Ep 35 – Deconstructing Eating Disorders with Dr. Dara Bushman: Part 1

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Hey stepparents! Maria Natapov here, stepparenting coach and strategist. I am so excited to introduce you to Dr. Dr. Bushman. With whom we had the pleasure of having a conversation this week talking all about eating disorders and disordered eating. Recently, I did an interview with my stepdaughter, who is incredible. Where she delved into her trauma story of abuse and neglect and trauma recovery. And we touched on her issues with eating. Those episodes can be found at synergisticstepparenting.com/33 and synergisticstepparenting.com/34.

I’m never quite sure whether to say eating disorders or disordered eating. Which is one of the many things that I’m hoping Dr. Bushman would clarify for us today. And get some really good tips around how to identify and help ourselves and our children with disordered eating. And how to have conversations about it and how to navigate that very complex world.

Because, as we know, food is all around us. It is such an enormous part of our culture and our everyday. So I can’t wait to delve into this conversation. Without further ado, I introduce you to Dr. Dara Bushman!

Introducing Dr. Dara Bushman, Eating Disorders Specialist

Just to give you a little bit of background about Dr. Dara Bushman. She’s a licensed psychologist who specializes in rapid transformation. Helping people move from crabby to happy from ordinary to extraordinary from surviving to thriving. She’s an author and featured psychologist in the media and a mom of two energetic school kids and two dogs.

Her clinical background includes working with individuals, couples, families and even groups to dissolve trauma triggers and eliminate recurring traumatic experiences. She’ license in the states of North Carolina and Florida. She was a lead therapist for 10 years at milestones and recovery, a comprehensive eating disorder treatment center. Where she introduced a comprehensive approach to healing that involves mind body healing. She has cracked the code to the language of disordered eating and the secret to eating disorders through the language of foodenese.

Early in the pandemic, she saw a picture of a healthcare worker hugging an elderly patient in isolation. She immediately felt a calling and recently began working in assisted living facilities in the Asheville area. She also works with aspiring professional athletes, as well as Olympians to break mental blocks and achieve peak performance. Getting them out of their heads and onto the winner’s platform.

I can’t wait for you guys to get all the goodness of this incredible conversation. Here we go…

Hi! We’re here with Dara Bushman. Dara, thank you so much for joining us. We’re so excited to have you. It’s such a pleasure to get to talk to you about this incredibly important topic. I know that you’re an eating disorder specialist. So it’s awesome to be able to delve into this conversation.

Recently, I’ve done an interview with my stepdaughter who has struggled with … I’m always a little confused as to eating disorders vs. disordered eating. So hopefully you can clarify that. But before we delve in … tell us what brought you to the work that you do?

I’ve been a psychologist for a long time. And my experience started when I was in, I would say middle school where I saw a sports psychologist. Right away I felt drawn towards that. And then over time, I took such an interest in pursued it, I had my own eating disorder. So that definitely also created an interest of healing. To make sure that nobody else experienced the things in the same capacity that I did throughout my life. So that’s definitely a personal drive that I feel as part of a mission. But I do meet with people that are having similar experiences.

The Difference Between Eating Disorders and Disordered Eating

I can see how that would be a huge influencing factor. So could you clear up for us the difference between disordered eating versus eating disorders? And I know it might be kind of a fine line.

Well, I can tell you in Dara-ism, this is just the way that I see it. My experience with it is that a disordered eating is something that might be due to a lack of education. And oftentimes, if someone gets, you know some information about it, then that can make an adjustment for them.

Like, for example. If someone says that they’re trying to lose weight, and they’re not eating all day. And then that they find they’re really hungry at the end of the day. And they’re like the Tasmanian devil, spinning around the refrigerator. Then they’re given information about how their metabolism works. And how it can be beneficial emotionally and physically to eat more periodically. And they start eating breakfast and they’re on with their life. And they’re not having that experience anymore.

Where – it’s a gray area – but when it starts to lean in more eating disordered, it’s not just about education. It’s also about the consumption around food or the thoughts of food begin to have in one’s life. And that’s where it can often teeter. Like sometimes people will say, “Is it the amount of behaviors?” I mean, clinically and diagnostically there are specifics and specifiers.

