Content warning: This article references suicide and eating disorders
Summer is in full swing, and with warmer weather (in some regions at least!), jumpers are off, for a few of us bikinis are out and the perennial message appears around us of encouragement to look a certain way to feel valuable.
As a person recovering from anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder, the daily effort to choose recovery over relapse is heightened at certain times of year. As someone who also knows the benefit to my mental health of being warm, summer is one of my favourite times. But the pressure to look a certain way, to be a certain muscle mass or clothing size was something I internalised at a young age.
Aged 10, I’d be taken to the hospital every school holiday to be weighed and measured. Graphs charted my weight gain which had become rapid between the ages of 8 and 10. Looking back I now recognise this was a response to several factors that increase the likelihood of the development of mental health conditions. These factors include as a dysregulated nervous system of which the first symptoms were misunderstood as food allergies and also hypermobility misunderstood in PE class and that has been revealed thanks to research as likely to increase the risk of anxiety and depression.
When I was in primary school, I was bullied for my weight. This combined with doctors at hospital telling me to lose weight, being told there were “good” and “bad” foods all combined to shape a shackling belief about my body that I’ve spent years and mammoth effort – please excuse the elephant pun – to release myself from.
As a teenager this eating disorder combined with low self-worth shifted to become anorexia. I was hospitalised twice for this, once voluntarily and once sectioned under the mental health act as I was a month away from dying. In my late teens and early twenties this shifted again to binge eating disorder due to which I made suicide attempts. In my late twenties this shifted again to become bulimia, a constant companion for longer than any previous iteration of disordered eating.
It’s difficult to predict how many people in the UK have an eating disorder, but estimates are between 1.25 and 3.4 million. And the impact of the pandemic on those with the number of young people with eating disorders in England ending up in hospital rising sharply during the pandemic. Data from NHS Digital showed the number of under-20s admitted between 2020 and 2021 topped 3,200 – nearly 50% higher than in 2019-20.
Statistics suggest that 1 in 5 women aged 16–24 has an eating disorder and women are twice as likely to have an eating disorder than men. However men do suffer with eating disorders, and the stigma attached to it can affect their confidence in seeking help.
Eating disorders, for me, have morphed and shifted as much as my own appearance has. I recognise now, they were all survival mechanisms to manage a dysregulated nervous system, and attempt to find safety, a voice, an expression of unarticulated pain.
Diet Culture Disorder
My personal history means diet culture for me is a construct of control I passionately and repeatedly need to challenge for the sake of my sanity. During summer the messages from marketing loom as strongly as the shadows cast by the sun.
The pressure to look like a certain societally agreeable and commercialised ideal is commonplace for many. The irony that this ideal is constantly shifting is not lost on me, as someone who themselves has shifted appearance due to the debilitating effects of eating disorders. As soon as a new concept of ‘beauty’ emerges into our zeitgeist, as a collective we recognise it and celebrate it. Then marketing wakes up to it. And it becomes commercialised; another ideal to chase and emulate so that certain powers make money from our insecurities.
Intermittent Fasting Fast Becoming A Problem
In recent years I’ve noticed an increase in intermittent fasting adverts on my various feeds on social media, particularly during the month of January. No matter how many times I blocked, reported or deleted these adverts, more kept appearing.
Studies have shown that Intermittent fasting is related to symptoms of eating disorders. Taking part in such activity could cause relapse or provoke symptoms of anorexia, bulimia or binge eating disorder to recur or develop.
There seems to be no real rules around advertising intermittent fasting or weight loss aids on social media, and yet there are other rules imposed in recent years by the UK government that research shows can also threaten recovery from eating disorders.
Calorie Counting Menus
One recent change that poses itself as helpful but may perhaps miss the target is the change to rules around placing calorie counts on menus in restaurants. Adopted to try to combat the rise in obesity, it actually proves to have harmful effects on those with eating disorders including binge eating disorder.
A study in the International Journal of Eating Disorders showed that calorie counts on menus caused individuals who have anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa to order significantly fewer calories than when they viewed menus without calorie counts. On top of this, menus with calorie counts caused individuals who have binge-eating disorder to order significantly more calories than when they viewed menus without calories.
MQ ambassador Hope Virgo was 13 when she developed anorexia, and since going on a journey of recovery has written a book called Stand Tall Little Girl to help others with eating disorders. She questions whether calories on menus help anyone, whether they have an eating disorder or not.
“We know that calorie counting can be a contributing factor to a person developing an eating disorder, and we know that calories don’t tell us anything about the health of the food, so why have we as a society not only accepted that calorie labelling is everywhere but we have also normalised it?”
Hope’s work as a mental health consultant and public speaker means she regularly comes face to face with others on a journey of recovery, wherever they are along that path, who also are affected by visible calorie listings.
“I meet people daily who tell me the impact of calorie labelling on menus and as a society we need to do more to push back on this because an unscientific, one size fits all approach that the government has taken is doing more harm than good.”
Recovery from eating disorders is possible though, and I have been through periods of abstinence and recovery from all of mine thanks to therapy, NHS treatment, nutritional education and making a lot of mistakes. Recovery isn’t always a gradual linear progression but can be messy and full of back and forths, ups and downs, five steps forward and three backwards.
Unexpected key factors in recovery, for me at least, is an increasing collective criticism of diet culture, learning the benefit of being more physical and also a conscious choice to involve social activities in my lifestyle that include food.
When I am with people who help me feel safe, I feel better able to take gentle and recovery-enhancing risks with food. Experiencing meals that create new memories, new visceral constructive associations helps me rewire my habits and strengthens my recovery.
It is widely regarded by those in the medical field specialising in eating disorders that a part of recovery planning is about reintroducing social activities, being able to go on holiday and visit restaurants. I for one find traveling, social activities and eating out is a huge benefit to my ability to enjoy life and free myself from the restraints of my mental illness. Yet these changes to menus impacts my feeling of freedom.
Thankfully for people like me determined to focus our efforts on recovery, there is helpful advice to hand.
Top Tips to Eat Out:
- If you have eating disorders and are planning to eat at a restaurant, look at menus at home online beforehand – adjust to the anxiety ahead of time.
- Eat with supportive people with whom your can be open about your authentic experience and who are aware of or can discuss with you needs regarding eating disorder recovery.
- Draw clear boundaries with those who talk about diet culture, calories or weight loss. Telling them that subject is not up for discussion with you is healthy. How they respond is their choice. Remember you can leave a conversation if it crosses your recovery boundaries.
- Manage your eating throughout the day without hours of fasting. Eating little and often can help manage blood sugar levels which research shows can help mental function.
As challenging as living with an eating disorder may feel, there is hope not only for recovery from eating disorders but also for change to government policies. Hope Virgo and others continue to campaign for change.
“As part of my #DumpTheScales campaign we are working to ensure that every single person who has an eating disorder has the right access to treatment and support, and also ensure that society is set up in a way where we can as much as possible prevent eating disorders.”
MQ also continues to work to support researchers who will help us gather information to inform lobbying for policy changes. This is made possible with your support.
If you need support with eating disorders, suicidal thoughts or another mental health condition, your can get help here.
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