Illustration by Katie Ferreol.

Destigmatizing and Recognizing Eating Disorders: In Conversation with Dietician Nadia Bornman

In light of Eating Disorder Awareness Week, The Gazelle sat down with our campus dietician to discuss what constitutes an eating disorder, how to recognize it and what support is available to those seeking recovery.

Feb 20, 2021

In light of Eating Disorder Awareness Week, The Gazelle sat down with campus dietician, Nadia Bornman, to discuss signs of eating disorders, recovery, how life on campus contributes to the illness and what to do if you or a loved one shows symptoms. As the only dietician on campus, Bornman not only takes consultations, but also works with other departments like Wellness, Dining and the Health Center.
Responses below are edited for concision.
COLLEEN MADER: Can you start by telling us what are eating disorders versus disordered eating?
NADIA BORNMAN: Disordered eating and eating disorders are often used interchangeably, but they’re actually not the same thing. Eating disorders are mental health illnesses that are diagnosed with specific criteria set up by the American Psychiatric Association. These diagnoses are in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, including anorexia, binge eating disorder or bulimia.
Disordered eating is more of a descriptive phrase and not a diagnostic criterion. Typically, disordered eating individuals would have similar symptoms or similar experiences to people with eating disorders. However, they might not have all the specific criteria involved with diagnosing an eating disorder. For example, typical things might include having irrational thoughts about one's body, having excessive dietary rules and calorie counting, only eating certain types of foods or food groups, rigid meal times, avoiding restaurants, avoiding food that’s not prepared by oneself or other disordered eating behavior.
A lot of these things could be part of eating disorder criteria as well, but might not meet all the criteria for diagnosis of an eating disorder.
MADER: What are some signs of eating disorders we should be conscious of? And what are some less standard ones we should look out for as well?
BORNMAN: Some signs of eating disorders are extreme concerns about body weight, or even body size and shape. It can be avoiding certain foods, often leading to restrictions of whole food categories, like carbohydrates or processed food.
When people appear to be very uncomfortable eating around others, that could be a sign of an eating disorder as well. Skipping meals is one I see frequently in students I work with — they skip meals or avoid eating in social environments. Others can include frequent body checking in the mirror, frequently checking to see if you’ve gained weight, or if there is some flaw, or something “wrong” with your body.
Then there are food rituals: maybe only eating at a certain time of the day, fasting most of the day and only eating one meal. Excessive chewing is also one that often comes up, usually done to delay the time spent eating so that you eat less. Some more unusual ones could be extreme mood swings, which could be a result of having very low food intake.
Fad diets are something I come across on campus a lot. Some others could be difficulty concentrating, dizziness and menstrual irregularities. These are all issues that might not be as noticeable just by looking at someone’s body, and could be an indicator that something is wrong.
MADER: How do you think campus culture helps or hurts those with disordered eating?
BORNMAN: The reality is that university life comes with so many different challenges, including increased workload, less structure, more stress and a higher focus on friends and peers. And these challenges can often combine with things like anxiety, previous stressors, learning issues or low self esteem. University can actually be an environment for triggering underlying issues and eating disorders.
For many students, they’re coming to a more dynamic environment, having to make more decisions on their own and things may feel out of control. These stressors could definitely hurt those with disordered eating and may lead to eating disorders as well, if not managed or treated appropriately. At the same time, the age group of university students is between 18-22, a very prime time for eating disorders to pop up.
That being said, I just want to make note that not everyone who goes on a diet or has disordered eating will develop a full formal diagnosis of an eating disorder. But still, to be aware of the symptoms and signs can at least help prevent that from happening in the long run.
MADER: If we notice these symptoms either in ourselves or our friends, what would you say is the first step? What’s the best way to help someone else and what resources are available at NYUAD?
BORNMAN: If your concern is for yourself, the first thing is to book yourself an appointment, either with myself as a dietician or one of the counselors on campus. If you decide to first see a counselor, then they would refer to me as well, because the process of treatment is often multidisciplinary. I would not be treating a patient with an eating disorder on my own, but typically I would have to liaise with a counselor as well, as it is a mental illness too. We would need that collaboration. And that’s how it works at the Health Center.
If you’re worried about your friend or someone close to you, typically, it does become difficult. Ideally, we want them to get help from a professional, but it’s not often so easy to just say, please go see a counselor or please go see the dietician. But oftentimes, it’s good to build the relationship with the friend, find a time to talk to them and practice what you’re going to say. But one more thing about speaking to someone is to be honest and talk out of a place of care, not criticism.
Avoid stigmas — there’s no shame in having an eating disorder. Eventually after talking, encourage them to seek help. If it’s an urgent case, if someone is at a severe risk of injuring themself, fainting or dizziness, it is best to get help immediately. Call the Wellness Exchange or the nurse helpline. The Health Promotion Office posted all these numbers on their Instagram page as well. Definitely contact these numbers for urgent cases.
At NYUAD, the Health Center is always available as well. We have counselors, doctors, dieticians and nurses always there. All counseling and dietetics services are virtual at the moment but you can make an appointment through emailing or phoning the Health Center. That’s what I would advise, to seek help as soon as you can.
MADER: What is one thing you wish everyone at NYUAD knew about eating disorders or disordered eating?
BORNMAN: I really wish everyone at NYUAD knew that eating disorders are mental illnesses, not a choice. But recovery is possible. This is one thing I hear a lot of students say, my friends tell me I should just get better, I should just get over it or I should just eat more, but it is a mental illness. Ideally, you would need treatment for any type of mental illness, and it takes time. So it’s not a choice but definitely recovery is possible. And that’s something that's very encouraging. We see a lot of progress with students that we work with.
For more information about eating disorders, visit The National Eating Disorders Association or contact the NYU Abu Dhabi wellness exchange or the Health Center.
Colleen Mader is a Staff Writer. Email her at
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