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My Eating Disorder Inspired Me to Become a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist

Elizabeth Shaw

I was once a 13-year-old girl who only saw two things: thunder thighs and wobbly arms when she looked in the mirror. Who would ever want to be friends with her? I thought.

Day in and day out I focused on my weight, stepping on the scale multiple times, striving for the size 0 all the while pushing everything that was good for me out of my life. I lost a lot (read 20+ pounds) in a two-month period. I lost my period. I lost my friends. I lost myself.

But, lo and behold, there was a bright light! A miracle outpatient team—a physician, a psychologist, and a dietitian—steered me back onto the right path. During my time in recovery, I ended up connecting closely with the registered dietitian, a woman who would change my life forever.

She showed me how beautiful food was when you use it to nourish your body. She taught me that leading a healthy life isn't comprised of dichotomous thinking and labeling of foods as "good" versus "bad." She challenged me to try the potato chips, to eat the sandwich with the bread. Because of her, I learned an important message I'd carry with me for the rest of my life: You are beautifully and wonderfully made. Thus, at the ripe old age of 13, I was inspired to take my career path into dietetics and become a registered dietitian as well.

Flash forward and I'm now living that dream and helping others learn how beautiful it can be when you accept your body and appreciate its many gifts, and when you realize that self-love comes from within, not from a number on a scale.

I still remember my first position as a brand-new dietitian for an eating disorder (ED) outpatient program. I led a group meal session in downtown Chicago that focused on encouraging adolescents and their families to enjoy a meal together in a controlled environment. Every Saturday morning, 10 tweens walked through my door and immediately my heart melted. I saw myself in each of them. How well I recognized the 13-year-old little lady who was about to face her worst fear: eating waffles with eggs and bacon in front of her family and a group of strangers. (Typically, most outpatient ED programs have some sort of meal activity structured like this, often with peers or family members who are encouraged to attend.)

During these sessions, we sat and ate. And, with the help of the staff therapist, we processed the emotions the food evoked in them. The heart-wrenching replies from clients ("this waffle is going straight to my stomach—look, I can feel a roll...") were just the beginning of the distorted thinking these young girls suffered from, often fueled by the media and the messages they saw day in and day out.

Then, most importantly, we discussed what those foods contained—how those foods gave them the fuel to run their engines. How the food nourished them, inside and out. I helped show them how all foods can fit (including those Grand Slam breakfasts on occasion) when you eat intuitively, allowing your internal hunger and fullness cues to lead your eating behaviors.

Seeing the impact I had on this group of young women convinced me yet again that I had chosen the right career path. That was my destiny: to help others realize that they are beautifully and wonderfully made.

I'm by no means perfect. There are days when I wake up and compare myself to the size 0 models I see on the TV. (Not even registered dietitians are immune!) But when I hear that negative voice creeping into my head, I remember what self-love really means. I recite to myself, "You are beautifully and wonderfully made," letting that envelop my body, mind, and soul. I remind myself that not everyone is meant to be a certain size or certain number on a scale; we are meant to fuel our bodies appropriately, eating nourishing, nutrient-rich foods when we're hungry, stopping when we're full, and letting go of the emotional need to eat or restrict certain foods.

It's a powerful thing that happens when you give up fighting your body and learn to love the miracle it brings you. It's an even more powerful feeling when you recognize the true power of self-love—knowing that regardless of a size or number, you are healthy, you are nourished, and you are loved.

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