Tag Archives: binge eating

How a global pandemic can trigger an eating disorder

Everyone is managing a changing world! It’s Mental Health Awareness Week and I’m writing this blog to give insight into the world of eating disorders, not to say “my struggle is worse than yours” but to say, you never know what someone else is going to through – most people have hidden struggles and it’s not always obvious what’s going to trigger someone’s difficulties. Measures imposed by our governments have been vital to keep us safe but at what cost?

Change in routine

A routine for many people can indicate safety. Most of us find a change in routine difficult but someone with an eating disorder, routine can be the difference between them eating enough/regularly each day or turning to disordered behaviours for comfort.

Encouragement to exercise everyday

When in eating disorder recovery, exercise can be difficult to manage. Many struggle with exercise addiction as a way to manage weight and recovery from this may include not exercising or restricting exercise. The UK government’s lockdown rules allowed 1 trip outside each day for exercise. If one of the few things you’re “allowed” to do each day is exercise, it can feel like you’re being told you “should” exercise everyday and this only adds to the battle already going on inside your head about what your should and shouldn’t be doing. How many adults actually exercise everyday?! Not many, but for someone recovering from an eating disorder, this is a minefield!

Supermarket stress

Recovering from an eating disorder can include a strict diet plan. Panic buying lead to limited stock and then restrictions on items we could buy. While to the average family, these restrictions may have been inconvenient and caused them to use alternatives. This may have caused chaos to someone with an eating disorder. If the food item you need is not available, this could have triggered days without food altogether. While the queues at the supermarket are essential to keep numbers within at safe levels, this could cause extremely high levels of stress for someone who already finds the trip anxiety provoking.

Encouraged obsessive actions

While washing our hands is vital to prevent spread of Covid-19, with the UK government telling us to wash our hands often, this can play into the obsessive compulsive mind of someone struggling with an eating disorder prompting further ritualistic behaviours around food.

The wrong type of “vulnerable”

Those most at risk of dying from Covid-19 have been put on a vulnerable list in order to ensure we can keep them safe from catching the virus. This has meant that some support systems are no longer available for other people who usually use them. For example, people who usually use the online supermarket delivery systems haven’t been able to get slots. Going to a supermarket, for some people recovering from an eating disorder, is simply impossible. What do you do if you can’t get a delivery slot, because they’re reserved for other people?

Lack of therapy or online therapy

Therapy is a vital part of eating disorder recovery. Some agencies have completely shut down due to lack of resources. Some, fortunately have been able to continue online. Some people may prefer this and there are benefits, such as not having to travel. However, at times technical hitches can delay sessions and talking through a computer means some subtle communication is lost. I’m not alone in having a violent dislike of seeing myself on screen and a therapists sensitive use of physical touch is completely lost.

While the social distancing and lockdown measures have been vital to keep everyone safe – the repercussions on those with internal mental struggles, I have no doubt, without additional support, will be extremely long lasting.

Young person looking at their phone

Can a film about eating disorders be made “responsibly”?

Recently, while in conversation about the good, the bad and the ugly of mental health portrayal in film, I said, “although it divided the eating disorder (ED) community, I thought , To The Bone was a good movie”. The person I was speaking to responded saying that they didn’t think it had been made responsibly because it showed eating disordered behaviours. “Fair enough”, I thought, everyone’s entitled to their opinion. Read my thoughts on To The Bone here.

To The Bone character Ellen looking concerned at weighing scales

I’ve been reflecting on this and I’m wondering why ED’s are treated differently to other mental illnesses when it comes to portraying behaviours in the media.

There seems to be a fear that ED behaviours can be caught and that if the media gives hits and tips, a “how to…” develop an ED, maybe there’ll be an epidemic. No one thinks that a portrayal of a psychotic episode with someone experiencing a delusion they can fly will lead to an epidemic of teens jumping out of windows, pretending they have bipolar disorder!

I’ll spell it out, if you show someone doing sit-ups, running, counting calories or carrying out food rituals, you’re not going to give anyone ideas about how to get anorexia. If someone is predisposed to anorexia, they will be able to come up with these weight loss schemes all by themselves!

Board of sliced food

I’m not naive though, I know young people can be influenced by what they see. We are seeing a concerning rise in self harming and we need to consider whether talking openly about these things is making such behaviours seem more acceptable. We’re in a precarious position in trying to raise awareness of all mental illnesses. While we want to normalise discussion of mental illness, it’s important that mental ill health does not become normal!

Of course, there needs to be careful consideration when depicting any illness; there needs to be sensitivity given we’re making other people’s pain into, let’s face it, entertainment.

It is important to recognise these imagines may be triggering for people who are already suffering but there comes a point where it’s your responsibility to decide if you can manage this. The media company can put a warning at the beginning of the content, they can do no more. If someone is in the mood to trigger themselves, there’s plenty of content available.

Of course, care has to be taken when showing particular behaviours to show the reality and not to glamourise it. Anorexia isn’t about getting thin, then getting care and attention. Doing sit ups with a boney spine, you will get painful bruises. I even started to get pressure sores on my buttocks. Also, there’s the everso attractive lanugo – excess hair to keep your body warm. Nothing about eating disorders is pleasant. To The Bone showed the ugly side to eating disorders, the guilt, the shame, the grief, the physical and emotional turmoil, it was not pretty.

