With January now behind us, the annual barrage of diet and fitness commercials has started to fade. Many people who made New Year’s resolutions to lose weight or “get fit” have already labeled themselves failures for indulging on leftover holiday chocolate and not making it to the gym more than twice per week. Other determined warriors in the fight to attain the perfect size and shape may stick to their resolutions and lose the desired amount of weight, only to find that they’ve gained it all back (and then some) within six months. This cycle of dieting and weight loss, followed by weight gain, is a process that many Americans go through over and over again, often in search of an unattainable or unsustainable ideal.
“The primary message we get from popular culture is that our worth is based on our appearance and the ability to achieve a thin and beautiful cultural ideal,” says Laura H. Choate, editor of the book Eating Disorders and Obesity: A Counselor´s Guide to Treatment and Prevention, published by the American Counseling Association. “When individuals internalize this message — that they are only worthwhile or acceptable if they are able to achieve this ideal — they develop a negative body image, which can lead to dieting and disordered eating behaviors.”
According to the National Eating Disorders Association, in the United States, approximately 20 million women and 10 million men will struggle with a clinically significant eating disorder at some point in their lives. Experts say that many millions more will engage in disordered eating — patterns of behavior that resemble those of eating disorders but which do not meet clinical criteria. Symptoms of disordered eating may include chronic dieting, frequent weight fluctuations, extremely rigid and unhealthy food and exercise regimens, emotional eating and a preoccupation with food, body and weight issues that causes distress.
Ashamed to eat?
Licensed mental health counselor Tamara Duarte, a private practitioner in the Vancouver, Washington, area who specializes in treating women with eating disorders and body and food issues, says that we live in a culture that has normalized chronic dieting. She refers to this phenomenon as the “dieting roller coaster.”
Women come to Duarte, an ACA member, having spent years pingponging back and forth between restrictive diets and binge eating. After attempting to limit their consumption only to “good” food, these clients have typically fallen off of their diet wagon and ended up in a binge cycle, during which they eat all of the foods they consider “bad,” Duarte explains. Feeling guilty, the women go back to dieting and start the cycle all over again.
Duarte also sees clients who have gained weight as they have aged and want to get their former bodies back — even if it is through unhealthy means. “People come in and tell me that they used to have a restrictive eating disorder and wish they could go back to that time so that they could be thin,” Duarte says.
What all of these clients have in common is a sense of shame about food and their bodies, Duarte says. Fear of being or becoming fat is so prevalent in our society that this shame has become normalized, she says. The irony is that much of the research has found that dieting ultimately leads to weight gain, Duarte notes. Chronic dieting (even at a subclinical level) may even be harmful to the body, and Duarte and other eating disorder experts say that the benefit of weight loss through dieting is unclear.
Like many who study or treat disordered eating and eating disorders, Duarte wants to remove the stigma attached to different-sized bodies. “Fat is just an adjective,” she says.
Part of breaking free of disordered eating — and eating disorders — is learning body acceptance, Duarte says. “Helping a person to accept their body as is can be a very slow, complex process,” she admits.
“I read something posted on Instagram once that said, ‘You cannot obtain recovery while actively trying to change the size and shape of your body,’” Duarte continues. “I really liked that, and I introduce that very early on in the counseling process. Throughout counseling, we look at the beliefs the client has about their body and where those stem from. Typically, thoughts like ‘I’m ugly and unlovable in this body’ stem from society or family members. It’s interesting because none of my clients so far have thought others are unlovable because of their body size, so I question what makes them different. We also look at how screwed up society is for picking one body size as being beautiful and acceptable. With a recovering mind, they are able to recognize how erroneous these thoughts are.”
Duarte also asks clients to get rid of their scales. “Not relying on an arbitrary number to tell them whether they are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ frees them up to connect in with themselves to figure out how they are feeling,” she explains.
