Anorexia - why diet culture is a problem
Have you ever congratulated others or been congratulated or celebrated for losing weight or becoming incredibly lean?
Wow, you look great! Have you lost weight? OMG are you in single digit body fat% now?
I ask that you stop this if you find yourself doing it. It can be hard, as we live in a culture where this is a normal topic of conversation and the words can just come right out of your mouth without your brain engaging. Diet culture is our culture and often we attach a moral value to a person based on how they look or how much fat is on their body. We tend to attach moral values to food and have forgotten how to live free and enjoy life.
The control that is required for the upkeep of this superior morality is dangerous and can be used as a tool to maintain any eating disorder which any person can be pre-disposed to developing.
So, please stop commenting on or celebrating weight loss.
"Why stop?" you ask... "I am helping support my friend by confirming their hard work, determination and grit. I admire them, I couldn't do it, I just don't have the willpower"
I know this has probably crossed your mind many times or you have said it a hundred times and I don't want to just say you are wrong. You believe you are helping, but sadly you are just misinformed - and it's harmful.
The problem is you cannot see inside a persons head, you cannot account for their lived experience, you don't know what words are stored in their head and you don't know how that 'hard work, determination and grit' can come together as a useful tool for a person pre-disposed to developing anorexia.
Anorexia can often be triggered silently, when a person tries to lose weight to feel better about themselves but at the same time has very poor coping skills or is going through a challenging time in their life.
It's not always about losing weight - sometimes it is about 'not putting fat on'.
Anorexia can start when a person believes themselves to be a 'good dieter'. The compliments and encouragement can give them strength to carry on getting smaller and smaller as it may be the thing they are best at, and it's something they feel they can control. When this happens the goal becomes to get smaller and there is no number that will ever be good enough..... only 'smaller'.
Smaller can of course be driven by 'eat less' AND/OR 'move more' - those good old 'sensible' pieces of advice we receive from the diet and health industry, so those suffering anorexia often learn to increase their exercise and activity as well as eating less.
Whilst an anorexic is following these eat less and move more messages they may also start to develop secrecy to their routines in order to convince others that they are OK and are living perfectly normal lives. They may try to eat alone or pretend they already ate somewhere else, they will throw away food when nobody is looking, and may do a lot of exercise in their own rooms or privately. They can become 'experts' on healthy eating and will often descend into dangerous methods of controlling their hunger. They can become defensive and angry when challenged and will believe themselves or convince you that they are not sick enough.
There is actually an excellent book - Sick Enough by the wonderful Jennifer L. Gaudiani which I would advise you read if you are concerned about anybody suffering from an eating disorder.
Restricting food intake or over exercising eventually affects physical and emotional health and this makes anorexia a mental illness. It can manifest and evolve into an irrational or extreme fear of food or certain foods which are deemed to be fattening. It can manifest in compulsive exercise. Sadly in our culture these fears and compulsions can easily be slotted into the 'health seeking' category and in this respect the eating disorder can become stronger without friends or family noticing until it is too late.
You may hear things like "I don’t eat carbohydrate or fat because it makes me bloated" or "I don’t eat meat because I love animals" or "I run just as much as other people do; it makes me feel good and I just happened to have lost 20 lbs as a side effect of my healthy lifestyle".
A lot of behaviours or comments you would hear from an anorexic are not "because of anorexia" but in fact the result of low weight, starvation and it's effects on the brain and body. They can be resolved if the person restores weight with a nutritious diet and the anorexic mind can be dealt with by trained eating disorder therapists while the person is being provided with the nutrition they need to recover by an eating disorder trained nutritionist.
It's important all parties involved in the treatment of eating disorders are correctly trained so they understand the effects and the mindset of the person or there can be conflicting and detrimental advice.
A common misunderstanding is a nutritionist making the person aware of calories in food but this can add fuel to the fire and in a sense the nutritionist then becomes an ally and can be counted upon to maintain the eating disorder. An anorexic can enlist the help of a personal trainer to help them build movement or help strengthen their body but again without the correct training the personal trainer can become an ally where the education provided helps the anorexic maintain a weight that helps them to say just on the 'safe side' of going into hospital. It's super important all parties are on the same page and trained in eating disorders.
Starvation and malnutrition affect every system in the body, metabolic, digestive, skeletal, endocrine, neurological, and circulatory. Mental, mood, thinking and the ability to make decisions is impaired. Because of changes in the chemicals of mood which are nutrition dependent, there is a heightened risk of suicidal thoughts.
High-functioning chronic anorexic people manage to conduct a normal life with a very small food intake. Anorexic females may continue to menstruate and even have children. It is a fascinating and extremely dangerous illness.
Sometimes anorexia evolves into another eating disorder such as orthorexia, bulimia nervosa or compulsive overeating - and vice versa, these disorders can also descend into anorexia.
To summarise -
Diet culture is dangerous.
Eat less move more is a common but dangerous message.
Triggers can lay dormant until a person is unable to cope.
No weight goal or body fat % is good enough - only smaller.
Secrecy forms part of an eating disorder.
Starvation is the cause of the symptoms in anorexia but not the reason for the anorexia starting.
Anorexics can lead normal lives and not be seen to be 'sick enough'.
Anorexia and all other eating disorders can evolve into another type of eating disorder.
Anorexia is a mental health condition which requires nutritional rehabiitation for recovery.
Any health/wellness/fitness/counsellor/coach or doctor dealing with an eating disorder must be correctly trained and liaise with a team of other correctly trained professionals.
If you are worried about yourself or somebody you love then please seek help. You can contact BEAT charity to speak to a counsellor and you can always contact The National Centre for Eating Disorders for an assessment or to find a qualified eating disorder therapist in your area or online.