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Lenexa man’s exercise obsession underscores eating disorders’ gender neutrality

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Above image credit: Jon Smith

At one point when he was in college at Kansas State University, Jon Smith would jog as many as 20 miles a day.

“If I wasn’t in the library and not in class,” he said, “I was running.”

But Smith was far from healthy.

His over-the-top regimen was a manifestation of an eating disorder known as purge-type anorexia, hints of which first surfaced when weight gain from migraine medication made Smith a pudgy fifth-grader. His training obsession began two years later during preparations for the Junior Olympics.

Born and raised in Lenexa, the 23-year-old lives in his hometown and works as a data entry supervisor at an Overland Park, Kan., company that processes employee drug screenings for the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Smith graduated from Saint Thomas Aquinas High School in Overland Park in 2009 and earned a psychology degree from Kansas State University with a minor in English literature. He is now applying to medical school, thinking of pursuing a specialty in which he can use his unique insights to help eating disorder patients.

Males suffer too

Smith’s experience demonstrates that eating disorders are not just an issue for women.

Some researchers suggest that men make up a third of the 30 million Americans who battle clinically significant eating disorders. The National Association for Males with Eating Disorders, citing other research, said males make up anywhere from 25 percent to 40 percent of those suffering from eating disorders.

The association also said that media objectification of men is just as rampant as it is for women and that males in treatment for eating disorders are more likely than women to exhibit co-occurring conditions such as excessive exercise.

Researchers suspect eating disorders might be under-reported among males who fear the stigma of suffering from a “women’s problem,” a view that contributed to Smith’s embarrassment about his struggles.

“I did not think guys got eating disorders,” he said.

Limited diet

Even so, by the time he was running fanatically at K-State, his diet consisted mostly of carrots, broccoli and kale.

In the fall of his senior year, he coughed up blood on one of his runs. The doctor diagnosed it as a pinhole in his lung and directed him not to run for two weeks, an order Smith followed for two days.

Eventually, he started to worry that he couldn’t concentrate in class and that his running compulsion was overriding his school work. By then, he was down to around 100 pounds and ready to seek inpatient treatment for the second time. An earlier attempt in high school had not worked.

Around Thanksgiving of 2012, he started what became a three-month stay at the Eating Recovery Center in Denver. He earned his degree from K-State in December.

Helping him recover, Smith said, has been the recognition of what he missed because of his disorder, not least some amazing food served up during a study-abroad semester in Rome, and how much it might hamper his dreams for the future.

In place of a fanatical running schedule, Smith now walks during his lunch hour or plays with his nieces and nephews.

“I try to stay as active as I can,” he said.

From Kansas City-Area Supporters Strive To Reopen Inpatient Clinic

Major Funding for Health coverage on KCPT provided by Assurant Employee Benefits and the Health Care Foundation of Greater Kansas City.

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