The Disordered Eating Epidemic

Find out the new generation of abnormal eaters (hint: it’s not your daughter’s).

by Shelley Levitt
Photograph: Photo: Levi Brown

I’ve always thought my eating habits were weird and shameful. My mother was racked with guilt and felt it was all her fault. But I never thought I could change, until a few months ago. While doing some Web research to help my daughter—at five, she’s an even pickier eater than I am—I stumbled on an online support group for adult picky eaters (pickyeatingadults.com).

To say that this community has changed my life is an understatement. The support group has more than 1,000 members, and I couldn’t believe there were all these other people who have the same food issues I do. I cried when I read the postings. Now I’m working with a therapist at the Duke Center for Eating Disorders. I don’t know if I’ll ever be healed, but I already feel more accepted and normal.
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When I was a kid, being a picky eater got me a lot of extra attention from my parents, my teachers and the kids at school. It was almost cute: “Oh, Heather doesn’t eat this or that.” It set me apart. In high school, too. I was a cheerleader, and on the way back from football games the bus would stop at McDonald’s. The football players loved me because they got to fight over who I’d pass my Big Mac along to; I’d take their fries in return.

In my twenties, I started to become self-conscious. When I was dating someone new, I’d just say I was a vegetarian instead of explaining how limited my diet really was. Being pregnant with each of my three kids was very difficult. I really wanted to eat healthy and increase my protein, but I just couldn’t stomach eggs, chicken or even tofu. That was very frustrating for my husband, but it’s just the way my brain works. If I take a bite of something that’s not on my list of foods, an alarm goes off in my head—“Woo! Woo! Woo! Alert: There’s something foreign and inedible in your mouth”—and I have to get rid of it. That can happen even with the foods I love. If there’s something unusual about the texture of a french fry—say, it was made with a potato that was bruised, so it’s softer in some spots—that’s enough to make me feel as if I’m going to throw up.

Recently my daughter had a playdate with some other girls, and the mom made lunch for the mothers. She handed me a plate with salmon, rice and some kind of vegetable—nothing that I would eat—so I said I was fasting because I was having a medical procedure the next day. It was easier than watching her go through her cupboards to find foods I’d accept, only to have me say no to everything anyway.

In a perfect world, I would like to eat like a normal person. But realistically, I don’t see that happening, and I don’t really want to put myself through the stress of trying to like new foods and failing at it. What’s more important to me is having an answer to what this is all about.

The Doughnut Junkie

Barbara, 47:, Charlotte, North Carolina; interior designer

I grew up in a very affluent New Jersey family in which appearance was the most important thing. I wore a size 10 in high school, so I wasn’t obese, but my family berated me terribly about being fat. My brothers called me “whale” and “tub of lard,” and that was accepted by my parents. One brother made me drink four cups of tomato juice with apple-cider vinegar every day. He was a wrestler, and that was what he used to melt fat off his body. It didn’t work for me.

We had a family dinner every night at 6, and I wasn’t allowed any starches or dessert, only a little piece of meat and some salad. Of course, my parents said they were doing this for my own good. My life, they’d say, would be so much better if I were thin.

I got my driver’s license when I was 16, and that’s when my bingeing started. I’d drive to Dunkin’ Donuts, buy a dozen and eat them right there in the car. Then I went away to college, and I stopped bingeing cold turkey. Away from the pressures of my family, I didn’t feel the urge to stuff myself.

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