Food photos are a big part of the social media experience. A clean white plate stacked high with fluffy pancakes, beautifully drizzled in just enough syrup next to a criss-crossed knife and fork on the side — it’s food porn at its finest. The caption shared recently with one such pancake photo was quite a bit different than the typical “Sunday Funday!”.
“True story: 10 years ago, I cried as I sat down to a small order of fries—terrified by the thought of eating anything soaked in oil. Today, I’m digging into a stack of homemade whole-wheat apple pancakes and toasting my first day as digital food editor at Meredith Corporation tomorrow,” wrote Karla Walsh.
She’s an energetic and fresh-faced young professional in publishing who just nabbed one of the most exciting magazine (and foodie!) gigs in the business. She’s busy living life to the fullest, but calls the last decade to get to a place where she could love a plate full of pancakes (and so much more) “a process.”
“I could have never imagined how much joy I could learn to find in food and cannot wait to share that passion with more people. How blessed am I to be able to call it a ‘job’ [and] to talk about it all day?! Cheers to balance, change and progress. And cheers to pancakes, friends,” she wrote.
Walsh has come a long way since that order of fries. She recalled that it was a challenge from her psychologist, to prove to herself that there were no right or wrong foods. She was a junior in high school and in “full-fledged recovery” from anorexia, a diagnosis she’d received after dropping to 94 pounds, from a heaviest weight of 178. She hadn’t had deep-fried food in over two years, and in her head all she could focus on were the hundreds and hundreds of calories she shouldn’t be eating.
“It was a mental struggle to eat them,” she told TapGenes. Those bites of fries were the start of her new healthier, balanced life.
Those same fries tell a different story for Emily Uhl, an educational research program coordinator. She would go to McDonald’s each morning and order three meals — for herself. Then, a few hours later, she’d go to a different McDonald’s, and order another three meals.
She called her binge eating disorder “a ritualistic way of life that becomes very addicting.” She thrived on the feeling of getting away with it and the rush of doing things no one else knew about.
For most of her twenties, Uhl binged every meal of every day, eating as much as (her best guess) 8,000 calories each day.
“I was using it to distract myself from a lot of things in my life. I understand now that I used [binge eating] to not feel those deep emotions.”
She would hide the food, eat in secrecy or even hoard it. This continued even after she moved in with her then-boyfriend (now husband). She would hide pizza boxes in trash sacks in her closet so he wouldn’t find them.
“This is my thing and I don’t want to let it go,” she said she reasoned, “I hid it for a very long time.”
She said that he had to know, her weight was evident. As it was for Walsh, whose shrinking frame had become as much an addiction as Uhl’s.
Even after Walsh had reached 124 pounds and wore a size six dress to prom, she recalled a continued spiral until she reached that fateful 94 pounds. That’s when her parents took her to the doctor, who referred her to a dietitian (where she lied about how much she was really eating) and finally to a psychologist for an anorexia diagnosis.
“There are multiple possible triggers or causes, and it’s not usually that there is one identifiable cause of why someone has an eating disorder,” explained Donovan Wong, MD, the clinical director of behavioral health at DoctorOnDemand.com. “The severity of symptoms can also fall on a continuum and we give a diagnosis once someone has more severe symptoms and meets the defined criteria.”
Walsh didn’t stop even after the diagnosis, and she spent the start of her junior year on bed rest with a heart attack warning. That’s when her father finally approached with an ultimatum — if she lost even one more pound at her next appointment, they’d admit her to an in-patient care center. He had good reason to do so, anorexia has the highest fatality rate of any mental illness. Walsh knew the expense wouldn’t be covered by insurance, costing her parents far too much money. She calls that moment “the fire” she needed to truly focus on recovery.
Uhl’s came after seeing a photo of herself. She could not believe how overweight she’d become. So she drove straight to McDonald’s with no shoes on, made her usual order and took it home to binge while her husband and daughter slept in the next room. And then she broke down crying.
“This is enough. You have a family to look after, you need to get your life in order, this is getting out of hand,” she thought to herself. That day, for the first time, she told her husband to his face, “I have a problem.”
Eating disorders, like the binge eating and anorexia that Uhl and Walsh experienced, affect 11 million people in the U.S. Both are considered diagnosable mental health disorders that far too often go untreated. While these women both sought (and in Uhl’s case continue seeing) professional mental health care, most struggling with these diseases do not. Binge eating disorder affects 2.8 percent of Americans, with 43 percent seeking treatment; anorexia affects up to 4 percent of women, with only about 33 percent seeking treatment.
If you have a child, loved one, or friend who is facing an eating disorder, do support them. Wong recommends that the individual be encouraged to seek treatment and that you support them as much as possible. He says this treatment can include evaluations by mental health, nutrition and medical professionals, and that the course of action for treatment will vary on each case per their own needs.
On the surface, these two diseases may seem like different manifestations of a similar problem, but they really are quite different.
“They are different and the causes can be complex with biological, psychological and social factors contributing,” said Wong. “However, when looking at the psychological aspect, there can be a similar mechanism underlying them. When people become anxious due to feelings that they find overwhelming, they could use restricting or binging as a way of temporarily relieving the anxiety and avoiding the feelings.”
Today, both Uhl and Walsh are thriving, saying they are in comfortable, healthy relationships with food. However, both are reluctant to use the word “recovered.”
Uhl calls it a life-long problem, an addiction, and adds, “I’m in a healthy mindset, I’ve given myself permission to have control over it. It may always be a voice, but it will be a whisper.”
And Walsh agrees, saying she doesn’t think she’ll ever be “recovered,” and that she’s at a point where it’s not affecting her life.
“I’m as close to fully recovered as I’ve ever felt.”
She says she gets so much pleasure out of exploring new restaurants, trying new things, and doesn’t care how many calories she’s eating. “Sometimes I sit back and laugh, and think, why did I waste so many years of my life? That plate was worth five-times those calories!”
TapGenes Take Away: Eating disorders affect millions of Americans, and the results can be fatal. But we talk with two women who’ve made peace with anorexia and binge eating and can say they love eating again.
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