Intuitive eating and Health at Every Size
Duarte has personal experience both with eating disorders and the power of that “arbitrary number.” She had been in recovery for more than 10 years when she happened to gain about 45 pounds because of some medication she was taking. Uncomfortable in her new body size, Duarte was ready to put herself on a diet and workout regimen. But then she attended some seminars on intuitive eating, an approach created by dietitian Evelyn Tribole and nutrition therapist Elyse Resch, both of whom specialize in eating disorders. Intuitive eating rejects dieting. Instead, it advocates listening to the body’s signals of hunger and fullness and getting rid of the idea of “good” and “bad” foods, among other principles.
Duarte also learned about Health at Every Size (HAES), a program and social movement inspired by the book written by Linda Bacon, a nutrition professor and researcher. HAES advocates the acceptance of bodies of all sizes, rejects dieting and calls for addressing health concerns directly with healthy behaviors. Both intuitive eating and HAES also encourage physical activity in whatever form a person naturally enjoys.
“I immediately recognized the power of teaching IE [intuitive eating] and HAES to clients,” Duarte says. “Both HAES and IE teach that when you listen to your body and feed it what it wants, when it wants, how much it wants, your body will naturally go to its set point range — the weight range where it works optimally. HAES tells me that I am OK no matter what my body looks like and that I can love and accept it right now.”
After learning about intuitive eating and HAES, Duarte started following the principles found in each approach. “At that point, I had a laundry list of good foods and bad foods, so I did the work to incorporate my ‘bad’ foods back into my diet,” she says. “An incredible thing happened: As I allowed myself to want and have these foods, the power they used to hold went away. Pizza was pizza. In the past, I would not allow myself pizza, and if I did decide to allow it, I would eat like five pieces because it tasted so good and I was telling myself I wouldn’t have it again. When pizza became accessible, I realized I only wanted one or two slices, and then I was able to step away because I knew that the next time I wanted pizza — in 10 minutes or 10 days — I would be able to eat it.”
Duarte also realized that although she enjoyed going to the gym, the activity she loved best was going on walks with her dog. So, instead of carving out time to devote to workouts, she started spending more time walking her dog.
“I really enjoy my walks when I go on them, and I am kind to myself when life gets busy and I can’t or don’t want to fit them in,” she says. “I no longer berate myself because the walks are for self-care, not to manipulate the size and shape of my body. I enjoy the array of foods I eat. I love opening a menu and deciding based on what I want instead of what I ‘should have.’ I never thought I would have this kind of relationship with food or my body.”
For those who might wonder whether Duarte lost weight, she responds that it doesn’t matter because her body shape and size have no bearing on her happiness or success.
Combating body hatred
Knowing from personal experience that intuitive eating and HAES can be very effective, Duarte now incorporates the approaches into her counseling work. “Every single client that calls my office for a free consultation ends up telling me that what they want most from counseling is freedom,” she says. “Freedom from the eating disorder, the never-ending thoughts about weight and food, freedom from self-hatred. I know that HAES and IE [are huge pieces] of the puzzle when it comes to freedom.”
“I don’t have to tell my clients about my experience with HAES and IE,” she continues. “I just have it with me when I am helping to guide them through it. It influences the way I feel and think about my clients’ bodies as well. I do not hold judgments about people’s bodies because of what I have learned in my journey, and my clients know I don’t judge them. When I tell my clients that their body is acceptable no matter what it looks like, I mean it, and they know it.”
Duarte discusses how HAES and intuitive eating helped guide her treatment of a teenage client she calls “Sara,” who was restricting her food intake and using exercise and vomiting to purge. “Sara believed that her body was wrong and ugly because it didn’t look like her family members, who were taller and built leaner than she was,” Duarte says. “One of the first things I had Sara do was put her scale away in a place that she wouldn’t have easy access to.”
Duarte introduced Sara to intuitive eating and its philosophy that foods should neither be demonized nor celebrated. Sara was particularly resistant to this concept, but Duarte successfully encouraged Sara to slowly add “forbidden foods” back into her diet.
Duarte also used mindfulness to help Sara with her purging behavior. “We worked on mindfulness, so she was able to identify when the urge to purge was coming on,” Duarte says. “She would write down for me everything that she was thinking — why she wanted to purge and why she didn’t.”
