Linda Craighead, Eating Disorders and Weight Concerns

 


Looking good is important. But Linda Craighead also believes in the old adage: what matters most is on the inside. A clinical research scientist and psychologist, Craighead wants to better understand and treat eating disorders and weight concerns. She promotes a healthy body image, encourages good eating habits, and wants to make the "thin ideal" a thing of the past. Ask her, and she will tell you that thinking about how you look is normal—but it can become a problem when you spend too much time thinking about it, to the detriment of your health or social life. Looking good has its place...and it's not at the front of the line.

Craighead received her B.A. at Vanderbilt University, and her M.S. and Ph.D. from The Pennsylvania State University. As an undergraduate, her interest in health developed out of work on an honors thesis with an advisor who was a weight loss researcher. Prior to accepting her current position at Emory in 2006, Craighead held faculty positions at Penn State; the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; and the University of Colorado, where she also served as Director of Clinical Training. At Emory, her primary appointment is in the Department of Psychology, where she is now Director of the Clinical Program. She is also a staff member at the Emory Student Counseling Center, where she develops programs to address eating concerns on campus. Additionally, Craighead holds a joint appointment in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences that allows her to collaborate with colleagues on clinical research.

In her research and her work with students, Craighead maintains that "over-endorsement of the importance of being thin is the root cause of most eating disorders and weight problems." Individuals, she says, internalize the "thin ideal." They can develop an unrealistic idea of how they should look; and they most certainly exaggerate the ability of weight, in particular, to make them happy. Paradoxically, an overinvestment in weight usually undermines a person's efforts to manage his or her weight and to develop the satisfying personal relationships that would make them truly happy.

Several effective treatments for eating disorders are available, and Craighead has done her part to improve these treatments. From her clinical work with binge eating and bulimia, she developed a specific approach to eating in The Appetite Awareness Workbook: How to listen to your body and overcome bingeing, overeating, & obsession with food (2006). This approach, which can be used independently or with the help of a therapist, encourages people to use "appetite awareness," not "diets," as their guide to making decisions about eating; and sets out a six- to eight-week, step-by-step plan to learn exactly how to do it. Craighead's approach shifts a person's typical, external focus on the food he or she eats to an internal focus on the way he or she feels, physically and emotionally, during and after eating. Craighead has trained many therapists, counselors and dieticians to use this approach in weight loss programs, and as part of psychotherapy for eating disorders. For Craighead, publishing The Appetite Awareness Workbook meant achieving an important life goal: to combat eating disorders by reaching and helping as many individuals as possible.

Even better, however, is preventing problems from developing in the first place. Currently, Craighead is collaborating with the Emory Student Counseling Center and sororities across campus to implement a program to promote healthy body image. Already up and running on several other campuses around the country, the program encourages women to challenge the thin ideal through conversations about personal experiences, role-playing, and discussions about positive body image. Beginning in Spring 2008, sorority volunteers will be trained as intervention workshop leaders. These peer leaders will then run workshops for other sorority members, and potentially for other interested groups. Using peer leaders is important, as the goal of this project is to promote a shift in attitudes throughout campus, which depends on students taking the lead and influencing their peers. Once trained, these leaders will be able to help fellow students talk about eating disorders and weight concerns, and facilitate referrals when necessary.

In addition to her work with the sororities and her efforts to ensure the availability of individual and group therapy for eating disorders at the Counseling Center, Craighead has established a less intensive program that provides guided self-help for individuals who are not comfortable with their eating habits, believe that they overeat or feel overly preoccupied with food, or just want to learn how to manage their daily diet in a healthier way. Guided self-help can involve therapy, but it does not have to. Rather, it helps individuals stay on track by providing them with a game plan for how to eat.

Intent on getting out the word, Craighead will continue to work on campus projects aimed at preventing and treating weight concerns and "disordered eating." She is equally invested in her research and her work as a therapist, as well as the training she provides for future therapists. She also has plans to create a program to encourage healthy body image and eating among high school girls. She knows that high school students care about how they look, and she won't try to persuade them that appearance doesn't matter. But she does intend to help them keep it in perspective. Who you are is more than just how you look.