Tag Archives: bulimia recovery

Is Intuitive Eating a Good Idea in Eating Disorder or Dieting Recovery?

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Intuitive eating is a concept that really resonates with me. In a society entrenched with diet culture, a huge percentage of people have lost the ability to trust their bodies, and instead opt for counting calories or macros, or eliminating food groups, or trying out various juice fasts, veggie cleanses, cabbage soup diets…the list of restrictive diets and ways to self starve is endless. The fact that we do not ignore other bodily signals: emptying our bladders or bowels; sneezing; coughing; itching; removing our fingers from a burning surface; blinking; but ignore our body’s signal for hunger and then call it a good thing is absurd. We have decided to stop trusting our biological body; a body built for survival, and instead listen to the multi-billion dollar diet and weight loss industry, our unhealthy thin-obsessed culture, and the media which panders to both (again, to make money). It is nonsensical. It is ridiculous. It is madness. And yet nearly all of us are guilty of listening and responding to it.

Intuitive eating is 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.

This is why I love the idea of intuitive eating (although do remember when reading the above that a “healthy weight” is whatever your body needs to be at naturally, and has nothing to do with BMI). Reconnecting with your body; listening to it; honouring its cues and signals; respecting it and giving it the treatment it needs and deserves…this is exactly the right attitude to have, and exactly the right action to take. However, when it comes to recovering from the effects of dieting, or even more serious, an eating disorder, intuitive eating becomes a little trickier to throw yourself into.

Months or years of damages done to the body through restriction can cause huge issues with the way the body communicates with you, especially when it comes to hunger. Your hunger cues may have become suppressed, and therefore will be unreliable during the recovery process. When this is the case, it means that both hunger for the correct amount of energy and cravings for the right types of foods that the body needs won’t be felt by the person experiencing this, and so intuitive eating would be a disaster for them. It would mean that they would not get the energy that their body needs for daily energy requirements, and would not get the types of food that the body needs and nutrients that the body is lacking in. For these people, intuitive eating would not be something that they could jump into straight away, and would have to be a goal for later on in the recovery process. Those without reliable hunger cues would need to count calories to ensure that they are eating enough (I wrote about calorie counting in recovery here), and also keep an eye on the types of foods that they are eating to make sure that they are getting enough of each food group.

Those with reliable hunger cues will find that they are able to move to intuitive eating sooner, although I would always suggest counting at first whilst you establish if you have reliable hunger cues or not (and I have a video on when to know when you are able to eat intuitively here). Those with reliable hunger cues may find themselves ravenously hungry, or may be hungry for the amount that they need day to day, and then find themselves absolutely starving most of the time. This is normal and expected and in recovery is called “extreme hunger” (I have a video on this here). This is something those in recovery often experience, but not always. Those with reliable hunger cues find that they are hungry for the amount of energy that their body needs each day.

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Some people in recovery go through periods of both reliable and unreliable hunger cues, and during this time it is best to keep counting calories and keeping an eye on what you are eating until you are receiving consistently reliable hunger cues.

For both those who have reliable and unreliable hunger cues it is important to make sure that you are eating all food groups, as they are all important for health. It is important to note for both those with reliable hunger cues and those with unreliable hunger cues that it is normal in recovery from restrictive eating disorders or dieting to crave foods that are high in energy, especially foods with a high fat, sugar, or carbohydrate content. This is because processed food can be one of the best things for recovery, especially during the initial stages. Foods high in energy  help to fill the calorie deficit and repair the extensive damage done through starvation, as well as providing energy for the day. Foods high in fat help with regaining your period, aid bowel movements, and most importantly, the brain is made of at least 60% fat which requires eating fat in order to heal and maintain its health. Fat is also most easily processed by the body, which is quite essential to your damaged digestive system. Usually in recovery people crave “junk” food because this is just what their bodies need, and that is okay. If you are eating far more carbs than any other food group, that is okay. If you are eating far more sugary foods than any other food groups, that is okay. What is not okay is if you are only responding to these cravings and not having any other food group. Responding to the cravings is really important, but it is also important that you don’t go without an entire food group. Some people find that whilst their bodies are busy craving foods high in energy, it can end up not sending signals for fruit and vegetables. It is quite common for those with eating disorders or even dieting to have issues with filling up on fruit and veggies, and for these people, cutting down and thinking about it less is the goal, but for others, they can find that in recovery they can have reliable hunger cues for the energy that their body needs, but do not have the cravings for all the food types that it needs. The body, in this way, is being reliable in letting you know exactly what it needs in order to become energy-balanced (by craving foods high in energy), but has made this a priority and is not giving the right signals in order for the body to get all the nutrients that it needs. So if you realise that you are going days without fruit or veggies, make sure to incorporate some into your diet. Don’t become rigid or fixed upon a certain number, but just make sure you are having some throughout your day. The same applies to any other food group that you might find yourself not eating through lack of cravings.