But I feel like for most people, it is about how consuming it is in your lifestyle. In a manner of whether amount of education can adjust that. Because often times with eating disorders, people can school YOU about it. There’s so much information to an abundancy that it’s consuming. So there’s where there’s a big differentiation.

Would you say that it more has to do with how invasive the thoughts and behaviors around eating are? Almost, to a degree, measuring preoccupation? Where it becomes invasive in the way that people go about their day to day in their lives?

Perspective is Key In Identifying Eating Disorders

I definitely think that’s a possibility. The other part of it is though, it’s about perspective and about bio individuality. The way that it works for one person is so different for another. So you and I can have thoughts around an Oreo. And you might have them. And you’re like, “Yeah, fine I’ll eat an Oreo.” Eat one and, I’m done with it.

Where for somebody else … like what you are saying around the amount of the preoccupation, but who’s to measure that? Cause you tell somebody to work hard at something, and someone’s level of hard work is completely different than another’s. So I do think it’s a matter of relativity and perspective in regards to that. They talk about in different addictions and stuff, they talk about somebody’s bottom.

And so it can look so much different. What might be problematic for me, if I can’t focus on my work, but, I have a job. And so for someone else, they can’t even get themselves into a space of work because they’re so preoccupied. So I think that that’s an important idea to see.

And that’s what happens even when people are defining what eating disorders or disordered eating do I have. And the different types of disorders, because there’s such an overlap. I think sometimes we get too caught up in it diagnostically. So much that we start becoming the disorder. As opposed to the perspective of how we can adjust it and make modifications.

That’s such a fantastic point to make. And I’m so glad that you outlined the discrepancy around the relativity of the experience and how people define things. And that that looks very different for each one of us.

How Behavior Plays into Identifying Problems in Eating

What are the signs that parents or stepparents or caregivers can look for? If they’re noticing, or think that their child or stepchild or a loved one might be struggling? Or that they’re concerned things are moving in a direction where it seems concerning?

I think it can be tricky with kids. I have an 8 1/2 year-old daughter, and I have 6 1/2 year-old son. But just this morning, we noticed the breakfast she would normally like to eat, she didn’t have as much interest in it. So to say if you see changes in their eating patterns is complicated, because there’s always changing and eating patterns in children in different ages.

So I think it’s just observing it from above and not being too far in it. And one of the things that you’re noticing with them is also noticing how you are with it. If you’re spending a lot of energy around their food, all of a sudden, that is a good indicator that something’s not going so great.

And I always joke, okay, that’s $5 I’m going to put into my children’s therapy bucket. I noticed that my husband was having a lot of attention around what she wasn’t eating. And on the other hand, we’re just going to focus on what she’s not eating, then all of a sudden, she’s getting a lot of attention around it, and then it becomes a bigger thing.

And so I can even speak to my own experiences with food. There’s a physical and there’s an emotional component with food. There’s an emotional component of the way that we get attention and the way that we feel how other people are perceiving us around food. And then there’s the physical part of how it chemically affects us.

How Our Minds Create Blueprints Around Food

So often people will hear me say, I had a Jewish grandma, and it was like, “Dara, do you want another cookie?” So when you’re a little girl, and people are feeding you cookies, then number one, you’re like, oh my gosh, this cookie is like a warm hug because of the way that it chemically affects us. And then also, I constantly got attention. And when they were feeding me, we were all in together.

So our little minds create these blueprints around food that often stick. So when you’re asking about what are the warning signs, I think it’s just taking it in and assessing it cautiously, being cautiously optimistic, if you will. Where you’re taking it in, but you’re not overdoing it, either. So just looking at an overall pattern is going to be more productive for parents to assess than WZHOOM zooming right in.

Because a lot of times it can fix itself too. And I’m just going to be really frank with you. A lot of times the challenges that kids are having with food are representation modeling of the parents and of what’s going on. If I had $1, every time parents called me with concern around their kids or their adolescents with eating disorders, apples not falling far from the tree. And so it’s not necessarily the kids, it’s their perception of how their parents are seeing them or viewing it. And that’s where we can adjust that a lot.

