I have been struggling with an eating disorder for the past few years. I am afraid to eat and afraid I will gain weight. The fear is unjustified as I was never overweight. I have weighed the same since I was 12 years old, and I am currently nearing my 25th birthday. Yet, when I see my reflection, I see somebody who is much larger than reality.
I told my therapist that I thought I was fat. She said it was 'body dysmorphia'.
She explained this as a mental health condition where a person is apprehensive about their appearance and suggested I visit a nutritionist. She also told me that this condition was associated with other anxiety disorders and eating disorders. I did not understand what she was saying as I was in denial; I had a problem, to begin with. I wanted a solution without having to address my issues.
Upon visiting my nutritionist, he conducted an in-body scan and told me my body weight was dangerously low.
I disagreed with him.
I felt he was speaking about a different person than the person I saw in the mirror. I felt like the elephant in the room- both literally and figuratively. He then made the simple but revolutionary suggestion to keep a food diary to track what I was eating.
This was a clever way for my nutritionist and me to be on the same page. By recording all my meals, drinks, and snacks, I was able to see what I was eating versus what I was supposed to be eating. Keeping a meal diary was a powerful and non-invasive way for my nutritionist to walk in my shoes for a specific time and understand my eating (and thinking) habits.
No other methodology would have allowed my nutritionist to capture so much contextual and behavioural information on my eating patterns other than a daily detailed food diary.
However, by using a paper and pen, I often forgot (or intentionally did not enter my food entries) as I felt guilty reading what I had eaten or that I had eaten at all.
I also did not have the visual flexibility to express myself through using photos, videos, voice recordings, and screen recordings. The usage of multiple media sources would have allowed my nutritionist to observe my behaviour in real-time and gain a holistic view of my physical and emotional needs.
I confessed to my therapist my deliberate dishonesty in completing the physical food diary and why I had been reluctant to participate in the exercise. My therapist then suggested to my nutritionist and me to transition to a mobile diary study.
Whilst I used a physical diary (paper and pen), a mobile diary study app would have helped my nutritionist and me reach a common ground (and to be on the same page) sooner rather than later.
As a millennial, I wanted to feel like journaling was as easy as Tweeting or posting a picture on Instagram. But at the same time, I wanted to know that the information I provided in a digital diary would be as safe and private as it would have been as my handwritten diary locked in my bedroom cabinet.
Further, a digital food diary study platform with push notifications would have served as a constant reminder to log in my food entries as I constantly check my phone. It would have also made the task of writing a food diary less momentous by transforming my journaling into micro-journaling by allowing me to enter one bite at a time rather than the whole day's worth of meals at once.
Mainly, the digital food diary could help collect the evidence that I was not the elephant in the room, but rather that the elephant in the room was my denied eating disorder.
The elephant in the room
Being born and raised as a refugee, life was full of challenges and obstacles. After spending a decade in Pakistan, I came back to Afghanistan and started Dentistry school but it did not take too much that I got interested in Global Health.
“Be the kind of person who dares to face life's challenges and overcome them rather than dodging them.”
― Roy T. Bennett
For some reason, dentistry was not an ideal profession for me and day by day I was getting more interested in Global health. I knew that to start a career in global health I need to have a good background. Keeping this in mind, I explored ways to upgrade my skill sets and set my global health foundation.
It has been 2 years since I decided to start publishing in research journals. Some of my co-authored articles have been published in the world's top journals like Nature, The Lancet and Journal of Global Health.
If a 23 year old undergraduate student can do it, I am convinced you can too. In this blog post I want to share how I did it and what I have learned.
Daily reading can help you a lot to enhance your background knowledge. In the span of one year, I was able to read thousands of articles about health and technology. These articles helped me to talk, discuss, and share ideas about health and technology openly and publicly.
To be able to become a good researcher, you need to read a lot! Remember, I did not read all the articles in one night. It was not an overnight success. So, tip number one: read, read and read!
To achieve that I made a schedule and committed to reading articles. My main sources were articles from the World Economic Forum, Harvard University, and Futurism. Keep in mind to read from valid resources. Again, consistency in reading is the key to success!
