'When Counting Calories Becomes an Obsession' by a Protégé Artist
Admiting to yourself that you have an eating disorder can be a big deal and even if you think you might suffer from one, chances are you’re probably pretty good at keeping it a secret from your friends and family. While it’s normal to experiment with your diet by for example eating healthy or becoming a vegetarian, food can sometimes be used as a way of dealing with painful or difficult situations, even without you really being aware of it.
Living with an eating disorder
Suffering from an eating disorder is something which for some people comes to dominate their every waking moment. While people all around you seem to slide easily though life, all you can think about is how you are going to cope with your next meal and obsessive thoughts about food, calories, and body weight are constantly at the back of your mind.
Needless to say, living with an eating disorder can be exhausting. Lack of food, repeated vomiting or excessive weight affect the body while the mental strain of worrying about food, counting calories and hiding unusual behaviour from those around you will often make you feel shattered, lonely and even depressed. It is normal for people suffering from eating disorders to feel embarrassed or ashamed about it but your feelings are unlikely to go away by themselves. The best thing to do is to open up and talk about it with someone you trust or call an anonymous helpline.
If you think you might have an eating disorder, at least you’re not alone. It is estimated that as many as 1.15 million people in Britain suffer with an eating problem (www.childline.org.uk).
Blame the media?
It is a common misconception that people suffering from eating disorders do so because they want to look like a super model. The reality is far more complex than that. Of course, living in a culture obsessed with bodily perfection does nothing to help and may in some cases spark a problem. More often than not, the goal has little to do with looking good and more about using food intake as a way of trying to cope with life.
What is an eating Disorder?
A problem with food can be triggered by a number of different reasons but people with eating disorders are often highly intelligent, sensitive and disciplined individuals who are subjected to pressures which lead them feeling unable to cope. Concentrating on food intake, either by refusing to eat or over-eat, can help sideline these problems and sufferers often experience a great satisfaction with, for example, seeing their weight drop following a strict regime. You might say it becomes a way of taking control over your body.
Not only a girls' thing
People of all ages, races and genders can get an eating disorder but typically sufferers are girls between 15 and 25. Statistics show however, that between 10 and 20 percent of sufferers are male, and according to experts this number seem to be on the rise (ch4). It is often even more difficult for boys to admit to and talk about an eating disorder. It’s not very macho. Also it can be even more difficult to spot in men because it is often considered a female disease.
Different Types of Eating Disorders
The best known eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and compulsive over-eating, but other disorders exist, some people restrict the types of food they eat to such an extend that they don’t get enough nutrition, other people develop eating-phobias.
Sufferers of anorexia nervosa becomes so preoccupied with loosing weight that they starve themselves often combining this with excessive exercise. It is quite common for people suffering from anorexia to memorise the calorie content of food products and skip meals whenever possible.
The term bulimia nervosa means literally ‘the nervous hunger of an ox’ (beat.com). This hunger however, is not satisfied by food. Sufferers of bulimia will typically binge-eat large quantities of food only to feel immediate guilt and attempt to get rid of the food again by vomiting or taking laxitives, sometimes both. The bulimic person will often also try exercising to get rid of unwanted fat but typically will not gain or loose much weight.
The compulsive eater will like the bulimia sufferer eat large quantities of food but typically spread throughout the day and without attempting to get rid of the calories again. They are therefore often hugely overweight. Like other people with eating disorders their constant picking at food has little to do with actual hunger but rather food will filling an emotional need for the sufferer.
Detecting the signs
Below is a list of some of the common serious signs / consequences of having an eating disorder. Please seek help if you recognise any of these in yourself or someone close to you you. Bottling up will not make the problem go away.
- 30% body weight loss due to refusal to eat / varied excuses for missing meals
- Wanting to lose weight when normal weight, or under weight
- Intense fear of eating
- Obsession about food or calories
- Excessive exercising
- Period problems leading to amenorhorrea
- Moodiness and sleeping problems
- Fainting and dizzy spells
- Wearing baggy clothes to disguise weight loss
- Increasing isolation and loss of friends
- Always feeling cold, poor circulation
- Growth of fine downy hair all over body
- Reduced libido
- Reluctance to admit to having a problem
- Consuming enormous numbers of calories at one sitting
- Disappearing to lavatory after food consumed: to vomit up same
- Secretive behaviour, mood swings
- Feeling out of control, helpless and lonely
- No energy, generally unwell
- Sore throat
- Digestive problems
- Erosion of tooth enamel, caused by vomiting stomach acids
- Salivary gland enlargement in cheeks
- Poor skin condition
- Reluctance to admit to having a problem
- Eating food by “picking” constantly, causing excessive weight gain. e.g. comfort eating
'Eating Disorders' by a Protégé Artist
“Brittle fingers and cigarettes, so hard to tell apart.”
