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Life at CALS

What is an Eating Disorder and How to Get Help

An interview with CALS alumna and registered dietitian Cara Mowery

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An estimated 9% of the U.S. population — or 28.8 million Americans — will experience an eating disorder at some point in their life, according to the National Eating Disorders Association. But how do you know if you or someone in your life has an eating disorder? And, if they do, where can you find support?

In recognition of Eating Disorders Awareness Week, which runs Feb. 26-March 3, we sat down with NC State University alumna Cara Mowery, to answer these questions. Mowery, who earned her bachelor’s degree in nutrition sciences, currently works as a registered dietitian in an outpatient setting, primarily serving adult and adolescent clients with eating disorders.

Prior to her current role, Mowery worked in residential, partial hospitalization, and intensive outpatient eating disorder treatment. She also works with the Maternal and Infant Lactation Knowledge (MILK) Research and Educational Group at NC State mentoring aspiring lactation consultants and supporting nursing moms at a community breastfeeding support group.

What is an eating disorder or disordered eating?

The technical definition, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders or DSM-5, is that eating disorders are physical and mental illnesses that are “characterized by a persistent disturbance of eating or eating-related behavior that results in the altered consumption or absorption of food that significantly impairs physical health or psychosocial functioning.”

While we have this “textbook” definition of eating disorders, it’s important to know that how they show up can look very different from person to person. Some behaviors you might notice include dieting, skipping meals, fasting, restricting food intake, eliminating specific foods or food groups, binge eating, use of diuretics, laxatives and weight loss medications, and use of behaviors to make up for eating like purging or exercising excessively.

Someone with disordered eating may have challenges with their relationship with food or their body and engage in behaviors like someone with an eating disorder would without meeting the DSM-5 criteria for a specific diagnosis. No matter where someone is on the spectrum of disordered eating and eating disorders — because it definitely is a spectrum — they deserve support from the people they love and from healthcare professionals.

How does someone know if they have an eating disorder?

Eating disorders can only be diagnosed by a qualified healthcare professional, but whether or not you have a diagnosed eating disorder, there are signs that you should look for. These are just a few examples:

  • Dieting, avoiding different foods/food groups, skipping meals
  • Avoiding eating in front of others
  • Preoccupation or worry about food or your body
  • Dizziness or feeling faint
  • Mood fluctuations
  • Weight fluctuations
  • Less social involvement than usual
  • Having a hard time concentrating (e.g. in classes/while studying)
  • Going to the bathroom right after eating
  • Frequent weighing

What should someone do if they need support?

Talk to someone you trust about the challenges you’re dealing with. Having someone to walk alongside you in your recovery journey who can help you take steps towards getting professional help makes all the difference when asking for help might feel intimidating.

I’d also recommend getting connected with eating disorder-informed providers, such as a dietitian, therapist, medical provider or psychiatric provider. Depending on how often you’re dealing with disordered thoughts or behaviors and whether they are causing medical concerns, some outpatient providers may recommend a higher level of care.

NC State has two on-campus dietitians who provide nutrition counseling for current NC State students at the Campus Health Center.

What should someone do if a person they know needs support?

Recognize that everyone is in a different place when it comes to their readiness to acknowledge and treat an eating disorder. They might be in denial, feel ambivalent, or feel as though they don’t deserve help. Be patient and meet them where they are. If you bring your observations of disordered thoughts or behaviors to a loved one, avoid placing blame or making assumptions. Ask questions with curiosity and listen with empathy. Avoid accusatory statements.

Offer to help them get connected with an eating disorder-informed provider and support them in initiating contact with those providers. It can be very difficult to take this step, so having a trusted loved one there for support can make all the difference.

Additional Resources