Story & Photo by Ashley Schafer
In honor of National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, the Student Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (SAND) hosted guest speaker and author, Rachael Rose Steil.
With the help of Center of Hope Counseling from downtown Mount Pleasant, and SAND, Steil spoke about this category of mental illness at Central Michigan University on March 2.
The event started shortly after 5 p.m. at French Auditorium in the Education and Human Services building. Various people attended the event – community members, students, dietetics majors and CMU faculty.
Steil is the author of Running in Silence: My Drive for Perfection and the Eating Disorder that Fed It. She was a record breaking collegiate runner for Aquinas College in Grand Rapids. Steil expressed her passion for running mixed with her strive for perfection quickly turned into an obsession for control. Her running fueled her eating disorder.
“I thought my preoccupation with food was not bad enough to be heard, too shameful to admit and a sign that my mind and my body were broken. Meanwhile, while all of this was happening I was still an all-American collegiate cross-country runner at Aquinas College,” Steil said.
Steil isn’t the only athlete who has developed an eating disorder. In fact, according to the National Collegiate Athletic Association athletes are at higher risk for eating disorders. Several factors surrounding sports such as pressure to to succeed and perform, contribute to the risks of developing an eating disorder.
When Steil first began to develop anorexia, she never suspected it was an eating disorder. When she began obsessing over food, she simply thought it was a flaw in her hunger cue system. However, she quickly fell into the reality of an eating disorder – weighing herself every day, counting calories and thinking about food constantly.
She began to lose weight, which helped improve her race times and only fueled her eating disorder further. Not recognizing she had a problem, Steil allowed it to worsen until, eventually she was trying dangerous diets.
The Danger in the Diets
Steil began with a raw food diet. This diet allowed her to eat in abundance, while obtaining few calories. Her coaches, teammates and parents all questioned this new diet, but Steil was able to use running and success as an excuse that quickly put their worries to the wayside.
“I kept convincing everyone that doing this raw food diet was for health,” Steil said.
Steil’s book focuses on her journey with this raw food diet. She pointed out that people who suffer from eating disorders can easily be sold on the empty promises of phony diets. She believes obsessing over new and strange diets could very well be a red flag for an eating disorder.
She also tried diets like the 30-bananas-a-day diet and the paleo diet.
“I kept going from one diet like this to the next because I thought my body was broken. I thought I was broken, so I needed something else to fix it. Something outside of me.”
Furthering a Vicious Cycle
Dangerous diets developed into binge eating. During Steil’s sophomore year in college, she fell into a vicious cycle of starving herself, running and then binge eating. Every day she woke up with the determination to control her eating, and each time it ended with a binge.
She described the feeling of needing to binge like a scratch that needs itching – the longer she put off binge eating, the itchier it became.
“Once you start to scratch it feels much better, but then after you have all that guilt.”
Steil gained weight and her running performance started to falter. She suffered a knee injury as a result of poor nutrition, which put her out of running. While the injury was something she wouldn’t have wished upon herself, she recognizes now that if it weren’t for this break from running, she may never have recovered when she did.
No longer running, she began to lose control of her identity and she decided to finally reach out to her mom for help.
She read an excerpt from her book to best explain the way she told her mom, and how it was so difficult to do so. Speaking about her problem made it real, and she felt embarrassed and exposed.
It took time, but her mom finally understood and eventually, Steil sought help from a support group.
The Road to Recovery
When Steil attended a support group, she immediately noticed that everyone else there was of various body sizes and she realized that eating disorders don’t have a particular body size.
Slowly, she realized the extent of her problem and then sought help from a therapist and dietitian. She has been in recovery with the exception of a few slip-ups for about a year now.
“I began to work with my body rather than against it.” Steil said.
Steil found that speaking out about her illness was an integral part of her recovery. She started a website, Running in Silence, where she quickly became part of an online community that supported her. Her website stemmed into a Youtube channel and then into her self-help book.
In November 2016, her first book was published, and she has plans to publish another in the future. Steil says it is written and awaiting revision, however she has been too busy promoting her first book.
For her, stepping out of her comfort zone and challenging fears helped tremendously. She became comfortable with making mistakes, and saw what life had to offer her. She stepped away from her identity as a runner, and began to really develop herself as Rachael Rose Steil.
“Running in Silence isn’t just about food and running,” Steil said as she read from her book, “It is about identity and coming to terms with who we are and finding ourselves. It’s about breaking the stigma and remembering that it’s okay to ask for help, even when our greatest fear is doing so.”
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