– ‘Anorexic Beauty’ by Pulp
They’re so beautiful aren’t they? So perfect. Blessed with genes that average (at their lowest) at a 9.5. Their skin is immaculate, their bodies are ripped, their hair is sculpted and clothes seem to be made purely for them. I’m talking about the 2D people. The one’s who grace the covers and line the pages of magazines like GQ, FHM, Arena, Playboy, Vanity Fair, OK, Hello, Heat, Maxim, Allure, Elle & Vogue. Not to mention the graceful movements of pop culture icons who grace our TV’s and the Big Cinema silver screens.
You know, I read somewhere that the 2 biggest selling types of books are cookery books and dieting books. Not important right now, but keep that in mind.
How do you feel when you see that type of skinny ‘perfection’? How do you feel about you? It hasn’t always been that way you know. In our world, the 3D world, styles ebb and flow. We’re in a state of constant flux. Ideas of the best ‘body image’ are in flux as well. Do we hide curves or celebrate them? Are we not men without our six-packs and our ‘guns’? Are we not women without long legs, big hips and skinny waists?
I can tell you how I feel. I feel a little lost, a little insecure. Like I’m being judged what my body shape is. The thing is, my body is normal. I know that the people who really care about me, they like me for me. They wouldn’t like to know these thoughts I have. They would worry and they’d be right to worry because even I know that the thoughts aren’t healthy. I don’t think about it all the time, but I can’t help and feel a little sad when I switch on the TV, or flip through a magazine. Maybe that’s what I’m supposed to feel. Are they trying to guilt me into buying their products…? Surely no!
I’m ok, I had a big lunch...
- It is estimated that as many as 1.15 million people in Britain suffer with an eating problem. Approximately 90,000 people are thought to be receiving treatment for either anorexia or bulimia
(Source: ChildLine – www.childline.org.uk)
- In 2003, over half of all women in Britain were either overweight or obese. One in 3 Girls aged 11 were overweight
(Source: YWCA – www.ywca-gb.org.uk)
- Eating disorders are becoming more common in boys and men
(Source: Royal College of Psychiatrists – www.rcpsych.ac.uk)
- Women are actually slimmer than they think, but men consider themselves to be more muscular than they really are
(Source: Deakin University research – www.deakin.edu.au)
Irregular eating patterns do not make disorders. Sometimes we are not able to grab a full lunch, or we may be working late and feel so tired that we skip dinner one night. Normal. But putting off meals because you believe it will help you change the way your body is, is not a good idea. What is the difference? Well, one is accidental and down to circumstance, and the other is a conscious choice. And that choice is something that could, over time, develop into a routine, a routine that could be severely damaging to your health.
There are 3 main eating disorders. They are Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa & Binge Eating/Obesity. Beyond these 3 are a variety of other disorders (should you not find the information you’re looking for here, I suggest you follow up on some of the links at the end).
These 3 are the most commonly known, and the effects of these disorders can be alarming. Either you starve your body of what it needs, or you give it too much. There are common symptoms that link each of the disorders and these are things like: low self-esteem, guilt, depression, sadness, physical pain, lowered sex drive, lack of interest in anything other than food.
Before we look at them one by one, here’s a little questionnaire that can help you decide if you have an eating disorder. Take your time and consider each question before you answer TRUE or FALSE
(1) Even though people tell me I’m thin, I feel fat. True or False?
(2) I get anxious if I can’t exercise. T or F?
(3a) [female] My menstrual periods are irregular or absent. T or F?
(3b) [male] My sex drive is not as strong as it used to be. T or F?
(4) I get anxious when people urge me to eat. T or F?
(5) If I gain weight , I get anxious and depressed. T or F?
(6) I would rather eat by myself than with family and friends. T or F?
(7) I lie about what I eat. T or F?
(8) If I were thinner I would like myself better. T or F?
(9) I have said or thought, ‘I would rather die than be fat.’ T or F?
(10) I vomit or take laxatives to control my weight. T or F?
(11) I have missed work or school because of my weight or eating habits. T or F?
(12) I don’t like being bothered or interrupted when I’m eating. T or F?
(13) I have fasted to lose weight. T or F?
(14) In romantic moments, I am worried about my fat/flab. T or F?
(15) I have a secret stash of food. T or F?
(Source: ANRED ‘Anorexia Nervosa and Related Eating Disorders’ – www.anred.com)
Those are just a few questions from a typical Eating Disorder questionnaire. Strange as it may be, even answering ‘TRUE’ to any of those questions can be an indicator of an eating disorder, but because of our societies unhealthy demands for unrealistic thinness most of us will think that it is normal, but the more TRUE answers you have, the more serious your situation may be. Think about it. Coming back from an eating disorder can be hard without help because it may have become habitual, and bad habits are hard to break.
Deliberate weight loss, refusal to eat, so afraid of gaining weight, will stop at nothing to stay slim? Unfortunately, anorexics will never reach their ‘ideal’ weight. There will always be a few more pounds to lose. Often, Anorexia can start with normal dieting but once they are at a healthy weight, they will continue to push until they are alarmingly underweight.