Finding your peers will help you to reach your goals in a short time. Back then, when I started to engage in research, I did not know what to do. All I could do was find people with similar interests and passions. Luckily, I found a few people who were at the same level as I was.
As a result, we learned a lot from each other, and up until this day, we are continuously working. For instance, I started with a friend of mine, and until now, we have published more than 30 papers together. So, tip number two: find your peers and synergize! You cannot endure alone in this journey.
Networking and mentorship, I cannot emphasize much on these!
From the early days, I was interested in talking with high-profile researchers and seeking mentorship from them. Indeed, I read so many books on networking including the famous one by Keith Ferrazzi “Never eat alone.”
Networking has helped me talk with some of the great people in the field of research, and I even got the chance to co-author papers with those people.
My advice is to follow and engage professionals with tremendous experience in your respective field and find a way of talking to them and seeking their mentorship. What has worked for me has been reaching out via Linkedin, Twitter, and Facebook. The messages I sent to professors were long, full of enthusiastic tone, and relevant to my field of interest.
High-profile researchers have gone through various trajectories in life and will be a glimmer of hope. Without a doubt, at first, you will receive many rejections because people will not respond quickly but slowly everything will work out in the end. Remember, when you plan to message , display utmost humility.
Networking and seeking mentorship are time-consuming skills you have to adopt! It was not easy for me to establish networking with professors from the UK, US, Australia, and other countries.
Up until now, I have sought the mentorship of five professors in the field of research. Their diversity and skills have massively enriched me. So, tip number three: continue following high-profile people in your field and seek mentorship from them.
Start from a very tiny place! So often, we jump towards big things without realizing that every step requires effort and practice.
When I was at the beginning of the research, I was doing small things like writing blogs, writing commentaries, letters. That helped me to learn the basics of research and publication. There are ethics in publication and research that every junior researcher has to learn.
Moreover, take a learning stance when it comes to research because this is a very vast field and most of the time it does not sound very clear if you do not seek help and consult from seniors. So, tip number four: always start from a small place and as you proceed, gradually add more challenges to yourself, so you continuously learn.
Remain consistent in your path! The journey of research and publication is filled with ups and downs. There are moments you feel super excited about your achievements, and then there are moments you feel miserable because of your failures.
Embrace both of them! Back in 2020, when I published my first paper, I was ecstatic and felt as if I had achieved a huge goal. I continued to publish two more papers subsequently. I thought this was the finest period of my time. However, after a month or so, I was out of publication and it continued for almost two months. During this time, I was miserable and did not know what to do.
Nevertheless, I trust myself and the journey. This was a perfect time for me to reflect and devise new plans. As the year 2020 was getting closer to the end, I only had five publications. The start of 2021 was full of abundance and blessings. I got to know more amazing people and realized the importance of working with teams. Until now, I have published more than forty publications. It all goes back to consistency in work. So, tip number five: consistency. Remember, you will fail a lot, and you will achieve a lot but remain consistent in your path.
West African Lead, ALMA Youth Advisory Council/Zero Malaria Champion
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Dear Digital Diary,
I realized that there is an unquestionable comfort in being misunderstood. For to be understood, one must peel off all the emotional layers and be exposed.
This requires both vulnerability and strength. I guess by using a physical diary (a paper and a pen), I never felt like what I was saying was analyzed or judged. But I also never thought I was understood.
Paper does not talk back.Using a daily digital diary has required emotional strength. It has required the need to trust and the need to provide information to be helped and understood.
Using a daily diary has needed less time and effort than a physical diary as I am prompted to interact through mobile notifications. I also no longer relay information from memory, but rather the medical or personal insights I enter are real-time behaviours and experiences.
The interaction is more organic. I also must confess this technology has allowed me to see patterns in my behaviour that I would have otherwise never noticed. I trust that the data I enter is safe as it is password protected. I also trust that I am safe because my doctor and nutritionist can view my records in real-time.
Also, with the data entered being more objective and diverse through pictures and voice recordings, my treatment plan has been better suited to my needs.
No more elephants in this room