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Whilst many people crave “junk” food, you may also experience cravings for dairy, cereal, and meat/fish. You can have cravings for anything! You may also find that you have cravings for odd combinations of food, and that is perfectly normal too. Just respond to what your body is asking for.

If you are experiencing extreme hunger and/or having intense cravings for only one food group or particular type on food – don’t panic. Appetite settles down when the body is healthier to include cravings for a massive variety of foods: chocolate, milk, fruit, cereal, doughnuts, pizza, pasta, vegetables, fish, steak, cake….EVERYTHING. No foods should ever be off limits, and your body will start giving you more and more reliable hunger cues as your body gets healthier and healthier, until you are able to really connect with it and trust it. Throw out your magazines. Forget the media. Forget diet culture and societies unhealthy obsession with thinness. Trust your body and work with it. There is no wrong way to have a body (and please please please check out weight set point theory, and health at every size under my resources section).

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For some people, intuitive eating can be something that they start doing fairly early on in recovery from an eating disorder or dieting, but for others, it can take time for their bodies to adjust and be able to communicate correctly. Whichever is the case, intuitive eating is a fantastic goal to work towards, but it is important to recognise that it can take time, patience, and perseverance. I would always suggest it be the goal, and would never want anyone to have to return to listening to diet culture – it’s what got a lot of people into a terrible place emotionally and physically in the first place (particularly those recovering from dieting as eating disorders are nearly always a lot more complex . However, recovery is certainly not helped along by diet culture). Listening to your natural, biological, earth-given body is the best thing to do for your mental and physical health when it comes to eating. Not concepts created by society. And always know that food is not just about nurture and nourishment, but about pleasure and enjoyment too. Do what makes you happy and healthy, both physically and mentally. You deserve it.

 

Orthorexia Nervosa: The Invisible Eating Disorder

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Orthorexia Nervosa. Have you heard the term before? Many haven’t. “Orthorexia” is a word that is not yet an official eating disorder diagnosis, but is used to describe a particular set of eating disorder behaviours that are distinguishable from other eating disorders, although can be experienced in conjunction with other eating disorders (usually anorexia nervosa). It is also an eating disorder that is easily overlooked in a society obsessed with “healthy eating” and exercise.

Those suffering from orthorexia have an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating and healthy lifestyle, so much so that it becomes extremely rigid and restrictive in regards to food, and can also include compulsive and excessive exercise. Orthorexics can be obsessed with feeling “clean” or being “pure”, and generally fixate more on this than on body weight as a motivation for behaviours. Orthorexics can also feel morally superior for the choices that they make in regards to their lifestyle, and the way they view themselves becomes entangled with the way they live their lives and what they put into their bodies or do with them. Orthorexics can find that their diet becomes so restrictive in both calories and food variety that it can become extremely physically unhealthy as well as mentally. This can also be the case in regards to excessive exercise. Like other eating disorders, it will end up becoming a top priority for the sufferer, and they can end up isolated.

