcieri has experience working with culturally diverse clients representing various aspects of diversity including race/ethnicity, gender, age, disability, and size. She is currently living in Charleston and working as a full-time mom to her two sons, ages 3 and 1. Dr. Carcieri is a member of the Academy for Eating Disorders (AED). She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.