Mental health

Why are numbers unhelpful when talking about eating disorders?

I was recently interviewed on BBC Radio Berkshire, I was incredibly grateful for the opportunity to raise awareness of eating disorders and the importance of early diagnosis and treatment. However, as part of telling my story, I was asked how much weight I had lost. In no way do I want to attack the presenter, I’m actually grateful that he’s raised an important issue that’s not really spoken about except within the recovery community.

Talking about numbers is a key factor that’s different between pro-Ana/Mia websites and the recovery community. If you come across a forum claiming to support people with their eating disorders, and people have l.w., h.w. or g.w. etc in their signature, alarm bells should ring. (Lowest weight, highest weight and goal weight)

tape measure on bathroom scales

Just imagine, you have an illness that tells you “you’re too fat/heavy”; you need medical treatment but you don’t think you deserve it, you don’t think you’re ill enough.

You look online for some support and you see people who are aiming for lower weights and not seeking treatment. What are you going to think? Your illness tells you, you need to lose more weight!

My weight, when ill, was low enough to fit the diagnostic criteria for diagnosis, therefore, what would me sharing the specifics of my weight/weight loss add to my story? If it was a shocking amount, would my story have more gravity? Would people be more likely to listen? If it wasn’t a shocking amount, would people question my story? Would people think I hadn’t really been ill? Weight loss was just one symptom of my illness. People with other (just as dangerous) eating disorders may be a healthy weight.

In my interview I wanted to share that important early diagnosis and treatment are vital, delaying treatment means delaying recovery, however, I also wanted to offer hope, if you’ve been ill for a long time, recovery is possible. My message would have lost its profundity if people were distracted by the numbers.

Being embroiled in an eating disorder, for some people, is all about numbers:

  • Weight
  • Weight loss/gain
  • Calories consumed
  • Calories expended
  • Weight of food
  • Nutritional breakdown
  • Number of steps
  • Waist/thigh/arm etc measurements

The list is endless!

When I was ill, if it was possible to count it, my brain seems to do it whether I wanted it to or not! When I was recovering, one of the last things I stopped doing was having to cut my food into a specific number of pieces. Even now, I sometimes fall into the habit of counting, just because those neural pathways are well worn and it takes more effort not to follow familiar patterns.

female looking in the mirror

I knew people with eating disorders would be listening to the radio, I did not want to trigger people into thinking about numbers, nor did I want to feed into people’s beliefs that to have an eating disorder you should be a certain weight or have lost a certain amount.

If you’re supporting someone recovering from an eating disorder, it’s helpful to avoid number talk, it’s triggering and unnecessary. Of course, some number talk will be necessary between dietitian/psychiatrist etc and patient, and a diet plan may involve some numbers but keeping it to a minimum is important.

Supportive forums will have a ban on numbers being mentioned. They’re not important, discussing how you feel or what you think is far more beneficial. A vital part of recovery is turning your back on the numbers, it is possible to be free from the grip of numbers.


24/10/2018 at 07:50

Thought provoking Blog and I love the sentiment in the final illustration… so true.

10/11/2018 at 14:35

Thank you for addressing this. This is a topic I have strong opinions on, and I wish more people took these things into consideration. I recently read a great piece on the NEDA website about “sharing your story responsibly.” They also have guidelines for press and educators, and I wish the press would do a little more research before conducting interviews. I’m glad you stood your ground and used this as an opportunity to educate others.

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