In a culture that celebrates weight loss, calorie and food group restriction, and exercise, it is easy to go unnoticed if you have an eating disorder at a “normal” weight, but even easier if you have orthorexia. In a society that focuses so much on health, those with orthorexia will more likely than not be congratulated for their “healthy” life choices, determination, perseverance, and motivation. Others may aspire to be like them because they appear to work so hard at being healthy, whilst in reality they are driven by a relentless and miserable force that has nothing to do with being healthy and more to do with being mentally ill. That mental illness will be driving that person into the ground both mentally and physically with its extreme rules and restrictions, and that may go unnoticed in amongst the admiration of others.

Eating disorders are terrifyingly common, let alone the phenomenal amount of people living with disordered eating (issues with food, weight, etc, that are not a mental illness but are a problem). Our preoccupation with a “healthy” lifestyle and our celebration of “healthy choices” is misplaced. Living a healthy lifestyle is great, but we are missing the bigger picture: so many people are utterly miserable trying to achieve goals that are usually more about being thin than being healthy, or are driven by guilt and shame about not being “healthy” enough. In trying so hard to be physically healthy, we are sacrificing mental health, which is just as important – if not more so. With our food/weight/exercise/health obsession, and the equation of “health” with morality, no wonder so many eating disorders go undetected. It is a culture for eating disorders to thrive in, and that horrifying truth is something that we need to recognise and address.

So could you recognise orthorexia? Do you think you may have it yourself? The Timberline Knolls website talks about orthorexia and how to recognise it particularly articulately, so I have put it below. If you want to read more information on it, just click the link above.

Orthorexia is the term for a condition that includes symptoms of obsessive behavior in pursuit of a healthy diet. Orthorexia sufferers often display signs and symptoms of anxiety disorders that frequently co-occur with anorexia nervosa or other eating disorders.

A person with orthorexia will be obsessed with defining and maintaining the perfect diet, rather than an ideal weight. She will fixate on eating foods that give her a feeling of being pure and healthy. An orthorexic may avoid numerous foods, including those made with:

  • Artificial colors, flavors or preservatives
  • Pesticides or genetic modification
  • Fat, sugar or salt
  • Animal or dairy products
  • Other ingredients considered to be unhealthy

Common behavior changes that may be signs of orthorexia may include:

  • Obsessive concern over the relationship between food choices and health concerns such as asthma, digestive problems, low mood, anxiety or allergies
  • Increasing avoidance of foods because of food allergies, without medical advice
  • Noticeable increase in consumption of supplements, herbal remedies or probiotics
  • Drastic reduction in opinions of acceptable food choices, such that the sufferer may eventually consume fewer than 10 foods
  • Irrational concern over food preparation techniques, especially washing of food or sterilization of utensils

Similar to a woman suffering with bulimia or anorexia, a woman with orthorexia may find that her food obsessions begin to hinder everyday activities. Her strict rules and beliefs about food may lead her to become socially isolated, and result in anxiety or panic attacks in extreme cases. Worsening emotional symptoms can indicate the disease may be progressing into a serious eating disorder:

  • Feelings of guilt when deviating from strict diet guidelines
  • Increase in amount of time spent thinking about food
  • Regular advance planning of meals for the next day
  • Feelings of satisfaction, esteem, or spiritual fulfilment from eating “healthy”
  • Thinking critical thoughts about others who do not adhere to rigorous diets
  • Fear that eating away from home will make it impossible to comply with diet
  • Distancing from friends or family members who do not share similar views about food
  • Avoiding eating food bought or prepared by others
  • Worsening depression, mood swings or anxiety

You can also read my article ‘Food Is Not A Moral Issue’ here.

 

MinnieMaud: Is It the Only Way to Recover from a Restrictive Eating Disorder? (Take Two)

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It has been over a year since I wrote my first article on this topic, and I am still somewhat inextricably linked to the MinnieMaud method of recovery, however much I try to disentangle myself from it. I thought I would talk about this topic again because my views have continued to change as I grow and develop as a person, and also learn new things in the recovery community. Being in remission has given me the motivation to celebrate my own recovery and give opinions and advice based upon my own journey, but it has also given me the ability to recognise that we all take different paths to get to a full recovery. Even the concept of “full recovery” in itself is individual for each person, and the goals we wish to reach can be quite different. Some people in recovery are not able to yet reach for a full recovery. Others take different routes to reach the same destination. What people define as “remission” or “full recovery” varies, and that’s okay. We are all allowed space to determine what it is that we believe, and what we want for ourselves. We are allowed space to express what we want for others, but we have to respect what people want for themselves over our own views of what would be best for them. The only decisions we can really make are for ourselves.

