(TW Eating Disorders)
As you may know if you’ve read my blog, I suffer from an eating disorder (ED). I’ve never had formal psychiatric intervention to help me deal with it, and every day I find another aspect of my life that my eating disorder affects. Since this week is National Eating Disorder Awareness week, my Registered Dietitian Kelsey wanted to work with me on a piece about eating disorders and how they affect people. Kelsey is going to come in here with the facts and research that are important for the understanding of EDs, and I’ll be here providing real-life experience.
I started working with Kelsey in Fall 2019 and was so excited to improve my relationships both with my body and with food. Kelsey works with individuals on understanding their body’s hunger cues and allowing our bodies to decide what they need. Intuitive eating preaches listening to your body’s signals and eating whatever/however much you feel you need. It involves removing the morality around food and stopping the practice of thinking of foods as “good” or “bad.” As someone who has always struggled with restricting “bad” foods and tried to justify insane calorie deficits, working with Kelsey has been life-changing.
How are diets and Eating Disorders related?
What’s interesting about this question is that we don’t know a world without diet culture. From the moment we begin to understand the world around us, we are made aware of the idea that society feels that we all need to look a certain way. As with any other culture, the messaging can be subtle. Even just hearing some positive verbiage around some foods and negative verbiage around others insinuates that there is a morality around food. I can’t even imagine a world where certain standards of beauty and fitness aren’t shoved down our throats. Diet culture tricks us into thinking that all of our problems are weight-related and that they will all be solved if we have the “ideal body.” There are so many products marketed to us constantly about being thin BUT ALSO having curves BUT ALSO having no cellulite BUT ALSO…
Since I can’t imagine a world without diet culture, I don’t know how much EDs and diet culture are truly related, but there’s no way that they’re unrelated! With diet culture forcing the narrative that all bodies must look the same and bombarding us with so many different ways to neglect our bodies, it’s impossible not to internalize that message. Especially with social media making diet culture more pervasive than ever, the message that we should be doing anything possible to look a certain way is literally everywhere. I’d imagine that EDs would be less prevalent without this damaging narrative constantly surrounding us, but who knows? We have never been not surrounded by diet culture.
I don’t think it is a coincidence that, as we’ve seen a spike in dieting behaviors, we have also seen a spike in the rates of EDs. The act of dieting, whether it be something like Whole30, intermittent fasting, calorie cutting, no sugar/gluten, etc., is an act of ignoring your bodily cues. Every time we ignore our body cues and instead listen to diet rules, we are creating mistrust in the body. This mistrust and disconnection can be the beginnings of a disordered relationship with food. Feelings of sadness, anxiety, embarrassment, and anger can all become a cue to binge or restrict food. Dieting can be a very slippery slope, especially for younger folks, to developing an ED.
How can a friend/family member help someone with an Eating Disorder?
I want to first review what not to do. It is unhelpful to tell someone with an eating disorder to “just eat a hamburger”. Actually, it is best if you really refrain from making any judgmental comments about what ANYONE should or should not eat. Usually, an eating disorder stems from other stressors going on in your loved one’s life. I think it can be helpful to just let them know you are thinking of them, offer to be someone that they can talk to, and remind them how much they mean to you. Jumping into a conversation with something like, “I think you have an ED”, is likely not going to end well.
If you are worried a loved one could have an ED, be sure to discuss it with them in private. Encourage them to seek professional treatment as soon as possible. If you live with the person, make sure you are both involved in the meal planning, shopping, preparation, and eating. Be sure not to make any comments about weight, portions, diets, etc. Honestly, just being there for someone with an ED is HUGE!
This is tough because comments about weight and food are so common in our society, that most people don’t think of what they’re telling others as wrong. The smallest comments about food can be damaging for anyone, but especially for someone suffering from an ED. The more comments that I get about how much weight I’ve gained or even how much weight I’ve lost can make me feel the need to start starving myself to either lose more weight or maintain weight that I’ve lost. It’s the same with comments about food as well. I’ve had people’s comments about how certain foods are “bad” and how “bad” they are rattle around in my head for days and come up each time I go to eat those foods. Commenting on bodies and applying morals to food is damaging. While it may be a tough habit to break, it would definitely help those with EDs in your life — and hopefully you too!
