Several months ago, a new acquaintance and I were chatting, and it came up that I'm a dietitian who works with clients with eating disorders. She made a comment along the lines of "Oh, maybe my niece needs an eating disorder to lose weight." It was just a passing comment to her that didn't mean much to her, but I was shocked. Shocked!
I wouldn't wish an eating disorder on anyone.
It's comments like these that are why eating disorder awareness during National Eating Disorder Awareness week - AND all year long - is needed.
Eating disorders are glamorized by society.
If you lose weight, you're complimented - regardless if you lost it by developing healthy habits or by starvation.
The thin model - and increasingly the still-thin but strong fitness model - are shown as the ideal body shape on magazines, movies, and media everywhere. Yet, this size and shape is only natural for a very small percentage of people. Body diversity certainly isn't celebrated, as it should be.
Why does Eating Disorder Awareness Matter?
Eating disorders are complex mental health disorders. Someone can't just "start eating again." It's not a matter of willpower. As the National Eating Disorder Association says "Eating disorders aren't just a phase."
No one wants an eating disorder. Yet, an eating disorder is someone's comfort zone. It's safe to eat "x" amount of calories or to restrict certain foods, and it's terrifying and panic-attack provoking to eat more than that.
In the moment, purging or excessive exercise often seems like the ONLY option after a binge.
Eating disorders don't heal by simply restoring weight to a healthy range or stopping behaviors. It takes time, patience, a lot of courage, and self-discovery. They require an integrated team of professionals like a therapist, dietitian, and medical provider like a physician. In our office, clients often see other practitioners like yoga therapists or bodywork to connect them to their body.
Because yes, eating disorders can be fatal. Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of all mental health disorders. 30 million people - men and women of all ages, shapes, and sizes have eating disorders. Yet research funding is inadequate year after year, especially compared to other mental health disorders.
Besides weight loss, malnutrition comes with serious side effects like hair loss, feeling extreme fatigue all the time, and feeling cold, even in the hottest days of summer.
Our culture supports dieting and weight loss. Dieting is a risk factor for eating disorders. It makes me so sad to hear statistics of kids as young as 10 scared of "being fat" or using crash dieting in adolescence.
Even health care professionals play into the diet mindset by making assumptions about obese patients. It's very common for previously obese patients who lose weight to be complimented for the weight loss. These clients may fall under the radar for an eating disorder diagnosis, yet extreme weight loss leaves them medically compromised. You can be malnourished and nutritionally deprived, regardless of your weight.
What You Can Do
Talk about them. Eating disorders thrive in shame and secrecy. If you've had or have an eating disorder, talk about it. Find the people in your life who will listen, so you feel heard. Brene Brown says:
"“If we share our shame story with the wrong person, they can easily become one more piece of flying debris in an already dangerous storm.”
"“I now see how owning our story and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing that we will ever do.”
Help break the diet mindset in society:
- Find a trusted friend or therapist to have these vulnerable conversations. If you're listening, listen with a compassionate heart.
- Be an advocate for body positivity. Celebrate body diversity. Learn about health at every size.
- Commit to honoring YOUR body. Only you - not any diet guru - knows your body best. Start to listen to your body's inner cues.
- Eat to energize, nourish, and yes - for pleasure. Enjoy food. There's no room for guilt at the table.
- Be a good role model for those in your life, especially kids. Kids are natural intuitive eaters and don't think in terms of calories or carbs. Allow them to cultivate their inner body wisdom.
- Recognize the diet mindset in media. It's okay to unfollow people on social media who are promoting restrictive ways of eating or body negativity.
- Move your body because it feels good rather as a form of weight control or a way to compensate for overeating.
- Get rid of the scale! As my friend Valerie says in our upcoming ebook - Hips, Hunger, and the Pursuit of Healing - "Scales are for fish." :)
- Remember that you are already WHOLE. You don't need to be "fixed."