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Social media can either help or hurt eating disorders

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MADISON (WKOW) -- Britt Ryan is a busy mom. Her three young kids keep her on her toes every day.

But she has another full-time job: recovering from an eating disorder.

"I've preached for a long time to my family, to other groups of young kids about how important they are and how much value they have -- just as they are," she said. "Yet personally I never felt quite enough."

Ryan has struggled with anorexia for the last 25 years. She says it started in high school, as the stress of satisfying the demands of her perfectionism and keeping up with her high achieving goals made her feel out of control.

Food became a way to take that control back.

"I was beginning to lose a little weight, and you get praised for that," she said. "I'd always been a runner, and I was starting to run more and more … and that's something that sort of got carried away."

More than 30 million people in the U.S. suffer from an eating disorder, 20 million of them girls and women.

While eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, more than 70 percent of sufferers don't seek treatment. Recovery resources are expensive, inaccessible to many -- and the deep stigma associated with having this type of disease means people are often left struggling alone.

"I had such a strong desire to make it appear that I had it all together," Ryan said. "That's how I presented it to everyone, and that's how I think it looked, except that I was falling apart ... and on the inside, each meal was a battle."

For someone with an eating disorder, daily tasks like getting groceries, picking a meal at a restaurant, deciding what to have for dinner, can seem impossible.

"It's very much like an addiction, like alcoholism, where it takes control," Ryan said. "You feel like 'I could lose just a couple more pounds and it'll be fine.' It's that convincing and that strong a voice inside, but you have to have food. I have to have three meals a day, and I have to have three snacks a day … I have to face this thing I've seen as evil for so long six times a day."

Because eating disorders are so isolating, social networks can play a significant role in either helping or hurting the sufferer. Pro-recovery groups online can offer a positive community and support the person may not be able to find elsewhere.

"These platforms can be very powerful to have ongoing peer support, which is extremely helpful when someone is fighting the daily urges, symptoms and behaviors of the eating disorder, even after they've reached a good state of recovery," said Brad Smith, medical director at Rogers Behavioral Health, which treats eating disorders in Madison.

But groups promoting "thinspiration" and unhealthy weight loss techniques encourage dangerous behaviors -- and new 2020 research shows adolescents are especially likely to see and engage with this harmful content.

"The overvalue of thinness and the overvalue of a specific body type is one of the main factors in the development of this illness," Smith said. "People are inundated with these images ... but now with social media and these groups forming, it's much more personalized."

For Ryan, sharing her story online was important. She got an outpouring of support that's helping as she continues to work toward recovery.

"Each meal still is a battle, but now I know I have to do it anyway," she said.

Monday is the start of National Eating Disorder Awareness Week.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association Hotline at 1-800-931-2237. Treatment is most effective when done right away.

Ester Wells


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