Rizwan S Overcoming a Destructive Diet

“It was reassuring to talk with people who experienced the same problems"

In 2018, shortly after arriving from India to pursue a master’s degree in mechanical and aerospace engineering at Rutgers University, Rizwan Syed began to experience acid reflux, in which stomach contents back up into the esophagus, causing heartburn. Prescription medicine provided some relief, but Rizwan, 25, of Piscataway, wanted to see if dietary changes could help, too. He researched the condition online and decided to dramatically alter his diet, cutting out pizza, chocolate, and other favorite foods.

Soon Rizwan became obsessed with his diet, worrying that eating the wrong foods would leave him feeling bloated and uncomfortable. He subsisted primarily on modest servings of vegetables. “I was depriving my body of essential nutrients,” says Rizwan.

He reached a crisis point in the spring of 2020 when his weight was dangerously low. His brother and roommate, Syed Shoaib, convinced him to seek help. Rizwan was referred to the Eating Disorders Program at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital (RWJUH) Somerset, one of just two facilities in the state to offer inpatient treatment for eating disorders, including anorexia and bulimia.

A Dangerous Disorder for Men

Eating disorders are often thought to afflict teenage girls, but men and women of all ages can develop a dysfunctional relationship with food. They develop eating disorders for similar reasons, says Kathleen Haughey-Eannone, MSN, RN-BC, director of the Eating Disorders Program. “Most are driven by an underlying condition, such as anxiety, depression, or even alcohol abuse,” she says.

Certain triggers can cause them to drastically limit their food intake in the hopes of losing weight, says Haughey-Eannone. For some young men, wanting to stay lean to play a sport, such as wrestling, can be a trigger. Another trigger: images on TV or the internet.

“When patients are bombarded by unrealistic images of what society feels they should look like, it reinforces the negative images they have of themselves,” says Haughey-Eannone.

Men with eating disorders are more likely than women to delay seeking treatment, says Haughey-Eannone. “Men feel the stigma associated with eating disorders more than women do,” she says.

As a result, they’re often in great danger by the time they get help. That was true of Rizwan when he arrived at RWJUH Somerset in early June.

“He was very ill,” says Haughey-Eannone.

In particular, he was at risk for cardiac arrhythmia, a potentially fatal condition that occurs due to an imbalance of essential minerals (such as calcium, potassium, and sodium) caused by extreme food deprivation.

Multidisciplinary Treatment

Rizwan became an inpatient in the program’s 14-bed unit. Patients receive psychological counseling in individual sessions and participate in group therapy. The focus of therapy, says Haughey-Eannone, “is to help patients become mindful of what caused their eating disorder and the behaviors that keep it going.”

Patients with underlying psychiatric conditions are cared for by Tamer Wassef, MD, Medical Director of Behavioral Health Services, and may receive medication. Importantly, each patient works closely with a registered dietitian, who helps him or her select meals that are nutritionally balanced and slowly increase calorie intake over time, with the goal of adding a few pounds a week. Occupational, music, and art therapy are offered, too.

Working with social worker Talia Becker, LCSW, and dietitian Eliza Heberlein, RD, Rizwan gradually overcame his fear of eating normal amounts of food and began to put on weight. Group sessions were key, too. “It was reassuring to talk with people who experienced the same problems,” he says.

In early August, Rizwan was discharged from the inpatient unit and entered the partial hospitalization program, in which patients live at home but continue receiving treatment—as well as lunch and two snacks—at the hospital five days a week, from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. After six weeks, Rizwan transitioned to the intensive outpatient program, which provides treatment three days a week.

Rizwan completed outpatient care in September and has reached his goal weight. He continues seeing a therapist. Last fall, he received a master’s degree—what he calls his “biggest dream in life.” Now he can turn his attention to his career goal, which is t design electronic products that have minimal impact on the environment.

For more information about our Eating Disorders Program, call (800) 300-0628