As I have progressed and developed in my remission, my advice has been less “Gwyneth Olwyn” (creator of MinnieMaud) and more personalised to my own individual views and experiences. In a nutshell, my views on MinnieMaud are that it is an invaluable recovery method for many people during the early to middle stages of recovery and can help inform the rest of the recovery process whilst you learn to navigate your own path leading into remission. Eventually you will find your own version of remission and start living your recovered life in the way that works for you. MinnieMaud can still be useful then, but your recovery/remission will now be tailored to you as an individual. I think that the black and white approach to information and advice is apt for the unwell; for the people who need firm, unflinching boundaries between them and their eating disorder (and boy, did that help me when I needed it). It gives permission to do the things that society forbids – things that profoundly help so many people in their recoveries (e.g. freedom around food, encouraging the idea that all food is good food, resting and repairing, breaking unhealthy relationships with exercise by total cessation of activity, eating enough, always responding to any hunger however much that means eating, accepting your body at any weight, shape, or size etc). It outright rejects any and all unhealthy societal views in order to promote a healthy relationship with food, exercise, and the body. Is Gwyneth Olwyn the only person to encourage all these viewpoints? No, not by a long shot. There are a huge amount of people in the recovery community, body positivity community, and health at every size community (all of which overlap quite frequently) that share and promote these views and give advice accordingly. However, Gwyneth Olwyn is, as far as I know, the only person who has taken these viewpoints and created a structured, research-informed recovery method for those with restrictive eating disorders. The fundamental difference that people see is that Olwyn has created a set of guidelines, and given these views a name; made them into a method of recovery. She has solidified a huge amount of people’s views into “rules for recovery”. Now this irks some people because they don’t like the black and white; they don’t like the “you need to/must do this in order to recover”, and I entirely understand that. As I spend more time in remission and grow and develop as a person and as a member of the ED recovery community, I have become aware that this way of thinking and dishing out advice becomes problematic especially as people come out of the initial stages of recovery and start to make their own way towards remission. People start coming out of the very necessary and standardised initial parts of recovery and start to develop personal goals and targets and outcomes and values and opinions and moral standpoints and….and and and. I could go on. I think that to reach remission there are fundamental aspects of recovery that need to happen – but again, these are my own individual views on what remission is – and those are:

  1. Regaining normalised and reliable hunger cues in order to eat intuitively and respond to the body’s request for energy, always.
  2.  Being able to eat any and all food without anxiety, fear, or guilt (seeing food as food, seeing it as nourishment, enjoyment, and just another part of life rather than immediately worrying about weight gain, compensation, exercise, or seeing certain foods as “bad” or “unhealthy” etc).
  3. Being able to eat when not hungry (for example, in social situations) without anxiety, fear, or guilt.
  4. Being able to eat without compensation.
  5. Building a healthy relationship with exercise (moving the body primarily for enjoyment not for burning calories or altering the body).
  6. Managing or resolving underlying issues that contributed to the cause of the eating disorder.
  7. Working towards body acceptance and acknowledging that your body’s natural weight is outside of your control and to obsessively focus on controlling it is to be disordered.
  8. Being able to manage stressful situations without lapsing,  and using healthy coping mechanisms in response to stress and anxiety or being able to pull yourself out of a lapse very quickly because you are perceptive about your behavioural reactions and then use healthy coping mechanisms.

