“Food doesn’t give itself meaning. We give food meaning.”
Food is food. Our bodies are not as judgemental about our food choices as our minds are. Food simply get broken down into sugar that fuels our brains so we can think clearly and be present. This is so powerful if we can use this information and embrace it when healing our food relationship or recovering from an eating disorder.
– Marissa Campanella, RDN, LDN @thrivenutritioncounseling.
#BellLetsTalk is all over social media the last couple of days. An initiative to get remove the stigma, shame and fears around mental illness and admittance. As we head into February, it just so happens that it is Eating Disorder Awareness Week (#EDAW2018) here in Canada. So here’s some food for thought while we’re on the topic of mental health.
I said this would be a platform for stories. And here’s a story I’d like to share. Imagine: growing up in a household where “have you eaten yet?”, “don’t waste food!”, “stop playing, and eat! This is why you’re not growing”, “stop eating so much, you’re gaining weight… boys won’t want you” was thrown around at every meal, every family gathering, as undertone messages on magazines, TV shows and Instagram…. up until you finally leave for college. Then just as you thought you’ve gotten away from all of that, phone calls home consist of “have you gained or lost weight” as a greeting message. Christmas holidays are always a little worrisome as you fly half way across the continent to return home, worried about what kind of comments you’ll hear about your appearance from friends and relatives. It sounds pretty hard not to obsess over the way you look or the number on the scale, doesn’t it? Now, standing in front of the mirror, grabbing at certain parts of your body wishing you could just rip them off doesn’t sound too bizarre. The phobia of being near food, or touching food in fear that it may infuse into the body doesn’t seem that far off. And the thought that if my weight went up just by 1 pound, my family would love me less almost sort-of sounds rational….
That all being said, an eating disorder is not caused by a parenting. No parent wishes upon their child an eating disorder. There may be some adjustments that could be made in the home to encourage a healthy relationship with food, but it is never the intention to harm. It is not caused by the social media, though the saturation of specific kinds beauty ideals does not protect against eating disorders. And it is not caused by diet culture or dieting. In some cases, dieting may be a trigger for the onset or relapse of the illness. There is ‘no one cause’ and it is often a myriad of events and triggers that leads to disordered eating patterns.
A couple months ago, I had met someone aged in their late 80’s who had come into the hospital with severe weakness. She had kindly opened her world to me and shared her fears and ways of coping. She had a definitive and structured walking path which slowly grew to be longer and more frequent throughout the day, followed a strict routine of stepping on the scale after. Disordered eating patterns are as diverse as the people they affect. They truly can and do affect anyone.
Eating disorders don’t just take over the young, teenagers. It’s not just the lettuce-nibbling, day-fearing, water-chugging gym rat that looks thin and frail. It could be anyone, any-size, any ethnicity, any age. And may present in a whole spectrum of disordered lifestyle patterns, food choices and body image distortions.
To give you a bit of context, here are a couple of facts:
- Eating disorders can and do affect individuals of all genders, ages, races and ethnic identities, sexual orientations and socioeconomic backgrounds.
- An estimated 1 million Canadians would meet the diagnostic criteria for an Eating Disorder.
- Eating disorders have the highest death rate of any mental illness; 1 in 10 people with Eating Disorders die from their disorder (suicide being a major cause). #CMHA100 (NEDIC, 2018)
- Eating Disorders are serious mental illnesses associated with significant medical complications that affect every organ system in the body.
It can be all-consuming. If anyone has experienced a mental illness, you’ll hear them say that they are not themselves. “It’s the anxiety talking.” Or in this case, “It’s the eating disorder talking”. So when someone is fighting, hold your judgement and see through a lens of compassion. They’re may be fear, and a lot of discomfort making changes; but they’re far from being difficult, or manipulative. We seem to assume that we know it all, we know the person all too well and why they didn’t take control of their health and make those healthful changes, that we know eating disorders and we know the person sitting in front of us. But there is so little we know. It tends to lie under the surface, and in short encounters in the clinic. People share a filtered and selected amount of content. Even when probing questions are asked, it is highly unlikely that someone would share their eating difficulties with you. So to my colleagues: next time someone comes in being ‘non-compliant’ to the recommendations they had last left the clinic with, don’t assume and be curious in getting to know the challenges the person may be struggling with.
