Cissy Brady-Rogers
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Tag: eating disorders

Today an article on my homepage offered me tips on fighting belly fat after 40.  It wasn’t bad information, but the headline is a poor choice for National Eating Disorders Awareness Week.

Fear of fat, both in food and on the body, is a major player in the onset and perpetuation of eating disorders–especially anorexia. More people die from anorexia than any other mental illness.

Fear of fat, the war on obesity, and all the “fat fighting” products and formulas are, in my opinion, doing more harm than good when it comes to promoting sustainable health promoting behaviors. We have to work with our bodies, not against them. Like any relationship, if we come at it with our fists up, the natural response is to defend against the threat of attack.

Neurologically, fear only motivates short term behavior changes. For long-term, sustainable changes, the neo-cortex (which shut downs when fear is activated in our autonomic nervous system) must be engaged. This wise, rational part of our brain is most effectively activated by compassionate, open, accepting and loving attitudes and communication.

In honor of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, I say, how about working with your belly fat, not fighting it.  Maybe you don’t have to “love your belly” or “fall in love with fat” as others have, but how about dropping the fear and fight mentality. Your belly just might be more cooperative if you do.

Two articles in the LA Times caught my eye this morning.

The first presents research indicating that bariatric surgery isn’t the “near panacea” for the multidimensional problems–patient health/lifestyle/longevity as well as medical costs–associated with obesity after all.

The second is an opinion piece by a medical doctor who suggests “your annual mammogram may cause you more harm than good.” The author, H. Gilbert Welch, wrote Overdiagnosed: Making people sick in the pursuit of health based on years of work in public health and clinical practice.

I have clients as well as family and friends who’ve undergone bariatric surgeries.  Some have had the standard dramatic initial weight loss as well as long-term benefits.  Others have had disappointing results, life-threatening complications, or not changed their relationship with food in a way that sustained the initial weight loss.

My personal experience with 20 years of annual mammograms has been complicated.  A favorite mammogram cartoon depicts two ladies greeting each other.  One says to the other “Did you have your mammogram today?” The first lady, whose breasts stick out in the shape of two books attached to her chest, says “As a matter of fact I did.  What makes you ask?”

The anxiety associated with having breast checks, the frequency of false positives (between 25-45% according to Welch), and what he says are the one-quarter to one-half of all cancers detected that “meet the pathological definition of cancer but are not destined to cause problems” yet get treated anyway, all contributes to a “cycle of increasing intervention” that put an unnecessary emotional toil on patients.

Yep.  That sounds about right.

Bottomline: better health through better technology isn’t working.  It’s a story that isn’t truly promoting our overall health and well being–either as individuals or as a culture. We need a better story.

We need to create a culture of individual responsibility for compassionate self-care where children are taught from the beginning to honor, respect, and listen to their bodies.

We need to equip both our children and ourselves with tools for mindful living that enable us to pay attention to signals of hunger and fulness so we don’t overeat, gain weight, and end up in the severely compromised condition that bariatric surgery patients find themselves.

And we need to return to a whole foods diet that eliminates pesticides, genetically modified products, hormones, antibiotics and all the other crap giant food manufactures use to increase their bottomline.

Not that I have anything to say about that!

Lent is a season of listening more closely to my life, listening for God and the voice of Love in my life.  Mindful awareness of the presence of life, beauty, goodness in people, creation, creativity–even technology–deepens my capacity to love God and my neighbor as self.

Henri Nouwen says that prayer is “first and foremost listening to Jesus, who dwells in the very depths of your heart.”  Not somewhere out in eternity, but right here, in me, in you.  In order to listen to God, we need listen to ourselves.

Many of the women I work with were socialized not to listen to themselves, but to others.  They were taught that priests, pastors, doctors, teachers, parents, police officers, and other authorities “knew best”.  They were taught to be good girls, do what they were told, and everything would be fine.

And then they developed an eating disorder, or an addiction, or depression, or anxiety.  And had to learn to listen to their own lives, to their own hearts, to their bodies.

Mindful awareness practices teach us to pay attention to our own experience, to listen to our own lives.  Over time, with practice, it actually changes our brains, thickening the muscles of focus, attention, choice, empathy, compassion, while decreasing reactivity, self-judgment and other unhelpful patterns.

Practice is necessary because we live in a noisy world where people, cell phones, computers, customers, clients, bosses, co-workers, loved ones, and all manner of things demand our attention leaving little time and space to listen within.

Listening for God begins with learning to listen to your own experience.

Countless resources are available to help you learn to listen to yourself.  Dan Siegel is my go-to guy for all things related to mindfulness and the brain.  In addition to his books, his resources section offers free downloadable mp3 practices.  But tons of other options are available.

There is no right way to listen.  There is no quick fix.  The way begins with you. It begins with valuing yourself and taking time to listen to yourself.

What time and space will you create this Lent to listen to your life?

When it comes to diet, calories and energy regulation, there’s always something new being brought to the table.

