DENVER — A nonprofit helping people struggling with eating disorders experienced a surge in new members during the pandemic.
Every day, people are bombarded with images of perfection and a sense of achievement and happiness that can feel far-fetched when they look in the mirror.
Emma Moody remembers struggling with her confidence and purpose in life when she was just 12 years old. At the time she didn’t really understand what an eating disorder was, but it soon became clear she was suffering from anorexia.
“I felt very unsafe in my physical body, so I thought if I can stop eating, I can numb myself,” Moody said. “I just wanted to hide. I wanted to be so small internally that nobody could see me, nobody could hurt me, nobody could touch me, nobody could love me because I didn’t feel worthy of love.”
For two years, Moody skipped meals and reduced her portions significantly. She said it initially started as a diet and it spiraled out of control.
Moody hid her disorder from her parents until she was 14 years old. When she reached her breaking point, she finally came forward and asked her mother for help. She was checked into Children’s Hospital.
She recovered and relapsed seven years later when she lost her father to suicide. Moody said she began to binge eat to fill a void and numb the heartache.
“With eating disorders, there is a lot of shame, there is a lot of pain, there is a lot of guilt that people carry within themselves, and I absolutely felt that,” Moody said.
Moody admits, she had suicidal thoughts cross her mind.
“There were times, particularly when I was struggling, and I didn’t think I was going to make it. I didn’t know if I was going to be alive,” Moody said.
Each year, millions of Americans suffer from eating disorders. Experts say eating disorders often go undiagnosed.
According to Dr. Barbara Kessel, child and adolescent psychiatrist at Eating Recover Center, there is a fine line between dieting and an eating disorder, and, at times, the line can be blurred.
“A lot of eating disorder behaviors are really kind of culturally acceptable in our society, unfortunately,” Kessel said.
She said the pandemic only fueled a rise in eating disorders as people dropped out of activities, felt a loss of control over their lives and spent hours on social media.
“Consuming massive amounts of these messages that you need to lose weight — here is an exercise routine, try this diet, it’s going to change your life, maybe even this supplement that’s going to cause you to lose weight — and those messages can be so toxic,” Kessel said.
The most common eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating.
“Prior to the opioid epidemic, they were the number one cause of mortality or death of any psychiatric condition,” Kessel said.
She said the most common causes of death related to an eating disorder are suicide and medical complications.
Since the pandemic, The Eating Disorder Foundation, a nonprofit in Denver, has experienced 1030% increase in new support group members seeking help compared to 2019. A spokesperson with the organization highlighted that it impacts people of all ages.
Recently the nonprofit saw a spike in participants between 13 and 17 years old and launched a new support group for those 50 and older as the demand grew.
Red flags of an eating disorder include mood changes, which include anger and sadness around food and eating, and exercising habits that interfere with daily life.
“One thing to really look out for is that impairment in their life and in their functioning. In children, one thing that we look out for is not even necessarily weight loss; sometimes we will look at a child’s growth and see that they have just stopped growing,” Kessel said. “Sometimes for a patient who is in a larger body, it can go undetected by medical professionals for quite some time before it’s recognized as a problem.”
Moody relied heavily on The Eating Disorder Foundation for help and support. She said she had to dig deep inside of herself, find hope and purpose for life.
“I haven’t had a binge or a period of restriction in three years,” Moody said."Colors are brighter, food tastes better and relationships and connections are so much more valuable for me. I have no desire to go back, and I think that that is such a gift.”
She’s now a mentor helping people with an illness she knows all too well.
Recovering from an eating disorder is possible, and there are several organizations, both locally and nationally, that can provide help, including the nonprofit The Eating Disorder Foundation, the Eating Recovery Center and the National Eating Disorder Association.