Eating Disorders: Rekindling Our Relationship With Food
Like many who suffer from an eating disorder, mine started when I was an adolescent entering my early teenage years. I became extremely self-aware of my body and the changes it was going through. As a dancer, I didn’t accept that curves were just a natural result of growing up: instead I associated any amount of weight gain with failure, ugliness, and disappointment. So rather than thinking of food intuitively as fuel, I ended up asking myself questions like, “How many calories are in this food?” or “Will this food make me fat?” Almost two decades later, I still struggle with my relationship with food. But I’m here writing this in the hope that, as a society, we can learn to rekindle our connection to food.
What is disordered eating?
Disordered eating describes a range of irregular eating behaviours. Oftentimes it is used to describe unhealthy eating behaviours and worries about body image. Some common examples include restrictive eating or yo-yo dieting.1 The term is used to suggest that an individual moves away from listening to what their body is telling them (e.g., hunger and fullness cues) and develops habits that go against these cues. As disordered eating persists it eventually interferes with daily social and psychological functions. Eating disorders are physically, mentally, and socially disabling and are associated with the highest rates of cause-specific mortality among mental disorders.2
How does disordered eating develop?
One, perhaps obvious, contributing factor to the development of disordered eating is social pressure. As a young child, I learned the social value of physical attributes – values that were reinforced in me as a ballet dancer. But the need to be thin was not limited to ballet culture. A diet advertisement would appear every time I turned on the television, teaching me that starving myself would make me look better, feel better, and be perceived to be better by others.
The problem is that some companies benefit from making us feel uneasy in our bodies. Between 2000 and 2018, the global prevalence of eating disorders increased from 3.5 to 7.8 per cent.3 This number parallels the growth of the weight loss industry over the same timeframe: in 2018, the U.S. weight loss industry hit a peak of $72 billion.4 Although there is a strong body-acceptance movement today, the weight loss industry continues to push their “tea detoxes” or “lollipop appetite suppressants” across all social media platforms. Young teens and adults are constantly reminded that they “need” to achieve a certain look, and that there are fast ways to obtain it.5
Eating disorders aren’t just about being thin
Social pressure to be thin isn’t the only driver of eating disorders though. For example, another common approach that can lead to disordered eating is being too health-conscious. Becoming more aware of the contents and effects of the food we eat is a natural consequence of living in a complex society where food – often sold as a branded product – has come to represent so much more than mere energy. But this can lead to a psychologically unhealthy relationship to food.
Disordered eating doesn’t just refer to those who eat too little either. Behaviours such as binge eating or night eating, linked to chronic illnesses like obesity, can be considered eating disorders when engaged in compulsively or in excess, but are actively encouraged by the fast food industry. In the UK, fast food advertising spent by the top 18 national brands exceeded £143 million on advertising in 2016, corresponding to around 27.5 times more the annual government’s spending budget on healthy eating campaigns.6
We are constantly surrounded by marketing advertisements that tell us how we should eat, when we should eat, or how eating something will make us feel. Though these messages may not be the only reason why people develop eating disorders, it can undeniably be considered a main factor.
How can we rebuild a healthy relationship with food?
The way eating disorders are treated is continually changing as more research becomes readily available. Disordered eating is such a complex topic, intertwined with physical health, social health, and mental health – so solving the issue will need interdisciplinary work. The best advice for whoever is struggling in their relationship with food is to talk to a health professional.
What I’ve learned
As a young adult recovering from disordered eating, I have found some takeaways from several eating disorder intensive outpatient therapies and treatments that might also help others who struggle with their relationship with food:
Through therapy, I have learned to practice mindful and intuitive eating*. When I start to eat, I now ask myself if I’m enjoying the food. I take pauses to enjoy what I’m eating and allow myself to connect with my body.
I find it important to avoid strict rules governing what or how much I eat. I remind myself that research is still ongoing to understand whether certain foods have positive or negative effects on our bodies and in what quantities.
I’ve learned to appreciate where my food comes from – without obsessing about it. Learning where and how food is sourced helps me to approach food with a positive attitude, connecting with it beyond mere calorie-counts.
Finally, I keep reminding myself that I have to unlearn years of habits and norms that dictated the way I perceived food and health. Now I accept that might be a long process, and allow myself to take the time I need to rekindle my relationship with food.
*Intuitive Eating is an approach to food based on physical hunger rather than prescriptions from diet books and experts.
Illustrations by Sachi Mulkey