The urges would usually pass, and over time, Sara was able to get through them by using tools she had learned in session. Duarte teaches all of her clients distraction and self-soothing skills drawn from dialectical behavior therapy. Examples of distraction activities include dancing to a favorite song, writing or drawing, calling or texting a friend and going for a walk or a drive. Self-soothing might involve clients taking a shower, painting their fingernails (an activity that Duarte says is great for people with bulimia because they can’t induce vomiting with wet nails) or giving themselves a foot massage.
With time — and the help of the tools she had learned — Sara no longer experienced urges to purge. It took awhile for Sara to grow comfortable with her body, but she began to enjoy the increasing sense of physical strength that came from no longer restricting her food intake, Duarte says. Over time, that physical feeling of strength also became psychological.
“She struggles from time to time with not liking how she looks, but she’s able to identify what’s really going on at those times,” Duarte says. “Typically, Sara is stressed or scared, and instead of feeling [that], she focuses on her body and her need to change it. [But now] she uses the tools we have worked on in session, and she feels her feelings effectively, and most often, the body hatred goes away too.”
Alternatives to emotional eating
Licensed professional counselor Rachael Parkins is a practitioner at the Bucks Eating Support Collaborative in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where she currently runs a support and therapy group for emotional eating. The group meets weekly and serves as a place for women to share their challenges, support one another and get professional guidance from Parkins. Group members may be struggling with a variety of concerns, but food is their common method of coping with emotions and issues such as stress, insecurity, self-esteem and body image, Parkins explains. Most of the women are working with a dietitian, and group members also have access to an intuitive eating coach.
The goal of the group is to learn how to handle emotions in a healthy way by working on methods such as distress tolerance. Group participants identify distressing emotions, such as loneliness, and Parkins helps them identify alternative ways to cope with what they’re feeling. Sometimes, this can be as simple as group members going out of their way to be kind to themselves and practice self-care, such as putting on lotion or taking a bubble bath. Other methods are more concrete, such as journaling or completing a decatastrophizing worksheet. In that case, participants write down their worst thoughts, evaluate the worst-case scenario and the likelihood of it happening, and identify other possible outcomes.
Parkins also encourages group members to acknowledge the small victories they experience in pursuit of their personal goals by recording them in a log. For example, a group member might state a goal of practicing better self-care. For this particular group member, an action such as getting out of bed and taking a shower might represent a small victory. Another participant might want to stop procrastinating. Calling to set up a doctor’s visit could be a small victory, even if the group member doesn’t keep the appointment.
Parkins also helps group members break free of comparisons, both with other people and themselves. She explains that participants regularly hold themselves and how they look up not only to the perceived “successes” of others in their lives, but also to their own past selves. Parkins says it is not uncommon for group members to express a desire to go back in time to when they were thinner, even if it was a miserable point in their lives.
“They have this idea in their head that if they get to this size or number on the scale, that’s going to bring happiness,” she says. “Losing weight might be desirable, but as an emotional focus, it’s never enough. I’m helping people accept that losing weight is not the answer.”
Signs of a problem
Although not every client who diets is engaging in disordered eating, counselors should regularly assess for eating and body issues, says Choate, a professor of counselor education at Louisiana State University.
“We know that a large proportion of the population experiences problems related to eating and negative body image, so it is reasonable for counselors to assess for these issues with all of their clients,” she says. “Because clients with eating-related problems might come to counseling with other issues — depression, anxiety, relational problems — asking questions specifically related to eating patterns and body image is a good way to explore to see if these problems are contributing in any way to the client’s presenting issues.”
Choate suggests asking the following questions:
- Is the disordered eating pattern causing problems in the person’s life?
- Does the disordered eating pattern interfere with the person’s relationships with others? With the enjoyment of life activities? With completing daily routines?
- Does the client’s weight, shape or appearance unduly influence self-esteem?
- Does the client believe that she or he is less acceptable if weighing a few pounds more than in the past or, conversely, that she or he is more acceptable if weighing a few pounds less?
