Contributor: Elizabeth Bassett, Reporter
The winter holidays often are a tough time of year for those who are watching their calories, but for some, dealing with food is never easy no matter what the time of year.
Eating disorders, which can be found in an estimated 10 million people, according to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), are a group of medical conditions that can be costly not only for an individual’s health but also for the medical industry.
Jacquelyn Ekern, a licensed professional counselor, founded the website Eating Disorder Hope in 2005 when she was working on a master’s in counseling/psychology and creating an eating disorder support group as part of her supervised internship.
Ekern had gone through her own struggle with an eating disorder, and she wanted to provide information about the support group when she started a website that today has sections for those with disorders, families, individuals in other countries and for professionals.
“It was very small when it started, and I had no idea it would take off like it has at that point, but there was such a need for information and resources online that it just became very apparent that this is something people need,” Ekern said. “… It was just the most Podunk site.”
Initially, the site was just for her support group, and she contacted other specialists and researchers about posting their work. Then she found nonprofits dedicated to supporting those with eating disorders and linked to those. Now, Eating Disorder Hope gets more than 15,000 visitors each month and about 40,000 page hits a month.
“And it keeps growing,” she said.
Providing resources from reliable sources is key when the Internet provides an overload of information, much of which could be unreliable. Barbara Alderete, coordinator of the Texas Health Spring Center Southlake (and not affiliated with Eating Disorder Hope), said people often turn to online sources for research when they are starting to admit to themselves that they may have an eating disorder.
Eating disorders don’t just include anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, the two disorders that are the best-known. Binge eating disorder also is a problem, and being obese and overweight can be classified as such as well.
A NEDA report states that anorexia nervosa is expensive to treat and yet insurance coverage for treatment is “exceedingly insufficient.” The average direct medical costs for treating anorexia nervosa is $6,054 per individual per year compared with $4,824 a year for schizophrenia. Additionally, 2005 National Institutes of Health research funding included only about $12 million dedicated to eating disorders compared with $350 million for schizophrenia, which affects an estimated 2.2 million Americans.
The lack of information is why Ekern started Eating Disorder Hope, and she said influences like family dynamics, biology, trauma and emotional distress and other factors can spur a person to develop an eating disorder.
The American obsession with thinness is often seen in the media, Alderete said, but television, the Internet and other media sources can have a positive influence as well, giving people information on how to seek help and change behaviors to become healthier. The negative influence of the media typically works with other factors to be a contributing factor to an eating disorder.
“The impact is greatest on someone who is vulnerable who has these other predisposing factors that makes them vulnerable to an eating disorder,” she said.
While reaching thousands of people through her website, Ekern also sees some patients, even though she’s not accepting new patients. Most of her time is spent on the website, but she said she’d like to be able to accept more patients in the future.
Eating Disorder Hope recently added the Eating Disorder Specialist Library to help individuals find treatment options, and Ekern said she wants to bolster the international component and possibly add some kind of comparison feature that would let prospective patients or family members evaluate treatment centers.
By focusing on healthy behaviors, instead of demonizing bad behaviors that are part of an eating disorder, and by giving individuals options to seek help, Ekern is hoping to continue influencing those who are fighting with food but ready to change.
“Nobody wants to be told what you’re doing is wrong. I don’t know that it would necessarily motivate change,” she said.
The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.