By William Smith
Michelle Russell sees food differently than most people.
A dietitian and nutrition therapist by trade, Russell sees food for what it is. Sustenance, flavor, culture. A necessary part of life forever intertwined with mental health.
That’s how one of life’s greatest joys can become one of life’s biggest anxieties.
“It’s not cut and dry. You have to eat every day. And part of recovery is eating consistently,” Russell said.
Russell knows that better than anyone. She struggled with an eating disorder herself.
“That is the challenge, you have to kind of do exposure therapy with it day in and day out to get better,” she said.
Russell’s biggest frustration is the lag between new information concerning food and health and traditional medical knowledge. That gulf is represented most in the (Body Mass Index) BMI, which Russell and other dietitians have criticized. BMI is a person’s weight divided by the square of height.
A high BMI is often a poor indicator of health. Body shapes are too diverse to fit into such a narrow standard. A person’s weight doesn’t always directly correlate to health, Russell said. In turn, a person’s weight doesn’t relate to their eating disorder, either, despite popular misconceptions.
“I think it’s actually quite common for people to have a very disordered relationship with food,” Russell said.
Eating disorders usually spring from mental health difficulties rather than the food itself. Russell said how a person thinks about food determines their relationship with it.
Much like depression, an eating disorder can manifest gradually, becoming the new “normal” for the person struggling with it.
That’s how it happened to Russell.
“I found myself thinking I was being really healthy and taking care of myself. And it became apparent at some point what I was doing was very destructive. And I was thinking about food all the time, worried about my weight all the time. And that was not a healthy place to be,” she said.
Russell was born and raised in Burlington and then went to Iowa State University. Soon, she would start studying nutrition. She never imagined she would develop an eating disorder, or that it would spur her into a new career.
“What drove me to becoming a dietitian was actually developing an eating disorder myself,” she said. “And so I went through eating disorder recovery while studying to be a dietitian, and knew that I always wanted to support people in recovery.”
First, Russell needed to take time to heal herself, then she started healing others.
“I try to help people understand the early signs of eating disorders. People are paying attention to things (such as calories) to stay healthy, but that takes on a whole different spin,” she said.
Realizing that you have an eating disorder is the first step. Russell said the next steps in treatment are bolstered by a support system – professional and personal.
“I tried to stop what I was doing on my own, and it wasn’t effective,” she said. “I was spending a lot of time and thinking a lot about food rather than engaging in life or relationships.”
As a board-certified food and nutrition expert, Russell was the Burlington Hy-Vee dietitian for a few years.
Now she has her own dietitian business downtown – Food Freedom -- and has found herself in high demand. Russell uses her full range of talents as a certified eating disorder specialist and a certified intuitive eating counselor.
“I think that with diet culture, there’s still this hierarchy of bodies that we are well aware of in terms of what’s the most desirable body type to have. And so we can’t necessarily escape that. But we can opt out of having to believe that about ourselves or other people,” Russell said. “We can honor that body size, diversity is real, it’s always been there.”
Food is food, and can’t be divorced from everyday life like drugs and alcohol. That is why Russell wants her clients to be comfortable with eating because many disorders hinge on the guilt of overeating, and that is often the most difficult obstacle to overcome.
“Morally, there are no good or bad foods,” Russell said. “We need a mix of different nutrients and food groups. We really can’t outsmart our bodies because our body’s biology is going to push back. So a lot of it’s about getting back in touch with our bodies. Intuitive eating.”