Young lady liking sadly at a small slice of bread and glass of water

If someone has a genetic susceptibility and environmental factors lead to them being on the cusp of an eating disorder, they will not need hits and tips. I, for example, had no media input to my eating disorder, I naturally knew how to lose weight, I cut food out of my diet and I moved more. Food rituals develop as a way to reconcile external pressures with internal turmoil – if I absolutely had to eat in front of someone, if I cut my food into factors of 3, it was more manageable (for example).

If I’d watched a film depicting eating disorders accurately when I was struggling as a teen, I think I would have felt less alone and might have felt able to seek help sooner.

We’re relying in mainstream media to bring the unmentionable and the unexplainable into the open. If they don’t show behaviours, if they gloss over them with clever edits and subtle hints, they’re not giving an accurate portrayal and this would be unhelpful and they’d be criticised. It’s never going to be easy and it’s going to divide opinion but at least we’re talking about it!

Stop labelling food!

I hear a lot of conversations from colleagues about whether they’ve been “good”, “bad” or “a little bit naughty”. Despite trying to be good, it seems being “bad” is inevitable! I’m baffled about how to get involved in these conversations, I’m not entirely sure what “good”, “bad” or “naughty” means. Through my eating disorder recovery, I’ve learnt that food is essential for life so how can it be bad to eat?!
I hear things like “well you’ve got to haven’t you?!” referring to “being a bit naughty”. It seems that if you want to have a good time, enjoy the social experience etc, “bad” food is usually consumed.
As regular readers of my blog will be aware, the angle I’m coming at this is having had an eating disorder. In my anorexic world, fewer and fewer foods made the “acceptable” list as more foods were transferred to the “dangerous” “scary” or “never eat” list. I could sometimes move a food from one to the other depending on how I ate it, whether I’d starved myself for long enough or if I knew I was going to be able to get enough exercise in. When things got really bad, there were certain food that made a list I’m ashamed of, that is “easy to purge”.
I’ve written previously about disordered eating and how dangerous that is; I think labelling foods is unhelpful and is down the road to disordered eating, unfortunately, it’s incredibly common.
Even considering some foods as “more healthy” than others is unhelpful. There are diets that are more or less healthy but no individual food is inherently unhealthy. Yes, we all know we’re meant to eat more fruit and veg in your diet than cakes, chocolate and biscuits but it is perfectly healthy to have some chocolate, once in a while (or everyday if that works for you).
One study may show that brown or “whole” foods are “more healthy” than their white counterpart, indigestible fibre helps keep he gut healthy; however, there are numerous bowel conditions that are exacerbated by high residue foods which means “white” foods are more healthy for these people.
One study shows particular foods as able to prevent cancer or some other illness, the next week, the same food will be shown to cause the aforementioned illness. The only conclusion to take from these is there is a no special diet that will cause or prevent any illness.
What’s also unhelpful is people believing their diet is “better” than someone else’s. Who’s to say why someone eats the way they do? Some people need to eat calorie dense foods quickly because that’s what suits their lifestyle. Other people need to eat food that will metabolise more slowly. We all have different body makeups and it’s wrong for anyone to impose their idea of “health” on anyone else. Being vegetarian or vegan is a personal choice that should not be imposed on anyone else (if you want to campaign against the meat/dairy industry that’s fine but don’t attack or reproach individuals).
In our diet culture, when people try to lose weight (to get their BMI to within the healthy range), they (usually) have a list of acceptable foods and unacceptable foods; however, it has been proven that deny yourself foods makes you crave them more (restricting in generally makes you more likely to binge) and feeling guilty about eating just adds to the negative effects! Foods high in saturated fat, high in sugar sugar or foods subjected to a lot of processing may have a negative impact on our health but if you like it, don’t feel guilty about eating it!
Food has also become a way of people feeling morally superior, if you choose “organic”, “free range”, “ethically sourced” or “sustainable”, some people consider themselves a better person than someone who doesn’t or can’t choose those options, for whatever reason. I’m vegetarian for a variety of reasons, I do not consider myself as morally superior, it’s my choice, I do not push my values on anyone else, please don’t push your values onto me.
Don’t get me started on “clean” eating! It’s such a bizarre label, if you want to choose certain foods because they make you feel good, go for it, but as far as I’m concerned if I’ve washed it, it’s clean! Don’t label everyone else’s diets as dirty just because you want to restrict your diet and feel ok about it! This label can be the start of a dangerous spiral into orthorexia.
Having previously categorised foods a “ok”, “scary”, “bad” or “unbearable”, I’m glad those days are behind me. I now see food and decide if I want it based on whether I want it or not – if I’m hungry, I’ll eat foods that will satisfy my hunger. If I’m not hungry but food is available/offered, I make the decision based on whether I like the taste, whether I’ll enjoy eating it and if it’s going to appropriate within the context of other things I’ve eaten. If you’re not hungry it’s not “right” or “wrong” to eat food it just requires thought.
If we label the foods as “good”, “bad”, “naughty”, “healthy”, “unhealthy”, “better” or “worse”, by extension, we label ourselves, this can have a profound impact on our self esteem. Feeling guilty or shameful about eating is not ok, making other people feel guilty about eating because of the choices you want to make is not ok. Let’s just eat the food we want to eat and stop labelling ourselves as “good”, “bad” or “naughty”.