Yeah. What I’m hearing you say is that maybe it’s about tuning in for the caregiver themselves, both with regard to how are they perceiving things and how are they feeling about things and being really mindful of that behavior and then their actions around it. As well as giving themselves an opportunity to tune into their child. Like you said, is it just a normal shift of development – they’re just in a different state or their preferences have changed? Or is there something kind of bigger overarching that’s going on?

How to Identify Your Mindset Around Food and Body Shape

So maybe a better question is: How could people for themselves recognize their own frame of mind or what things they can look for as they’re observing their own both mindset and habits to notice if there might be something more to explore there with an expert like yourself?

With the kids or with themselves as with themselves?

I think both, for adults and for kids. Because maybe there’s vast differences, but to me, getting mindful is just a practice that I would assume probably is very similar throughout our lives. So a better rule of thumb for ourselves. How do we notice if there’s a bigger issue going on than just “Oh, I’m just not really hungry.” Or maybe, “Oh, I’m just really, really hungry,” or preference changes?

Well, check yourself before you wreck yourself, right? I think you just have to ask yourself, what is my relationship with food? And how does that show up for me? Because if you’re a parent and you’re being very weight conscious, and then you’re noticing that your child is being finicky, or picky or sneaking food, well, you have to really see that.

On the other hand, it would be like, Well, what do you want that to look like for yourself? So it’s not just do what I say, and not as I do. There’s a consistent part around that. So sometimes the modeling of it can be much stronger than the verbalization of it. So if you are seeing that kids are not eating in a certain way, and you’re like, “oh, okay.”

But you have to check, “Am I being picky? Do I only eat breakfast before or after 12 o’clock? And how do I expect my kids to eat breakfast? If I’m just standing there looking at them?”

How Shifting Your Behavior, as the Stepparent, Impacts Your Stepchild’s Behavior

It’s more like, “Yeah, we’re all going to do it together.” And so it’s not, you know, what is it “what’s good for the goose is not good for the gander,” or something like that. Like, it is a big part. So if you want your children to be active, it’s not like “You’re not getting out riding your bike!” It’s like, so maybe it is because you just walk around a mall, and that’s the best you can get for them.

But at least then you’re having that interaction. And food is to fuel your body. Let’s really check in what the purpose of our food is. And let’s also be honest, what our perceptions are about our own selves and our own body shapes and how we’re talking.

I often cringe because I’ll be around other women and there’s my daughter and she’s eight years old. And I know that I can’t protect her. I think with kids, in essence, it’s not our job to protect them from what happens. It’s our job to help them navigate through situations.

So what does that look like? So I can’t say, “We’re not going to talk about body size,” and they’re not going to know fat and skinny. Because reality is people are gonna say stuff. But we can choose to use words in different ways so that they have positive connotations. My son said, “Mommy, the other kids called me skinny.” We haven’t really used that word in our house. What’s the difference between, it’s just not necessary.

But the reality is, that’s how kids see a world. But isn’t that the beautiful part, in a sense? That kids do see a world that’s so beautiful, and colorless, and size-less. It’s only us that teaches them those limits and restrictions around size and, and food and stuff like that.

This was such a jam-packed conversation full of nuggets that I’m taking away. To recap we clarified the difference between eating disorders and disordered eating. We discussed how key perspective is in evaluating whether something we are noticing is truly problematic or whether it’s just a natural developmental change that may be temporary in nature.

And we identified how to notice our own mindset around food and body shape. Because as we’ve discussed on the show before, kids are noticing everything you do and are deeply influenced by your behavior. Please check out the show notes for links to Dr. Dara Bushman’s website and a wonderful planner and journal she has just released called S.H.I.F.T.

We can’t wait to share the rest of our conversation with Dr. Dara Bushman next week. So be sure to tune in then.  

Until next time, be well!

Related Episodes:

Confessions of a Stepdaughter – Broken Silence: Part 1

#1 Obstacles to Achieving Your Stepparenting Goals

How to Have Difficult Stepparenting Conversations

Links for this Show:

Dr. Dara Bushman

Dr. Dara Bushman’s S.H.I.F.T. Powerful Planner and Journal

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