It’s also important to have patience with those who have an eating disorder. While making a decision on what to eat and then eating it may be easy for you, it can be agonizing for someone with an eating disorder. Decision-making around food can be impossible…do I restrict and only eat “good” foods? Do I allow myself to eat “bad” foods? What if I binge eat? My brain and my body are almost always at war. Then, when I finally do sit down to eat a meal, I may find myself unable to actually eat it. Multiple times I have broken down into tears at the thought of eating, even if I knew that I needed to eat something. This can be hard to understand for someone who does not suffer from an eating disorder, but the best thing to do is to be patient and understanding. Encourage them to listen to their body and what their body needs. Listen to their concerns and don’t make them feel worse.
Listening is actually always the best thing that you can do for someone with an ED. If you suggest the latest fad diet to someone with an ED and they explain that their eating disorder will not allow them to safely participate, listen to them. They know how their bodies and minds work, and they know what is healthy and dangerous for them. Those of us who have EDs are much more likely to revert to dangerous tendencies if we participate in dieting. Everyone’s body is different and has different needs. When someone lets you know how their body functions or what their body needs, do not try to correct them or tell them they are incorrect about their own body. They know their body better than you do.
For me, one of the pillars of healing myself involves honoring my body and what it needs. My most recent goal with my body is to say no to foods that I don’t want to eat. If anyone expresses a particular need for their body or insists that they don’t want something, just listen and respect that. No one should be guilted into eating.
What should people know about Eating Disorders?
Eating Disorders are unfortunately much more common than people realize. They can occur in any gender and in any body type, they are not exclusive to thin white women. An ED will typically reveal itself during early teenage years. The pressures of trying to fit in and look like society’s mold of beauty can lead to a dangerous relationship with food and exercise. However, Eating Disorders or disordered eating can occur throughout one’s life.
There are different types of EDs, with the main three being: anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder. EDs are considered physiological illnesses and have different criteria for being diagnosed. Anorexia nervosa is described as an extreme body image distortion, an obsessive fear of gaining weight, which leads to restriction of food and sometimes an unhealthy level of physical activity. Bulemia nervosa is characterized by eating large amounts of food, usually very quickly, followed by self induced acts of purging such as vomiting, fasting, laxative use, or over-exercise. Binge eating disorder is similar to bulemia nervosa, wherein large amounts of food are eaten with intense feelings of guilt and shame, but without the secondary act of purging. EDs have a way of morphing, and they do not always perfectly fit the diagnosis definitions.
It is important to note that EDs can occur in any body type. Far too often, people will consider themselves to be “not sick enough (i.e. not thin enough) to seek treatment. EDs are life threatening, and anyone experiencing the symptoms should seek help immediately.
My eating disorder affects every aspect of my life. Yes, it is very prevalent when clothes shopping or eating, but it is also in the back of my mind constantly. If I accidentally skip a meal, I feel a thrill of pride. If I go to an activity like an escape room where I cannot eat for a certain amount of time, I feel relieved that I won’t be able to put food in my body and possibly gain weight. I never take a full breath during the day because I’m uncomfortable feeling my stomach press against my pants. It’s impossible to make someone fully understand what an eating disorder encompasses because it simply encompasses everything.
This post is continued over on Kelsey’s blog. Be sure to pop over there to keep reading! Also, here’s a reminder that reading blogs like this is a great step, but it is not a substitute for individual psychiatric and medical intervention. If you or someone you know is suffering from an eating disorder, seeking professional help is the best way to approach tackling it. I hope you found this post informative, and maybe it even made you feel like you can speak up about your eating disorder. There’s no shame or weakness in asking for help!
Photography by my talented fiancé. You can find him on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/hope_grows_here/