November 19, 2015

GUEST ROOM | Leave Your Eating Disorder at Cornell

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When I was a student at Cornell, I suffered from various eating disorders and disordered behaviors — restricting, binging, purging and generally feeling bad about myself most of the time. I hung onto them for longer than I care to remember, and I’m hoping for the seniors who are graduating in December and May that you leave your eating disorder and your disordered eating here in Ithaca.

Call it a college thing. You did it to deal with the stress/distress/anxiety of school, to manage too much work and too little time, to transition into adulthood. Blame whatever and whomever you’d like, but don’t take this with you.

I went to Cornell in the ’80s, during the pre-Internet, pre-answering machine era when we talked to our parents once a week and waited in our dorm rooms for phone calls. A lot has changed, but a lot hasn’t. Women, and increasingly men, struggle with body image and eating. We torture ourselves to fit a stereotype and punish ourselves when we fall short. We want to be perfect.

Part of adulthood is knowing what we need and trusting ourselves. As Cornellians, we’re smart — we know that diets don’t work. All of the evidence tells us that, in the long run, people gain more than they lose. Yet you engage in dieting behaviors like restricting only to have them backfire. Skipping meals leads to a cycle of overeating. Your body is hungry and will compensate for deprivation. This is well documented, and yet we think we can outwit what’s natural. Maybe we’re not that smart after all.

Every body is different and our eating is complicated. A nutritionist can tell you what’s best for you personally, but concepts such as intuitive eating and mindful eating are gaining traction. These approaches include learning what your body needs without starving or stuffing it — identifying subtle signs of hunger and satiety and learning to respect your body’s signals.

In her book Life Without Ed, Jennie Schaefer personifies her eating disorder as “Ed” in order to separate from him. One of the most important things she’s learned is to eat. Imagine that! If you knew you would eat breakfast every day, would you eventually stop bingeing the night before? If you ate more lipids in your diet (I won’t call them “fats”), would you feel more satisfied and prevent binges? If you gave up the list of foods you refuse eat, would you, like most people, just get tired of them and move onto to healthier options?

At her Mindful Eating workshop, Dr. Jean Kristeller at Indiana State University asks people what percentage of their waking hours they spend thinking about food, their weight and their bodies — including planning meals, cooking, obsessing about what we ate and will eat, counting calories, so on. What is your number? Are you happy with this? If the number were smaller, what could you do with the extra time? Could you learn that what and how you eat says nothing about who you are?

Reprogramming yourself is not an easy process and may take a while. Start today. Call Gannett, read Jennie Schaefer’s book, get yourself into therapy or find a nutritionist.

Trying to control what you eat is a losing game. Often, strength comes from letting go rather than holding on. May 29 is called “Commencement” for a reason: It’s a beginning. The sooner you stop disordered eating behavior, the easier it will be to stop — and then you can begin the rest of your life.

Amy Newman is a senior lecturer of management communication in the Cornell School of Hotel Administration and co-facilitates CHEW, Circle for Healthy Eating and Wellness, a peer support group in Ithaca ([email protected]). Guest Room appears periodically this semester.