- In girls/women – monthly menstrual cycles become irregular or stop.
- In boys/men – erections stop, testicles shrink.
Like anorexics, Bulimics obsess over food and weight. But rather than not eat, they will ‘Binge and Purge’. During the binge, Bulimics will eat large amounts of food, very rapidly and with little self control. Purging will involve self-induced vomiting, using laxatives (which does NOT get rid of calories), or excessive exercise. Despite this cycle, bulimics are usually average weight, or slightly overweight
- Around 4 out of every 100 women suffer from Bulimia at some point in their lives.
- Because the weight often stays within its own limits, it can start a vicious cycle that is hard to escape from.
- BOTH Anorexia and Bulimia can have dangerous physical complications
Bingeing could also quite easily be called emotional eating. Binge eaters eat beyond their own control and distress about their behaviour. These episodes may occur in private/secret, at night and may be associated with loneliness, unhappiness and low self-esteem, however, unlike bulimics, there will be no purging stage to control the weight and as a consequence, they will become overweight.
- This could lead to obesity, which could lead to type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, hyper tension, palpitations of the heart and osteoarthritis.
Below is a table and summary of the types of indicators to look out for if you’re worried that you, or someone you may know, might have an eating disorder.
– Severe weight loss
– Periods stopping
– Hormonal changes in men and boys
– Difficulty sleeping
– Stomach pains
– Poor circulation & feeling cold
– Wanting to be left alone
– Wearing big baggy clothes
– Excessive exercising
– Lying about eating meals
– Denying there is a problem
– Difficulty concentrating
– Wanting to have control
– Intense fear of gaining weight
– Feeling emotional
– Obsession with dieting
– Mood swings
– Distorted perception of body weight and size
– Sore throat/swollen glands
– Stomach pains
– Mouth infections
– Irregular periods
– Dry or poor skin
– Difficulty sleeping
– Sensitive or damaged teeth
– Eating large quantities of food
– Being sick after eating
– Being secretive
– Feeling ashamed, depressed and guilty
– Feeling out of control
– Mood Swings
– Weight gain
– Eating large quantities of food
– Eating inappropriate food
– Being secretive
– Feeling depressed and out of control
– Mood swings
– Emotional behaviour
(Source: YCWA, Florence Nightingale Hospitals & Royal College of Psychiatrists)
The mirror can lie
The more time you spend in front of the mirror, the more you’ll see things about yourself that you don’t like. Nobody is perfect because it is down to preference (and how boring would it be if everyone was perfect eh?). These 2D people are digitally altered to conform to fictional ideals of what we think perfection should be; thighs are made thinner with the swing of a mouse, blemishes are removed to give a plastic wrapped lustre. Men and women undergo surgery to transform themselves into what they think they should look like, and as I mentioned before, these ideals change over time. Our ancient ancestors created statues of women with oversized breasts, large bellies and bums with no faces and no arms. Women of African tribes forcefully stretch their necks and lower lips and the ancient Chinese practised foot-binding to keep the feet small which, in our society today, would be considered brutal, but all of this to create an ‘ideal’.
Combine this with dysfunctional social surroundings, broken home’s, lack of nurture and it isn’t hard to see that we are clutching at straws when it comes to the ‘body beautiful’. Young people are bombarded with false expectations of how they should be – and this all leads to eating disorders.
But without help and understanding, they are left to their own methods to conform to these ridiculous ideals and pressures of being beautiful. I’m not suggesting that you should stay the way you are, if you are overweight or underweight, it is damaging to your body. Obesity in young people is still a common threat, but an ideal weight for your height (BMI – Body to Mass index) should be a good place to start. I’m 5ft 11 and I weigh a little over 12 stone, which puts my BMI at average (cool). I’m a little curvy and sure I’d like to bring my gut in and stop my chest from developing into fully fledged moobs (man boobs), but maybe I should start by accepting me for me.
…And stop looking in the mirror hoping to see something I’m not.
Links and further reading
- www.nhs.uk/healthprofile/Pages/BMI.aspx – NHS – calculate your own BMI
- www.something-fishy.org – Something Fishy – Other little known eating disorders
- www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk – Beat (formerly Eating Disorders Association)
- www.thesite.org – TheSite
- www.who.int – The World Health Organisation
- www.b-eat.co.uk – Beating Eating Disorders
- www.anred.com – ANRED (as of DEC 08, ANRED closed down after 30 years, but there are two further links which are…)
- www.anad.org – National Association for Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Eating Disorders
- www.nationaleatingdisorders.org – National Eating Disorders Association
Sources (other than those mentioned)
- NHS – www.nhs.uk
- British Nutrition Foundation (BNF) – www.nutrition.org.uk
- Obesity UK – www.obesityuk.org.uk
Issues – Independence Publishing – www.independence.co.uk
- Vol 24 – Confronting Eating Disorders
- Vol 127 – Eating Disorders