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Elizabeth Frankel: Conference brings hope to fight against eating disorders

NEDA 2014.jpg
Teen columnist Elizabeth Frankel meets with eating disorder recovery advocates Jenni Schaefer (center) and Amy Maitner (right) in San Antonio.

I've just been through heaven and back. Over MEA break, I spent three days at the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) 2014 Conference in San Antonio. It was the most powerful experience I've ever had, and I'm still reeling from all the life-changing moments it held.

In the United States, more than 20 million women and 10 million men will suffer from an eating disorder at some point during their lifetimes. Many people think of anorexia nervosa (excessive restriction of food intake) when they hear the term "eating disorder," but bulimia nervosa (recurrent binge eating followed by inappropriate means of avoiding weight gain), binge-eating disorder (frequent binge eating accompanied by an intense feeling of lack of control), and other specified feeding or eating disorder (distressing symptoms that do not meet the full criteria for other disorders) are also highly prevalent.

Eating disorders are the most fatal mental illnesses, manifesting themselves in the tangibility of food. Organizations like NEDA work to treat and prevent them.

In 2003, NEDA had its first conference, connecting professionals and people impacted by eating disorders. The unique integration of these groups in a conference setting was highly successful, and NEDA has continued to host annual conferences ever since.

When I heard about the 2014 conference, I knew there was no way I could miss it. I wanted to bring information back to Rochester in order to kick-start this year's planning for Century's club, Face, Recognize, and Educate about Eating Disorders (FREED). Well, consider FREED's plans kick-started.

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There were more than 500 people at this year's conference. All had compelling perspectives and a common drive to eradicate eating disorders. Author Catherine Steiner-Adair gave a fascinating lecture about using technology as an ally in fighting negativity and eating disorders. The latest and greatest? Customizable Apple apps like Recovery Record and Rise Up + Recover.

An intriguing lecture was held by Carolyn Costin, founder of Monte Nido and Affiliates treatment program, and Michael Levine, professor emeritus of psychology at Kenyon College. They examined how eating disorders are portrayed in the media. Often eating disorders are sensationalized and glamorized, with an emphasis on weight, relapse, and drama. How boring would it be for the media to show people who weren't the worst cases, who had minimal drama, and who recovered fully — people who are more typical eating disorder patients? Highlighting how hard eating disorders are to treat might be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

S. Bryn Austin, Harvard associate professor in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences, talked about uniting with obesity professionals. Over time, body dissatisfaction is linked with worse nutrition and physical activity; people who don't like their bodies are much less motivated to take care of them. By helping others appreciate their bodies, we can accomplish the goals of both eating disorder professionals and obesity professionals.

As I attended NEDA's sessions, I was amazed by the abounding hope. Siblings, parents, professionals, people in recovery, people still suffering … all were there because they held onto the hope that things could get better. All believed in the ability to progress and make changes. As I write this article, fully recovered from anorexia, I want you to know that life doesn't have to be held back by eating disorders, other mental illnesses, or whatever toxicity you're facing each day. Allow yourself to not just survive, but to thrive.

What is your beauty today? Can you think of one thing that you offer as a gift to this world? Cherish that. Use it to give others hope.

If you are concerned about yourself or someone you know, save a life by visiting nationaleatingdisorders.org or calling NEDA's helpline at 800-931-2237.

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