I believe social media culture exacerbates eating disorders. There are so many people posting images of their bodies that it’s easy to see that and compare what you look like and feel like a glossy image on the screen. I avoid following people on social media because I know it will trigger me. Our culture of youth and beauty being of utmost importance is a problem.
As a part of my interview series with public figures who struggled with and coped with an eating disorder, I had the pleasure to interview Heather Saffer. Heather is the founder of Dollop Gourmet; a better-for-you dessert company that produces vegan and gluten-free lower sugar frostings sold in major retailers across the country.
Heather graduated from SUNY Brockport with a degree in psychology and got her entrepreneurial start as the founder of the nation’s first create-your-own cupcake bakery.
Heather has demonstrated success by winning Food Network’s Cupcake Wars, getting multiple offers on ABC’s Shark Tank, showcasing her products on QVC, and authoring two bestselling cookbooks, The Dollop Book of Frosting (Simon & Schuster/F+W Media) and Crazy Easy Vegan Desserts (Sterling Epicure).
As a successful entrepreneur and self-taught baker, Heather has been featured in Forbes, People Magazine, Huffington Post, USA Today, Inc., Oprah, Hallmark Channel, Steve Harvey Show, and Sirius XM.
Heather sold Dollop Gourmet in 2019 to Mimac Glaze Ltd., an international leader in the gourmet icing industry.
Heather’s current focus is on helping leaders and entrepreneurs through her speaking and coaching business, along with pursuing her passion for raising money for rescue animals with her artwork on HeatherAndDonald.com.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself and what you do professionally?
I recently sold my company after a long 10-year run. Most recently I’ve begun helping other entrepreneurs and leaders find their power in working solo so they can avoid the pitfalls of feeling “alone at the top”. I also create art on merchandise to raise money for animal rescues through my passion project, Heather & Donald.
Thank you for your bravery and strength in being so open with us. I personally understand how hard this is. Are you able to tell our readers the story of how you struggled with an eating disorder?
My eating disorder began when I was 19 years old. I was dating an older guy who was obsessed with eating healthy and counting calories. His diet and weight consciousness infected me, and I began counting my calories. The combination of questionable self-esteem, desire for control, and need to excel at something created the conditions for a perfect storm. It was a sustained tailspin from there. The less I ate, the less I challenged myself to eat. I spent hours on the elliptical machine at the gym burning off the 450 calories I ate each day. The weight melted off me, yet I didn’t feel smaller. I felt huge like I was taking up too much room. I was self-conscious of my stomach and compared the curve of my stomach to every stomach I saw. I carried my pocket-sized calorie-counting notebook with me everywhere. Every time I felt anxious, I pulled out my notebook and count my calories again and again and again. My focus on counting calories quickly became compulsive and obsessive.
After many months of this behavior and a dangerous amount of weight loss, I entered outpatient therapy. Seeing my therapist once a week, I was quickly diagnosed with anorexia nervosa. It was a painful struggle for me to accept this diagnosis. Unfortunately, outpatient treatment did little to improve my condition. I was forced by my therapist and my parents to enter partial hospitalization treatment. Partial hospitalization is when you spend the daytime in the hospital in group treatment and go home during the night. I was prescribed a set number of calories to eat each day with the hope I would gain weight and begin to improve. After several months of partial hospitalization, my weight dropped to a dangerous low. My parents and my treatment team pushed to get me accepted into a research program at New York-Presbyterian Hospital in NYC. I spent 3 months as an inpatient in the hospital there. That was an experience I’ll never forget. Have you seen the movie, “Girl Interrupted”? It was just like that. Living for 3 months with other eating disorder patients and patients with mental illness and drug abuse was heartbreaking. I fought the process from day one. I had a really hard time accepting that I was locked in a psychiatric ward for the foreseeable future.
What was the final straw that made you decide that you were going to do all you can to get better?
Since I was in the hospital as part of a research program, the premise was that I was in for treatment until I got better; however long it took. My treatment team decided I needed to gain 30 pounds before I could be safely discharged. The process of gaining weight was excruciating, both physically and emotionally. We were weighed first thing every morning. The number on the scale determined what our day would look like; whether or not we were allowed to go outside, what our meal plan would be for the day, how many therapy sessions we would have, what privileges we were allowed. Once I started gaining weight, I knew that if I didn’t continue, or if I lost weight again, I would wind up right back where I was, and I was afraid of enduring that pain again.
And how are things going for you today?
After 15 years I feel the best I ever have, physically and mentally. I exercise regularly and eat healthily but still enjoy dessert every night. I will not say that the eating disorder is gone entirely. I know it’s always there, lurking, waiting for me to slip up. Sometimes it tells me I need to exercise every single day. Other times it tells me not to eat certain foods. I know my triggers and I’m not afraid to walk away from a conversation or an event that might trigger me.
Based on your own experience are you able to share 5 things with our readers about how to support a loved one who is struggling with an eating disorder? If you can, can you share an example from your own experience?
1. Do not discuss your own eating habits or exercise habits with a loved one who is struggling with an eating disorder. I still don’t want to hear about these things from people. I compare my exercise and eating habits with those of others so it’s best for me to avoid these kinds of conversations.
