Some Eating-Disordered Thoughts


In the June issue of The Sun, Kathryn Phelan recounted the true history of a high school basketball player (herself) with ambitions to be the fastest on the court. In the pursuit of ultimate thinness, knobby knees and random bruising are small prices to pay. She becomes an expert at making half a sandwich last through a 25-minute lunch period, savoring every tiny bite.

Her parents send her to a psychiatrist, which is annoying, but in only six months she will be 18 and emancipated (and free to be emaciated.) As it turns out, her parents will also be free from each other, because they will soon file for divorce.

But meanwhile, they send their child to another specialist, this time in eating disorders. He tells her she is thinner than most fashion models, and this is not intended as a compliment. Finally, the doctor tells her that…

[…] nearly everyone with an eating disorder will relapse. They are diseases you can never lose, just learn to manage.

The coach won’t let Phelan play basketball, which was supposed to be the whole point of this extreme physical makeover. Her response is to run around the gym track at night. In fact, she runs everywhere, in multiple layers of clothing, because it’s impossible to get warm.

It is also impossible to escape the compulsions. Phelan describes another visit to the eating disorders specialist:

When he walks in, he tells you that the anorexic girl in the appointment before yours died on his exam table — she went into cardiac arrest and did not recover. He is visibly shaken. He says this could happen to you: the chambers of your heart could degenerate and surrender, just like that.

Then, there is the guilt, when the ghosts of starved ancestors complain about their descendent’s stubborn and foolhardy ways. Of course, these interior symptoms are not discussed. Her lab results are good, so she figures, what the heck?

But the next status self-report — at 114 pounds — is not inspiring:

You have lost your starting spot on the basketball team, your credibility, a number of friends, and more than fifty pounds. Cravings arise suddenly — they feel elemental, primitive. Biological imperatives do not like to be repressed…

Phelan finds herself lying to friends about her weight. At the prom, her date tells her she looks like a corpse. We will not spoil the surprise ending, but it’s a doozy. It demonstrates an important principle: that many mental disorders evolve from common roots. And another important principle: that mental health professionals are eminently equipped to treat compulsive overeating as well as compulsive under-eating.

Here is a recommendation of another piece of narrative non-fiction, this time from the strikingly original neurobiologist, Dr. Billi Gordon, writing about symbolic eating. The subtitle is “When compulsive overeating becomes a language” and it is, among other adjectives, lyrical.

This is a short excerpt:

Compulsive symbolic eating is global because the world is starving for the staples of humanness… We crave a kinder, more salubrious world that will not do unspeakable things to us, and snicker while we tremble, laugh as we bleed, and say, you’re too this, you’re too that, you can’t go here, you can’t be that, you’re too old, you’re too bold, you’re too white, you’re too black, you’re too thin, you’re too fat.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Lost,”, June 2017
Source: “Symbolic Eating,”, 11/23/13
Images (left to right) by richmooremi and  teleoalreves on Visualhunt/CC BY

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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