How Diet Culture Can Be Triggering For Those With Eating Disorders – by Georgia Jerwood

At the start of the New Year, resolutions are for self-improvement are everywhere. Many are positive, from reducing alcohol intake to spending more time with family. Yet, the most popular of all surrounds around; weight loss, exercise, and dieting goals. After a holiday period in which every corporation tries to sell an excess of everything, this switches as soon as January hits into selling products to make less of ourselves, in a variety of ways.

Positive behavioural change is to be commended, but the idea of a fresh start only being able to come at a certain time of year means that many aren’t successful and end up feeling worse about themselves.

This particularly applies to diet culture, which reinforces a feeling of unease about ourselves to profit from selling us products that won’t get us any further to contentment. If they did, why would there be so many? Why wouldn’t there be one that was empirically verified and worked long-term?

Diet culture is pervasive in our society and can be exhausting to see at this time of year, particularly for those with eating disorders. In December, eating disorder charity Beat and the NHS released guidance on how to support those with eating disorders at Christmas.

Articles emerged in the Independent and BBC, highlighting difficulties of the holiday period that people might not have considered. It was immensely positive to see such representation which will ultimately help others who have felt unseen.

But now with the aforementioned New Year diet culture, this is extremely triggering to those with eating disorders, as it seems a cultural norm to be discussing food, weight, and diets at all times.

Two pieces of psychological research from last year reflect on these themes. Research conducted at York University investigated psychosocial risk factors, internal/external factors that influence an individual psychologically or socially, in orthorexia Nervosa. Orthorexia is characterised by an unhealthy obsession with eating “pure” food, used to cope with negative feelings or feel in control, causing anxiety and guilt when eating foods considered unhealthy (Beat).

Many symptoms are similar to anorexia, such as a restrictive diet and preoccupation with food/body image. The researchers found that those with; a history of an eating disorder, obsessive-compulsive trains, dieting, poor body image and drive for thinness were more likely to develop orthorexia. Which poses the question, can clean eating lead to orthorexia? The authors recognise eating healthily is important but can, in fact, become unhealthy, leading individuals to be malnourished and have difficulties socialising with others.

Clean eating set up as a resolution is praised by others, as it is seen by our culture as a positive. When in fact, it can reveal that an individual is struggling with their mental health or may put them at risk with developing an eating disorder. Many individuals starting weight-related resolutions are likely to have the mentioned risk factors of dieting and poor body image, as this is what often initiates the process. A society that reinforces diet culture may also be making disordered eating behaviour seem to be something to be congratulated and strived for.

Many stigmatising stereotypes exist about mental health conditions, particularly in regard to eating disorders. The assumption that an individual has to be underweight and have a low BMI (body mass index) means that many individuals do not get the help they need. Additionally, individuals engaging in disordered eating behaviour may again be congratulated if they are overweight or obese, not considering the person’s overall physical or mental health.

Research by the University of California found that adolescents and young adults who do not have a low BMI face the same health complications, such as slow heart rate and electrolyte imbalances.

One author notes that facing stigma or teasing in those who are overweight may have reinforced eating disorder behaviours and cognitions, with all patients just as ill as those with the traditional diagnosis of anorexia. The increased glorification of restrictive diets and calorie counting in the New Year appears to be fine in those who are not underweight, yet regardless is promoting disordered eating behaviour.

As we enter 2020 each with our own personal goals and dreams, it is worth considering what would truly benefit ourselves and others. Taking a step back from what is congratulated as culturally acceptable behaviour and looking at how it can negatively influence all our lives will allow us to put our energy in the right places. As fantastic mental health campaigner Megan Jayne Crabbe (also known as BodyPosiPanda) states:

“The next time you go to compliment someone on their weight loss or praise how thin they’re looking, just think whether you might be causing more harm than good.

Compliment them on something that actually matters instead – tell them how much you value their friendship, how thankful you are to have them around… the world’s obsession with dieting isn’t going anywhere, it makes far too much money to be dismantled over something as (apparently) trivial as people’s mental health – but you can still save each other. Change the conversation. Question what you’ve been taught. Maybe one day we’ll replace our obsession with pounds and points and inches with an obsession over accepting ourselves as we are.”

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