There are 7 billion people on the planet, and #7BillionSizes. One size does not fit all. Why should the number on the scale dictate anyone’s worth or value? In fact, to some cultures (especially to the older generation), an extra bit of weight is seen as a sign of wealth – that you are well taken care of. Grandparents would often worry that you didn’t eat enough, and give you two or three extra servings of rice to encourage you to eat more. It is a sign of love: “have you had dinner yet?” is another way of saying “Welcome home sweetheart, I’ve made you something delicious after your long hard day at work” without showing as much overt affection. Let us celebrate diversity, and focus on positive health.
Why does talking matter?
Because talking has the potential to save lives. We know that through open, supportive dialogue, we can help break the shame, stigma and silence that affects nearly 1 million Canadians who are living with a diagnosed eating disorder, and the millions of others who are struggling with unhealthy food and weight preoccupation.
And because 70% of doctors receive 5 hours or less of eating disorder-specific training while in medical school (Girz, Lafrance Robsinson, & Tessier, 2014). We can do better, and we must do better.
It is pertinent that we build a stronger dialogue to talk about mental health, disordered eating patterns, and body dysmorphia. Just as it is important that we stop normalizing diet culture and body hate. And we focus on healing through self love and compassion.
We need to harness the power of food in a positive light. Give it a different kind of meaning: one that represents kindness, health and life. Use body positive language, remove the labels, create a weight-bias and stigma free environment and be open to talk to others and to be approachable for others to come to you. Focus on health and well-being, no matter what size you are.
Love yourself, just the weigh you are.
You’re more than what you weigh. Your value comes from your quirky personality, your kind-heartedness, your curiosity for things, your ability to listen to others and empathize, your nerdy interests, and willingness to give.
To Learn More About Eating Disorders:
NEDIC (National Eating Disorder Information Centre) National Initiative for Eating Disorders
Health at Every Size by Linda Bacon, PHD
Association of Size Diversity and Health (ASDAH) Official Organization Behind Health At Every Size®
Intuitive Eating A nutrition philosophy based on the premise that becoming more attuned to the body’s natural hunger signals is a more effective way to attain a healthy weight, rather than keeping track of the amounts of energy and fats in foods.
Eating Disorder EDucation for RDs by Shawna Melbourn, RD.
Vinnci Tsui, RD a former bariatric dietitian turned Certified Intuitive Eating Counsellor and Health At Every Size® advocate with a blog filled thoughtful comments on a healthy food relationship.
Body Kindness by Rebecca Scritchfield, RDN.
The Moderation Movement by the Australian dietitian duo Zoe Nicholson and trainer Jodie Arnot.
Jennifer Rollin, MSW, LCSW-C A social worker based in Maryland who writes powerful articles on body positivity and eating disorder recovery for various publications.
Food Psych Podcast: Christy Harrison, a former journalist turned dietitian, hosts this exploring with her guests their own relationship with food and how that has impacted what they do today.
Dietitians Unplugged – listen to anti-diet, body positive dietitians Aaron Flores and Gleys Oyston comment on subjects from Intuitive Eating to fat in popular media.
Love, Food – Dietitian Julie Duffy Dillon answers in her podcasts, questions on a variety of topics as they relate to HAES®, often from the perspective of food itself.
Girz, L., Lafrance Robinson, A. & Tessier, C. (2014). Is the next generation of physicians adequately prepared to diagnose and treat eating disorders in children and adolescents? Eating Disorders: Journal of Treatment & Prevention, 22(5), 375-85.