Knife and plate

People tend to have a preconception of the type of person prone to an eating disorder.

It’s an image conditioned by popular discussion of the mental illness, the type of person we always picture suffering from an eating disorder – white, upper middle class, young and female – created by the depiction of disorders like anorexia and bulimia in popular culture. In reality, it’s an issue that affects more people from a litany of backgrounds, oftentimes in more unique ways than many might think.

According to a 2007 study published in the journal, Biological Psychiatry, it was found that 0.9 percent of women and 0.3 percent of men had dealt with anorexia during their life, 1.5 percent of women and 0.5 percent of men had bulimia during their life, and 3.5 percent of women and 2.0 percent of men had binge eating disorder during their life. And that’s just one study: A 2007 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that up to one-third of all eating disorder sufferers are male, a statistic that may surprise those raised on the perception of men as burger-pounding machines – the idea of masculinity tied directly to food itself.

Even those suffering from an eating disorder, it turns out, may not realize their pursuit of what they see as a societal expectation of self image is, in fact, a mentally unhealthy practice.?

Enter organizations like Circle for Healthy Eating and Wellness, better known locally as CHEW.

Founded in May 2015, CHEW – a sort of anonymous group for those dealing with eating disorders diagnosed or not – has filled a void in the mental health community for those who either may not have been diagnosed with a mental illness tied to their eating or simply, have noticed patterns in their own behaviors that may be compulsive that they wish to cope with.

Working through a flexible, open-conversation format, the biweekly group looks to build common ground with people dealing with a litany of eating disorders, working to help people build self-confidence and understanding of themselves and their disorders, whether it’s discussion of their anxieties and concerns, navigating the healthcare system or even their own perceptions of sexuality and self image perpetuated through messaging in the media.

This format, Amy – one of the group’s facilitators (she chose not to give her last name, in the anonymous spirit of the group) – allows more freedom to give the group a sort of adjunct role in the treatment process: recognizing that eating disorders, oftentimes, are more biologically programmed than they are conditioned behavior.?

“I would fight against the perception that it’s just a behavioral approach, because it’s based on some physiology,” she said. “For example, eating disorders have a really close association with anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder, so there it gets really complicated.”

According to the National Eating Disorder Association, several decades of genetic research show a number of biological factors play a significant role in who develops an eating disorder, based on their susceptibility to conditions like anxiety or obsessive compulsive disorder. These disorders, proponents say, are often exacerbated by the media’s own advertised ideals for the perfect body, what’s masculine, what’s feminine… what’s expected.

Because this is a trend that has occurred in the age of mass media to an even greater degree than any generation, experts are beginning to notice an increase in middle aged people suffering from eating disorders, partly attributable to their growing up raised by the television set or otherwise. The inputs for eating disorders – mass media – have essentially been in effect for 30 to 40 years now, the societal expectations they perpetuated unchanged as generations of men and women grew into middle age.?

While there are resources to deal with eating disorders, including an outpatient facility in Elmira, a number of resources are lacking. In Tompkins County, there are occasional therapist-led sessions to help those suffering with eating disorders to cope and improve and, through the Tompkins County Department of Mental Health, people can receive diagnoses and treatment plans, either through medication or other types of therapy. But as far as support groups and other free supports, CHEW is unique, enough so that the group counts a member from as far away as Horseheads as a user of the program.

Part of the reason, Lisa – another facilitator of the program – said, is not just because of the fact it’s free or it’s one of the few places one can discuss this highly specific topic, but the fact its approach is distinctive: it allows its members to find common ground in their discussions, allowing them to find ways to navigate and take ownership of their own treatment.

“I think resources have been sort of limited here,” Lisa said. “I’ve kind of done it all, from early diagnosis to private workshops led by therapists to being affiliated with the nutrition clinic in Elmira... but I feel like CHEW is the most cutting edge – I feel I can bring all of me to the meeting and discuss everything I’ve tried in the past as far as treatment modalities.”

Interested??CHEW?(Circle for Healthy Eating and Wellness) meets the 1st and 3rd Tuesdays and Thursdays of the month at Just Be Cause,?1013 W. State Street, Ithaca. Learn more by contacting? Lisa at?607-227-9723.

Follow Nick Reynolds on Twitter @Nickthaca

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