Outdated health and nutrition classes contribute to the American eating disorder epidemic

Feb. 26 – March 3 is eating disorder awareness week, and while it’s scary to feel vulnerable, I want to talk about my history of disordered eating.

There is a health crisis related to weight in the United States, I’m not denying that. However, I find that food and eating education in America doesn’t prevent eating disorders, but actively contributes to them. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, 28.8 million Americans will have an eating disorder in their lifetime.

I’ve never been athletic or thin. I still remember the dread I felt during the week of the presidential fitness test when we talked about BMI and were weighed in front of the class. I went on a diet for the first time when I was 10 after a lesson in health class.

When I was 15, I started counting calories. The app My Fitness Pal was my holy grail, a tool that I could rely on to make me thin. I restricted as much as I possibly could, congratulating myself on the deficits I created. At the peak of my obsession, I was consuming about 900 calories a day at most, and expecting it to carry me through high school honors classes, extracurricular activities and working as a waitress.

What frightens me now at 22 is that I saw no problem with any of it. I never thought it was abnormal to fixate so much on caloric intake, or that despite losing weight I felt weak and sick most days.

I thought I was doing the right thing. People praised me when I lost weight. I heard from a very young age that being overweight would make my life worse and eventually kill me. This was the solution…or it was supposed to be.

My teenage years were highly restrictive. I feared gaining weight, ignored the dizziness and other symptoms of health problems, and had an extremely distorted body image. Health classes told me caloric deficits were good, but the social stigma around weight gain and obesity led me to experience all the symptoms of anorexia.

A kind friend admitted concern about my calorie obsession, and I became self-conscious. I didn’t want other people to see how my weight and food habits consumed my thoughts. I deleted the app and felt brief relief, but without outside help, my problems didn’t stop there.

Constant restriction makes certain foods commodities. When you never allow yourself to enjoy a food that feels like a treat, it’s easy to lose control when you’re around it. I still feel ashamed of the huge problem I had with binge eating. I battled myself for control constantly, oscillating between feeling guilt for eating too much, or punishing myself by eating nothing.

I rebranded this new habit as “intermittent fasting.” It was recommended to me by my doctor when I mentioned concern about my weight. He praised it as a way of losing weight and keeping it off, calling it “attainable” for everyday life.

I fasted using the 16:8 method, not eating for 16 hours, then having meals from 1-9 p.m. This lasted into my freshman year of college, and while I did lose weight, I fell into an unhealthy pattern again.

I pushed myself to fast for as long as possible until I was in a great deal of pain. There wasn’t an hour in the day that I wasn’t thinking about how hungry I was, or worrying about eating too much when I broke the fast.

Ultimately the cycle stopped because I became too busy to manage my routine. I had no money or time to deal with a diet and ate what I could between work and classes.

I signed up for a personal nutrition course summer 2023. It filled a credit I needed, and my intention was to heal some of my problems with knowledge. I entered excited to better understand how to feed myself and gain new insight that might differ from my now decade-old health education.

The course gave me very little new information. I heard the same statistics I heard in my elementary school gym, but now I was paying thousands of dollars for it.

My first instinct was shame. I was overweight and it was my fault. Science said so, and my textbook did, too.

But my textbook also told me that BMI is the most accurate way to determine your level of health, which made me pause. BMI was invented in the 19th century by a mathematician — not a doctor — and fails to take account of age and muscle index. Harvard School of Public Health and MedPage Today also cite its history of racism and inaccuracy.

Throughout the course, I came across several instances of outdated information. I was disappointed at the surface-level perspective presented. Factors like race, economic status and gender all play heavily into resources available to people, none of which were addressed in my class.

When I discovered one of the assignments for my personal nutrition course was to keep a food journal (My Fitness Pal was highly recommended for keeping track), I cried. I wanted to do the assignment. I didn’t want to obsess, and I really didn’t want to tell anybody why I couldn’t do it.

It was time to be brave, and not sacrifice my semi-stability for the sake of a condensed summer course. I emailed my instructor, embarrassed. I was met with grace and completed two different worksheets in lieu of the original assignment, which I am grateful for today.

What I am not grateful for is that we never addressed disordered eating in that course. We never discussed the harm constant dieting has on your metabolism, the relationship between eating and mental health or anything else about dangerous eating habits that, statistically, 28% of students are at risk of developing.

Talking about eating disorders requires vulnerability about body image and habits that feel shameful. However uncomfortable that may be, it’s likely that more people experience similar problems than you think. Silence only isolates those who suffer.

Eliminating the eating disorder epidemic begins with better health education, and teaching educators how to move forward with empathy for people grappling with the complexities of a disorder.

Photo by Jacopo Maia on Unsplash.