When assessing clients for signs of an eating disorder, Duarte says, it is essential that counselors not be misled by the stereotypical presentation of extreme thinness. The stigma attached to larger bodies often can obscure the reality that eating disorders may occur in people of all sizes, she says. In part because our society generally expects that people who do not fit into an idealized size range want and need to lose weight, counselors may be less likely scrutinize dieting behavior and weight loss in larger clients. Like Choate, Duarte believes that counselors should assess all clients for signs of disordered eating.
Choate also offers one final caution for counselors. “While there are some eating-related problems that might respond well to counseling alone, it is important to be aware that eating disorders are chronic, and anorexia in particular has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder. Treatment of these disorders requires specialized knowledge and training, and because eating disorders all involve a medical component, the involvement of a multidisciplinary treatment team is required. This would include, at minimum, a physician or medical professional, a dietitian and the counselor.”
Defining eating disorders: Changes in diagnosis
Laura H. Choate notes that in the past, most individuals with eating disorders fell into the diagnostic criteria of eating disorders not otherwise specified (EDNOS), which led to changes in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
The criteria for anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa were expanded to include more people. Binge eating disorder was added as a stand-alone disorder (rather than remaining as previously listed as a subcategory under EDNOS). EDNOS was renamed “other specified feeding or eating disorder” and includes issues such as:
- Atypical anorexia nervosa: All criteria for anorexia nervosa are met; despite significant weight loss, the individual’s weight is within or above the normal range.
- Bulimia nervosa of low frequency or limited duration
- Binge eating disorder of low frequency or limited duration
- Purging disorder
- Night eating syndrome
Although often perceived as a “white” problem, eating disorders and disordered eating do occur among women and men of color, says Regine Talleyrand, an American Counseling Association member whose research focuses on eating disorders among women of color.
“Counselors should be aware that women of color do experience concerns regarding beauty and body esteem,” she says. “[However], the traditional methods of evaluating these factors — weight, body parts, preoccupation with thin body ideals — may not capture the real body appearance concerns of all women of color.” Talleyrand, an associate professor and coordinator of the counseling and development program at George Mason University in Virginia, says that characteristics such as hair, skin color and facial features may be more relevant when evaluating body image in women of color.
In addition, high rates of obesity and binge eating among Latina and African American women highlight the need to look beyond “traditional” eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia when working with women of color who struggle with eating, weight or body issues, Talleyrand says. Because African American and Latina women are even more likely than white women to display eating disorder symptoms at any size, counselors who are evaluating clients of color for disordered eating should also look beyond the stereotypical underweight image, she emphasizes.
Of course, the factors influencing the risk of eating disorders in all populations go beyond appearance. These factors are often culturally specific. In particular, racism and oppression may play a significant part in eating disorder risk among Latina and African American women, Talleyrand says. In fact, the development of eating disorder symptoms — particularly binge eating — has been linked to racism and oppression experienced by African American women, she adds.
To learn more about the topics discussed in this article, take advantage of the following select resources offered by the American Counseling Association:
Counseling Today (ct.counseling.org)
- “The powerful perspective of body satisfaction” by Juleen K. Buser and Rachael A. Parkins
- “Body language” by Lynne Shallcross
- “Disordered eating and body bashing” by Kiphany Hof (online exclusive)
- “Girls feeling pressure to be ‘sexy, famous and perfect’” by Laurie Meyers
- “Falling short of perfect” by Laurie Meyers
- Eating Disorders and Obesity: A Counselor´s Guide to Treatment and Prevention, edited by Laura H. Choate
Practice briefs (counseling.org/knowledge-center/practice-briefs)
- “Anorexia Nervosa” by Shannon L. Karl
Journal articles (counseling.org/publications/counseling-journals)
- “Special Section: Assessment, Prevention and Treatment of Eating Disorders: The Role of Professional Counselors,” Journal of Counseling & Development, July 2012
Laurie Meyers is the senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Letters to the editor:email@example.com
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.