In light of National Eating Disorder Awareness Week (NEDA) occurring from Feb. 27th through March 5th, I spoke to my mom, Sara Cowlan, a nutritionist and registered dietician. She specializes in eating disorders and intuitive, mindful eating and believes in the Health at Every Size (HAES) movement. In my conversation with Cowlan, I hoped to get her perspective on the meaning of the week and what readers should know.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, eating disorders are defined as “behavioral conditions characterized by severe and persistent disturbance in eating behaviors and associated distressing thoughts and emotions.” NEDA combats the stigma surrounding eating disorders as well as their prevalence. Cowlan spoke about the importance of NEDA.
“To me, NEDA week should last all year. It’s to bring public attention to the meaning, significance and prevalence eating disorders have in our society and all across the world,” she said. “The intention behind it is to promote hope for those with eating disorders and those who love them that recovery is possible, but to me it is more about media attention to a very important issue that millions of people face across the world.”
Eating disorders have evolved significantly with the escalating presence of social media in our society. According to Cowlan, “social media has led to a glamorization of eating disorders and a normalization of them as well” and “has increased the incidence of eating disorders in people and has affected people younger than it used to.” Because of the prevalence of social media in our lives, especially in younger generations, escaping content promoting a certain body image or ways to live “healthier” has become much more difficult. Cowlan further emphasized the dangers of social media.
“There is so much distortion and photoshopping. The magnitude of the messages that people are getting have made the number of people affected by eating disorders much larger and the severity of them much worse,” she said. “I believe it has normalized disordered eating to an extent, like people posting ‘what I eat in a day’ videos and ‘cheat day’ videos … The algorithm works against you; even when you look up eating disorders looking for content on recovery, you find a lot of the opposite, which is incredibly triggering.”
Cowlan explained that she works with her clients to combat unrealistic influences from social media and create a more healthy feed that promotes a more body-positive, anti-diet culture. She has many positive resources to share, including podcasts like “Recovery Bites,” “Recovery Warriors,” and “Rewired.” Some instagram accounts she recommends include @theantidietplan, @recoverywarriors, @dietitian.hannah and @jenni_schaefer.
Furthermore, Cowlan cited two free support groups available online: “Morningside Chats in the Living Room” is led by professionals in the field on Saturday mornings and anyone can register. The Eating Recovery Center has support groups based on specific eating disorders as well as specific groups for certain demographics such as the LGBTQ+ community.
As National Eating Disorder Awareness week comes to a close, Cowlan encourages readers not to be afraid to reach out and ask for help. With her final comment, she leaves us with an extremely important message: “Recovery is possible. It is a journey; It takes time. It doesn’t go perfectly; It’s messy, and it’s hard. But it is possible. Life on the other side is so worth it, and there are so many things to appreciate about our bodies that have nothing to do with weight.”
More information on Sara Cowlan, MS, RD, RDN:
“Sara has over 20 years’ experience in a broad range of settings as a registered dietitian. As her practice has evolved, she has seen that most of her clients come to her struggling with diets that take them away from their enjoyment of food and being connected to their needs. Many know a lot about nutrition but find themselves stuck trying to make changes or continue to make choices they are later unhappy with.
Sara has learned in her practice and research supports that DIETS do not work! They stress the body (which increases cortisol and appetite), lower our metabolism (which contributes to weight gain) and evoke feelings of failure and defeat as many blame themselves instead of the diet for their struggle.
Her approach is to meet clients where they are in their relationship with food. This may involve struggling with disordered eating, body image or many health issues that may be affected by this relationship with food.”