2. Do not say things like, “I ate too much” or “I feel/look fat” to the person. My mom used to say these things all the time not knowing how triggering they were for me. I would think if she thinks she looks fat, what does she think about me? And if she thinks she ate too much and I ate more than her, she must think I eat too much.
3. Encourage them to get professional help. Pressure them if you have to. My parents gave me no choice but to get help. They made the appointments and brought me to the appointments. I would not have sought help without them. It’s extremely hard to fight an eating disorder without constant professional help. An eating disorder is all-encompassing. It takes over your mind, body, soul. It feels like a monster inside you. Imagine fighting off a monster alone.
4. Be patient during mealtimes. Sometimes I would sit in front of a plate of food crying for hours, trying to get up the courage to eat what was on my plate. When you’re in the depths of an eating disorder, eating becomes scary. Do not belittle your loved one or tell them they’re overreacting. Just sit with them and be patient, emphatic, and understanding.
5. Let your loved one know how scared you are to lose them. It was the sadness and fear in my parent’s eyes that kept me pursuing recovery.
Is there a message you would like to tell someone who may be reading this, who is currently struggling with an eating disorder?
You can’t live like this forever. Recovery is possible and life is so much better on the other side. I know how scary it is. The eating disorder has such a grip on you that you can’t imagine life without it. You can have a full life again. You can enjoy food again. You can enjoy exercise again. It seems so improbable for you right now, I know. I was there. For a long time. I remember it like it was yesterday. I’ll never forget exactly how you’re feeling right now. People said the same things to me that I’m saying to you and I didn’t believe them. The thing is you don’t want to live like this forever and you can’t. Stop comparing yourself to others. You can get better. You deserve to get better. You need help to get better. Let someone help you.
According to this study cited by the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, at least 30 million people in the U.S. of all ages and genders suffer from an eating disorder. Can you suggest 3–5 reasons why this has become such a critical issue recently?
1. I believe social media culture exacerbates eating disorders. There are so many people posting images of their bodies that it’s easy to see that and compare what you look like and feel like a glossy image on the screen. I avoid following people on social media because I know it will trigger me. Our culture of youth and beauty being of utmost importance is a problem.
2. The world feels out of control right now. Control has a lot to do with eating disorders. For me personally, when my life feels out of control, I can feel the eating disorder sneak up on me. One of the few things in life I can 100% control is what I put into my mouth. I think that’s why when the world feels out of control, eating disorders can flare-up.
3. Body shaming and cyberbullying. Especially for younger kids, cyberbullying is a huge issue. People feel like they can say whatever they want behind the comfort of their computer screens.
Based on your insight, what concrete steps can a) individuals, b) corporations, c) communities and d) leaders do to address the core issues that are leading to this problem?
a) Individuals can stop body shaming themselves and others. Stop using body weight and dieting as a topic of conversation.
b) Corporations can stop promoting a culture of youth and beauty as elements of success. Instead uphold values of intellect, humor, kindness, and acceptance.
c) Communities can offer support groups. An eating disorder is a very secretive illness. Having safe spaces to “come out” and discuss your eating disorder is an important first step to recovery.
d) Leaders can become educated on the issues of eating disorders and the signs a person is struggling with one. The more we can remove the secrecy from eating disorders and the discomfort that blankets these conversations, the harder it is for eating disorders to thrive.
As you know, one of the challenges of an eating disorder is the harmful, and dismissive sentiment of “why can’t you just control yourself”. What do you think needs to be done to make it apparent that an eating disorder is an illness just like heart disease or schizophrenia?
There needs to be more educating of the public on not just the most common eating disorders, but all eating disorders. More explanations of the science and psychology of how the brain works and why eating disorders are serious illnesses just like heart disease, diabetes, or cancer. We need to spend more time removing the secrecy surrounding eating disorders. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness — hence why aren’t more people aware of this?
What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that have helped you with your struggle? Can you explain why you like them?
The book, Life Without Ed by Jenni Schaefer was a godsend to me when I was in the depths of my illness. Jenni’s writing gave voice to my eating disorder and helped to show me that I was not my eating disorder, rather the eating disorder was an illness inside me. To this day, because of Jenni’s book, I think of my eating disorder as a separate entity with a voice inside me that sometimes screams, other times whispers, and at the best of times is not even around.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“But all the magic I have known I’ve had to make myself.” — Where The Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein
This quote has been a reminder to not sit around and wait for good things and things I desire to come my way. I always have the tools and ability inside of me to make magic happen; and that is why it is time to take action.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I recently launched my new speaking and coaching business to help entrepreneurs and leaders discover their power in working alone. Loneliness has become a huge epidemic. I’ve learned over the years how to harness that loneliness into creativity, hardiness, resourcefulness, and success and I’m excited and honored to help others do the same.
I also recently launched my new passion project called, Heather & Donald which uses my hand-drawn artwork to raise money for animal rescues.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the largest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I would share the joy and inspiration of animals and nature with everyone by encouraging people to work and play outside and commune with different species. We can learn so much about ourselves and our planet when we value the happiness of life through the eyes of nature.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!