TW: Eating Disorders
There is this voice in my head. One that I don’t remember agreeing to let into my mental space but, because I was born female in an industry that profits off of self-hatred, it stays in my mind space rent free. This voice is like mine, at least it sounds like me, but it is a combination of all of those who told me I was too large to wear certain items of clothing, that calories were the enemy, and my FUPA that protects my uterus was not flattering. I am not sure how it started, but high school is the time in our lives where we are told that we must care about our appearance and I did care. I started skipping breakfast at the age of thirteen, and never stopped until I was twenty-two. Almost ten years of my life, I spent restricting myself of the foods and calories that I needed to survive.
Eating disorders come in various forms and symptoms can vary from person to person. This can range from restricting foods, binging, or purging (IE. vomiting or excessive exercise). Over the last several years, disordered eating has increased from 3.4% to 7.8%, which may not seem like a lot, but that’s roughly seventy million people that struggle to have healthy relationships with food. Though eating disorders are acknowledged on social media and in the fitness industry, for people who ‘don’t look’ like they struggle with eating, are often left without the resources they need to recover. Eating disorders are among one of the deadliest forms of mental illness, which can have life altering effects if not treated. That’s why it is important to continue to talk about them, especially within the realm of fitness.
Common Misconceptions Debunked
For a long time it was widely accepted that women were the most impacted by eating disorders during their lifetime and statistics back this, but lots of research has pointed out that men and gender nonconforming people are often misdiagnosed for eating disorders because of stigma. This late or misdiagnosis has made eating disorders, especially in men, life threatening. It is important to understand that eating disorders do not discriminate and can happen to anyone.
Eating disorders are not just found in extremely thin people. Eating disordered bodies come in various shapes and sizes. Just because some don't ‘look’ like they struggle with eating, doesn’t mean they aren’t.
Eating disorders don’t just disappear. Sometimes they are managed, and can return at any moment. External factors have a huge impact on eating health, as it can be used as a form of self-control (grounding) or self-harm. Changes in one’s life or environment can cause eating disorders to resurface.
Eating disorders are not easily treated. They are often hard to treat because they are so complex and vary so different from person to person. It is important to understand that not all treatment works for every individual.
My Personal Experience
My experience may be similar to many people who struggle to have good relationships with food, as it became very difficult for me to simply eat. There were often times where I could not make myself eat because of anxiety surrounding the changing of my body. I needed to be thin. I was obsessed with it. Obsessed with a number on a scale. It got to the point where I no longer experienced hunger pangs, had no energy for my day as a full-time rower, and even started losing hair and fainting.
My eating disorder fits under the category of anorexia nervosa, which is an obsessive desire to control what calories I consume on a daily basis. I often restricted how much and what I eat. More accurately, I have orthorexia nervosa, which is an obsession with the quality of food that goes into my body. I often avoid things that my brain has labeled as ‘unsafe’, such as fast food or artificial food colouring. I have to read the label of everything I am about to eat. This type of eating disorder is common with people who are athletes or into fitness. It is commonly misdiagnosed because we can pass it off as ‘being concerned with our health’. But it is more than that. It’s excessive exercise, it’s constantly weighing yourself, it’s being cold all the time, it’s fainting when you stand up, it's having irregular periods, it’s refusing to go out to lunch with your friends. It’s a silent killer.
I struggled with my disordered eating through university as I was no longer active as a retired athlete, eating once a day at most, but I got sick of it. I got sick of being tired all the time and how my body held onto fat in order to survive. So I changed, I went back to the gym and I forced myself to eat three times a day. First thing I noticed was that I had begun to feel hungry again; it was a weird sensation. Food tasted amazing, and I began wondering why I had ever cut it out. However, I became obsessive. I went too hard at the start, and traded restrictive eating for obsessive control of what I ate. It had to have enough protein, limited carbs, and lots of vegetables. I worked out five to six times a week, for two hours excessively. Yes, I saw the change in my body the way that I wanted, but again, at what cost? I sacrificed my social life, was more tired because of excessive exercise and I got sick more often because I wasn’t resting. But I told myself I was “healthy” and thrived off of how people saw me. It took me over a year to realize that my ‘healthy’ lifestyle change was just as harmful to my mental and physical health. As of today, I work out very differently. Mainly, I listen to my body and I take a full week of rest every month to let my body recover. Since this change, I still consume enough calories a day but I have stopped denying myself treats and recognizing that eating in moderation is the way to go.
I still struggle with my eating disorder, I am not a saint and it would make me a hypocrite if I wasn’t honest. I do try to eat consistently and eat when I am hungry because listening to our body's needs is fundamental to mental health and fitness progress. We have to eat in order to fuel our bodies and be able to live our lives to the fullest.
How We Can Help
Stop negative comments towards someone’s eating or someone’s body. Comments like “you just ate” or “are you sure you want to eat all that”, are unhelpful and can trigger eating anxiety.
Sometimes the removal of weight scales with limited access can be beneficial. It is important that the number on the scale does not control your life or your eating.
Recognizing that social media is fabricated and limiting time on media
Having a friend to keep you accountable. Sometimes having someone check in and ask you what you’ve eaten that day can help. It limits the secretive nature of eating disorders and can help curb bad habits. It is crucial that there is a lack of judgment to avoid embarrassment.
Meal Prepping with healthy and safe foods.
Working out. Moderate and consistent exercise can help, especially with a friend. Be careful to avoid excessive exercise. Allow your body rest and recovery.
Therapy. Talking to a professional is always helpful to learn various ways to cope and deal with eating disorder anxiety/symptoms. Professionals can also help people get access to medications and resources they need to recover.
Spread awareness and information surrounding eating disorders. We must remove stigma!
Listening and validating others experiences. We need community and we need to be heard.