When a loved one tells you they have an eating disorder, it seems to shake you to the very core. You suddenly think back to every interaction with them that involved food and just can’t help but think, Did that moment contribute to this? At least this was all I could think about when it happened to me.
As a young child I was not the definition of health. I played soccer competitively for several years, but never really invested my efforts into it. I disliked gym class in school and was always one of the bigger kids. I preferred to stay in the kitchen, create recipes, and eat them rather than run around outside. I think this was an important part of my childhood that led me to surround myself with people who didn’t value physical features over personality features.
Therefore, as an adult, it surprised me when one of my very close friends told me he had an eating disorder. I never saw it coming. My professional interests in nutrition and dietetics along with my personal obsession with cooking made it all the more difficult to accept.
Even though it was my friend dealing with the stress of having an eating disorder, I found at first that I was putting so much blame onto myself for what was happening. After all, so many of my fondest memories with this friend revolved around us making food or eating extravagant meals together. But I have come to realize that, like so many behaviors, this was happening for so many reasons outside of my control: society’s ideals, a family’s pressure to conform, and an individual’s inexplicable emotional struggle all was coming into play.
As my friend entered a treatment program, I also felt conflicted whenever I talked to him. There was always this battle of my personal self who simply wanted to be supportive and my professional self who wanted to give evidence-based advice and education on certain aspects of their treatment. As I learned more about eating disorders during my dietetic internship, though, I realized that I needed to step back and be the friend I always had been. Someone going through such a difficult ordeal doesn’t need one more person in their life telling them what to do. All they want is for their friends to understand and help support them, even if it’s incredibly difficult to do so.
Having this experience has tremendously impacted the way I approach nutrition and dietetics from both a professional and a personal perspective. I now see that it is imperative that we eliminate our previous notions about ideal weights, body types, diets, and levels of physical activity in order to help patients and clients as people first. Being able to accept someone for who they are is far more important than for what they are.
No single food is good or bad. No single diet will cure us of everything and be the magic bullet we are looking for. No single body shape defines us as human beings. Even the most self-sure person has a hard time remembering this. But taking a few moments to remember this each day can help change the way we look at ourselves and everyone around us.
James Lesley is currently a graduate student at the University of Vermont’s Master of Science in Dietetics program.