It’s National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, sponsored by National Eating Disorders Association. Diabetes Advocates, of which I am a member, has partnered with NEDA this year to raise awareness, educate people, and support those in the diabetes community struggling with eating disorders and disturbed eating behaviors. The theme for NEDAwareness Week is Everybody Knows Somebody, and if you’re in the diabetes community, the chances that you know someone who has an eating disorder or struggles with food and body issues are very high.
I have no shortage of things to say about this topic, and have shared extensively in the past (that last link is one of my favorite posts ever), so I gave a lot of thought to what I would write this year. As most people know, I had an eating disorder for almost 20 years. Now that I’m recovered, I’m motivated to help others by raising awareness, and through my professional work, researching and developing innovative ways to help people who are currently struggling, not just with eating disorders, but the whole range of food and body issues that people with diabetes can experience. My latest project, VIAL Project, a social network for people with type 1 and food and body issues, is only the beginning of what I want to do to help people with diabetes make peace with food and their bodies.
While there is a need to understand more about patients’ experience of living with diabetes and food and body issues, and how to effectively treat those issues, I think prevention is equally important. As such, after considering my options for participating in NEDAwareness Week, I decided to write about promoting healthy attitudes about food and body image in people with diabetes. For the most part, these suggestions are for parents of diabetic kids, but at their essence are ideas that can be adapted for people of all ages.
1. The number one thing parents can do is model healthy attitudes about food and body image. This is not just a matter of concealing your dissatisfaction with your body shape or weight. Learn to accept your body, and live that. No, seriously, embody it, LIVE it. Children are smart, and they pick up on things, so if you hate your body, I assure you, they will know it, learn it, and eventually, they will live that. Kids need to see their parents making healthful choices, and respecting and honoring their bodies, which includes not complaining about poochy tummies or asses that jiggle. If you don’t like what you have, make healthful lifestyle changes that will make you feel fantastic, physically, spiritually and emotionally. Don’t eat out of the packaging, when you’re bored, or standing over the kitchen sink, and please, skip the fast food, and make food at home. Behave in a way that reflects all the positive things about food and eating, and establish positive food values in your home. If you need to get some counseling to help you make peace with food and your body, do it. It is better that you spend some time in the therapist’s office, than have your child grow up thinking it’s perfectly normal to be on a diet and hate your body. Kids with diabetes have enough reason to be pissed at their bodies, so help them love themselves, in all its glorious, imperfect inner and outer beauty, by loving your own body.
2. Start having age-appropriate conversations with your children about eating disorders and body acceptance. You can have an age-appropriate conversation about loving and respecting your body with a young child, the same as you would offer an age-appropriate explanation to a young child about how babies are made. Similarly, just as it’s important to have age-appropriate discussions with elementary school children about the dangers of drugs and alcohol, it’s a good idea to have comparable discussions about eating disorders. Don’t wait until they’re in middle school, because by then, you can bet they know kids who are dieting and concerned about weight, just like they’ll know kids who are experimenting with drugs and alcohol. Remember, even though you’re modeling body acceptance for your child (see #1), your child’s friend’s mom might have disturbed eating behaviors and poor body image enough for both her kid and yours, and it will influence your child. You need to get a running start to minimize the damage that other people can do to a child’s self-esteem, body image and nutrition habits. Starting a dialogue about difficult topics when children are young is the best way to ensure that as they get older, they will feel more at ease coming to you if they are having problems. So go have a heart to heart with your D kid.
3. Recruit your diabetes care team to support your goal of having a healthy relationship with food and a positive body image, and maintain ongoing dialogue with your CDE, RD, and endo about diabetes-related behaviors and attitudes. When you’re in the trenches every day, it’s easy to miss behavior and emotional changes that develop slowly over time. They offer objectivity and expertise that can help you identify issues early.
4. People’s feelings about having diabetes change over time. If you’ve had it for years, consider how you felt at diagnosis compared to 1 year in, 5 years in, 10 years in, 20 years in… and on and on. This evolution of feelings about diabetes combines with normal life transitions, and physical, cognitive, social and emotional development over time. And no matter how you long you’ve lived with it, diabetes is frustrating. That part never goes away. All of that, and most people wait until the shit really hits the fan before they’ll even consider getting therapy. Don’t think you have to wait until there’s a problem to meet with a behavioral health specialist. There’s something to be said for developing a relationship with a therapist as a way to support yourself or your child, and as a preventive measure to monitor overall emotional health and adjustment over time. Occasional “check-ups” are an opportunity to review how things have been going, get additional support for your emotional needs, vent frustrations, and problem-solve. Working with someone to solve minor problems could keep those problems from developing into something more significant. If issues such as depression, anxiety, disturbed eating behaviors, or dissatisfaction with body image develop, you will already have someone on your team who knows your history and can help.
5. Participate in activities that promote healthy eating behaviors and positive body image development. There are a range of activities that can fulfill this goal. Send kids to diabetes camp, attend CWD Friends for Life or their regional technology conferences, or attend TCOYD conferences. If there are support groups in your area, attend, or start a group if you can. Do something active. This seems to come naturally for some people, but if you’re like me, and struggle to get motivated to exercise, get creative, and find something that works. In my house, the activity of choice is anything that tires out the dog, so playing in the yard or walking her. Sometimes my husband and I do that together, so it doubles as good quality time. Doing physical activities as a family offers so many benefits. Cooking together is another way to promote a healthy relationship with food. Better yet, grow some food. You don’t need a plot of land. Grow a window herb garden, use what you grow in food you cook, and see how much differently you feel about what you eat. When you do things that are good for you, you feel good about yourself, and when you feel good about yourself, you’re less likely to equate your worth with the number on the scale, or take out your anger on yourself by making unhealthy choices.
Yes, these things take time, effort, consideration, and in some cases, money. That’s the risk you take with prevention though, it’s an investment in the future. I can speak from experience, and share that the cost of these actions is nothing, nothing, compared to the cost of hating your body, having disturbed eating behaviors, or having an eating disorder. I wish I could quantify the toll my illness took on me, my relationships and my family. It’s unfathomable, and the effects linger despite my recovery. All the healthy living I do now can’t completely undo the damage I did to my body, or the guilt and shame I feel for all the pain the people I loved experienced as they watched me self-destruct. Please, do everything you can to support your own positive relationship to food and your body and/or your child’s relationship. Let’s turn Everybody Knows Somebody into Nobody Knows Anybody.