Rachel Carmody, a Harvard researcher is out to update the system currently used to measure calories in our food.  She says that the calorie values on food labels don’t account for digestive processes that are typically lower for processed foods and higher for unprocessed.  In other words, your body digests mashed potatoes more efficiently, thereby using less energy in the process, than it does to digest that same amount of raw potato.

Practically it makes sense.  Chewing a raw potato takes a lot of work compared to letting mashed spuds melt in your mouth and slide down your throat.  Not that I’ve ever chewed up a raw potato.  I may be Irish, but I like my potatoes cooked.

“So although two foods might have the same number of calories on paper, these calories are not necessarily equally available to the body. In some cases, reported calorie values could differ from actual energy harvest by as much as 50per cent.”

Interestingly, on the same day I came across this research, I also discovered a free e-book called “Fuck Calories” that parallels much of what I read in Michael Pollen’s Food Rules.   Both author’s capitalize on listening to your body, eating as close to nature as possible and avoiding highly processed foods (especially sugar).

How did eating become so complicated?

Two sets of numbers showed up in my life this morning.

What's your number? What does it matter?

First, my doctor called to tell  me that all my “numbers” from my recent blood test are excellent!  My “good” cholesterol is high, my “bad” cholesterol is low, my blood sugar is excellent…and so on.

Whew.  Dodged another bullet of  “What am I doing wrong? What could I do better? Where did I screw up?…”  messages from my inner health critic.

Then, a Facebook before and after photo posted by a respected fitness professional with the caption: “Have you seen this ladies? Strong is sexy so please stop obsessing about the number on the scale. Look at the numbers here.”

The photos show the “before exercise routine” photo at 9 pounds less than the “after” photo.  The subject gained weight through her fitness program, but the heavier version is a bit more toned, supposedly stronger and more fit than the lighter version. While the point is well taken–numbers aren’t the best indicator of fitness–the message still supports cultural objectification of health, fitness and beauty as being about external results rather than subjective experience of joy, vitality, well being.  The assumption is that we’d all feel better if we look “better” (i.e. more toned and shapely).

Does having a more toned body necessarily equate with good health?  I’ve met many people who were physically “fit” but in states of psychological and spiritual dis-ease.  Moreover, many journeys into anorexia begin with a diet and fitness program that progresses through a stage of what appears to be excellent  “fitness” but ends in a state of severely compromised physical health.

While both my blood results and the trainer’s point about weight move us in a more life-giving direction, they also reveal the disembodied nature of current models.   Health is still based on “numbers” derived from blood samples rather than one’s own body wisdom. Fitness is still measured by external results, not subjective experience of harmony and strength in body, mind and spirit.

Interestingly, while I’m certainly happy to have “good” numbers, some physicians and researchers are questioning the role of cholesterol in heart disease.

So, when it comes to health and fitness, I’m going to stick with the old-fashioned method: listening for my body’s signals as I eat an “old-fashioned diet” of whole foods and move my body for fun, function, and fitness–in that order.

And when my numbers change and my external appearance changes with the seasons of life, I’m going to hum and sing anyway.  It’s not about the numbers, its about feeling vital, strong, energized and well of body, mind and spirit.

What eating disorder patients really need is to learn how to manage their deep desire to love and be loved in a world that doesn’t operate according to the law of Love.

That’s where I suspect their deep sense of right and wrong, black and white thinking, “over” sensitivity and a host of other “symptoms” stems from.  Researchers are looking at temperament.  I think there’s something deeper and more basic that drives disordered relationships with food and body — the longing to love and be loved.

That’s where perfectionism comes from.  Love is perfect, complete, at ease.  No disharmony within the self or relationships.

Yet, in our limited world, our limited bodies, psyches, relationships, dis-ease and disharmony abound.

This is my story too.

At our core, we just want love.

It’s so non-scientific.  So irrational.

Love doesn’t fit well into our evidence-based world of psychotherapy.

Yet when it comes to health of mind or body, without love, what good is recovery from an eating disorder or any other dis-ease?

Change is afoot in the food industry.  In addition to other sweeping changes in healthcare services and employee wellness programs, the Obama administration’s health care act requires chain restaurants to list nutritional values on menus.

This addition can severely complicate eating out for those whose eating disorder includes obsessing about fat grams and calories.  But, for the majority of us, increased awareness of what’s in our food empowers us to make more conscious choices.

The food industry has been on alert since the publication of The End of Overeating by David Kessler in 2009.  The former commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration exposed the dark side of major chain restaurant’s fat, sodium and sugar loading of menu items to increase customer appetites and their profits.

Now, they are being called out on their greedy ways and can’t keep customers in the dark any longer.

It’s about time.

I’m very aware that for a small portion of the population, this is not helpful.  And, ultimately, I advocate making food choices by listening to your body, not reading numbers on menus or scales.  But the growing number of people with chronic diseases indicates that, as a nation, we are  severely disconnected from our bodies, not tuning in to God given signals of poor nutritional choices.

After a rocky episode in our relationship, my mom wrote me a note saying, “Remember me as loving you – any discipline and ‘blowing my top’ in anger has had it’s roots in love.”

