Lara Gregorio was what many would call a highly motivated young person. The Rockville clinical social worker described her younger self as competitive and goal-oriented, and yet she rarely felt successful in accomplishing those goals.
Then one day, she decided to diet. She soon found herself obsessively focused on counting calories and calculating the least number of calories needed for her survival. She began losing weight.
“To me, this meant success. It was finally good at something,” Gregorio said. Then she went off to college and her obsession with calculating and starving caused her body to stop self-regulating, she said. Soon, she was visiting her college vending machine, literally eating everything it offered “until I felt so sick I wouldn’t eat the next day.”
Eventually, Gregorio decided to use the skills that made her a great dieter and turn her focus to regaining her life. She became obsessive in dealing with emotions that she had kept hidden, using her competitive nature and need for control to become “the best at recovery. Recovering became my new recovery.”
Gregorio told her story publically for the first time Sunday at a 2 ½-hour program titled “Everybody Knows Somebody: Eating Disorders in the Jewish Community,” held at Beth Sholom Congregation and Talmud Torah in Potomac.
The event was presented by the Orthodox Union and organized by Elliot Shaller, whose daughter, Amy, a Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School graduate, died in 2007 at the age of 20 after battling an eating disorder of her own.
Gregorio, her father Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) in Rockville, and Rabbi Dovid Goldwasser, an author and speaker on eating disorders in the Jewish community, told about 60 participants that eating disorders are not about food, but rather control and self-esteem.
“It’s remarkable how little we talk about” eating disorders, Insel said. “It’s a very serious medical problem.” Anorexia, characterized by abnormal obsession with dieting and body image, has a 5 percent mortality rate, which is higher than depression, he noted.
Other eating disorders include bulimia, in which a person has a ravenous hunger usually followed by vomiting or excessive use of laxatives, and binge eating, which is similar to bulimia but without the purging.
A compulsion with how one looks is caused by “this odd mix of genes that make people vulnerable and [personal] experience,” Insel said. Sufferers often exhibit a desire for perfection, low self-esteem and enormous compassion, he said. And although a problem within the Jewish community, Jews are not predisposed to eating disorders, he said.
There is no medication to cure this need to starve or eat excessively. Instead, therapy to deal with control and self-esteem issues is recommended, Insel said, adding, “We don’t talk about a cure here as much as recovery.”
To those dealing with a loved one, Gregorio urged them not to be judgmental, not to focus on food and eating but rather help the sufferer learn to realize the problem and change his or her focus.
She suggested parents keep an eye out for red flags that suggest their child may have an eating disorder. These include hiding food, lying about having eaten, wearing baggy clothes, constantly using the bathroom and creating food rituals like cutting food into very small pieces.
Rabbi Goldwasser urged families to stop emphasizing physical appearance and allow their children to make choices, gain independence and feel they have some power.