My theory: all dysfunction, disorder, darkness has it’s roots in love.  At least that’s been my experience.

My core nature longs for unity and perfection, within myself and with others, in the world around me.

When I open my heart, become fully engaged and conscious, and feel my connection to all humanity, I feel responsible.  This is the feeling that drives me to feel guilty for wasting food, volunteer for too many acts of service, and “blow my top” when my husband doesn’t love me the way I want him to.

From this place, when I read about the problems of the world, I feel guilty.  Wherever I have not sacrificed my food and plenty so a hungry brother may eat, I have stolen at some universal Love level.  Wherever I have not stepped in to prevent death, to protest war, to end the violence against women and children, I have killed.

I see it in my eating disorder patients.  It drives perfectionism, justice seeking, intolerance of breaks in relationships, unrealistic expectations of self and others, deep capacity and desire for attachment, deep anger and hurt.

Perfect love.  Goodness, perfection, completeness.

It is what we were made for.

“Be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect.”

“Love one another as I have loved you.”

Perfection, harmony, unity, love, peace — all to the glory of God, all expressions and manifestations of that perfection of  love.

Ultimately, we all just want to be loved.

Perhaps that is what drives eating disorders.  Perhaps that is what drives us to surgically alter our bodies to achieve an “ideal” of beauty. Maybe if we are thin enough, beautiful enough, then we will be lovable.

What do you think?

Reclaim Your Original Beauty

Today is the first day of National Eating Disorder Awareness Week. Communities and universities across the country will hold events to educate and inspire participants with healthy ways to approach diet, exercise and beauty.

I attended a kickoff event on Saturday evening where “plus-size” model Crystal Renn, author of Hungry: A Young Model’s Story of Appetite, Ambition and the Ultimate Embrace of Curves, spoke about her passion for size diversity in the modeling industry. She is a former “straight size” model who earned success in the mainstream fashion industry through compulsive exercise and restrictive eating.  But when her self-destructive patterns couldn’t keep her skinny enough to meet those standards, she found hope in the plus-size segment of the industry.  Her discovery that she could eat normally and still work at the job she loved marked the beginning of her recovery.

I was taken by her boldness and courage, but my instinct told me that something was not right.  I couldn’t articulate it well enough to speak up during the question and answer time, but clarity came as I talked with my colleague Allison and her husband Steven on the drive home.

Disordered eating is rooted in an insecure self-image. Research indicates that exposure to idealized images of beauty is a primary contributor to the onset of negative body image—typically  the first symptom to develop and the last to heal in the course of an eating disorder.  Beauty and fitness magazines can be primary sources of distorted views of beauty and strength that exacerbate young people’s already unstable identity development.

The fashion industry profits from insecure self-image, using a form of marketing called “aspirational advertising” to increase profits. These ads use unrealistic images of beauty—something to “aspire” toward—to sell us products promising to alleviate the very psychological discontent the ad feeds.

The ultimate goal is not to make us feel beautiful, but to cash in on our insecurities:  Am I okay?  Am I beautiful?  Am I good enough?  Do you like me?

Tom Ford, a top designer, says he wants women to feel beautiful, but, like Chrystal, his perspective is clouded by his financial dependence on the fashion industry. His casual remark, “I’m just trying to make pretty clothes.  And beautiful clothes make beautiful women…” reveals the not-so-beautiful truth.  To the fashion industry, you really aren’t beautiful in the skin you came in—or in your favorite grungy jeans and old college sweatshirt.  Your package isn’t complete without the designer clothes.

I say beautiful women just are!  Beauty is our birthright. No one makes you or I “feel” beautiful.  We allow ourselves to feel less than beautiful when we measure ourselves according to others’ ideals of beauty.

Made in the image of the Creator, originally naked and unashamed, our instinct to cover ourselves—both physically and psychologically—is protective. We live in a world where kids bully each other and adults contrive ways to use our basic human insecurities for their own profits.  While it is necessary and good to clothe ourselves, we don’t need to let others determine what is fashionable.

To reclaim our original beauty we need to know that we are loved just as we are. The truth I always come back to when I’ve fallen into an insecurity rut is simple but elusive:  there is nothing I can do to make God love me more and nothing I can do to make God love me less.  All other loves will end, but the love of God endures forever.  Maintaining a deep and abiding connection to God’s love is foundational to good health and true beauty.

We also need to remember who we are—women created in the image of the Creator of all that is beautiful, good and true. We are already beautiful, just as we are.  But when we fill our minds with images of other people’s notions of beauty, we can’t even begin to see ourselves accurately.

A concrete step you can take to reclaim your original beauty is to resist the aspirational advertising of the fashion and cosmetics industries. Feelings follow thoughts.  When thoughts and images determined by advertisers fill your mind, you’ll continue to feel “less than.”   Careful consumption of (or, better yet, elimination of exposure) beauty magazines is a powerful way to prevent and heal negative body image.

For more on media literacy and other practical steps for reclaiming your original beauty, please check out NEDA’s website for handouts you can use and pass on to others.