Outside of that are a wealth of details within recovery that are different for every single person. For example, whilst I feel assured in giving out the advice that someone in recovery should not make drastic decisions around their diet (such as becoming vegan or vegetarian), when that person is in remission, I am unable to say whether that person would become triggered into relapse by making that choice. I have a fully recovered friend who has become vegan. I myself am now a pescatarian. But I have also known people who have made changes to their diet and spiralled back down into illness as the elimination of certain foods opened the door for the eating disorder to slip in through. For some people it triggers those restrictive thoughts, and for others, opens up new doors to try new foods. Since I have had to become gluten free for medical reasons, I have tried and discovered a wealth of new wonderful foods (although I do mourn my loss in the bread department), and find joy in doing so. Others might find this a slippery slope into restriction without the right mindset and support. Another example might be yoga. Yoga might help one person relax and fight anxiety, whereas for someone else it might be another form of burning calories or subscribing to an obsession with “health”. There are a million examples of things that affect different people in different ways in recovery, and I do think that MinnieMaud forgets this. Its rigid blanket statements and black and white style are appropriate for most people in the initial stages of recovery, and even for some further on, but are not so relevant to those moving towards their own individual destinations, and for those in remission itself.

I reference the site so frequently because many people that I talk to are in the initial stages of recovery, and I think that everyone, whatever stage they are at in their journey, could benefit from the views expressed there in regards to body positivity, health at every size, freedom around food, and a no bullshit approach to exercise. I think MinnieMaud is fantastic, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t think that it is flawed. Because the MinnieMaud site (Your Eatopia) informed so much of my recovery and started me off on my journey towards discovering body positivity and health at every size, I wrote a lot about it, and at first when my blog turned into an advice blog, I was regurgitating everything Olwyn said. Because of that, I have struggled to separate myself from it in the eyes of my audience. I have attempted to distance myself as being seen as a “minion of MinnieMaud” and be viewed instead as a standalone person who references MinnieMaud and its recommendations, but is not solely about MinnieMaud. Like The Fuck It Diet, I want MinnieMaud to just be another site that I reference – albeit it is the site I reference the most as it is so concise and informative and is the one site aimed so specifically at restrictive eating disorders and the recovery process. Hopefully one day, the association between myself and MinnieMaud won’t be so strong, and I will be able to promote the MinnieMaud method alongside my own indvidual views and that of many other people.

I advocate freedom around food, health at every size, the rejection of diet culture, moving your body in a mentally and physically healthy way in remission, body acceptance and positivity, self love, eating what you want when you want, personal growth and development, resolutions or management of toxic situations, relationships, internal beliefs, and/or experiences with the help of professional support, and building and living a full, rich life outside of your eating disorder. Does MinnieMaud advocate this too? Yes. But it is only one website amongst many that does so. Olwyn is one person amongst millions holding these beliefs. I am advocating all of them, not just MinnieMaud. I am advocating all of the incredible women and men fighting for these views to be the norm; for diet culture to be destroyed; for people of all weights, shapes, and sizes to be accepted as equally beautiful and equally potentially healthy; for a recovery from restrictive eating disorders not informed by our unhealthy, toxic societal views on food and exercise and weight. I advocate Caroline of The Fuck It Diet, Amelielee of LetsRecover, Bodyposipanda, Nourishandeat, and Goofy_ginger of Instagram, Harriet Brown of Brave Girl Eating, Ragen Chastain of Dances With Fat, Kate of FYourED, Michelle of The Fat Nutritionist, Sandy of Junk Food Science, Tetyana and Andrea of Science of Eating Disorders, Summer Innanen of Rebelle Radio, Rachel W. Cole of her website of that name, and those who run Big Fat Science. I also advocate Gwyneth Olwyn of Your Eatopia, and I agree with the method of recovery that she promotes, as I also agree with the way of eating that Caroline and Rachel W. Cole promote. They are slightly different, as are my own views, but we all agree on some basic fundamentals.

I am not here to say that MinnieMaud in and of itself is the only way to recover, but I do think that its basic principles are needed for a full recovery: basic principles that are supported in many other places, not just Your Eatopia. Am I here to say that MinnieMaud is the only method of recovery that works? No, but it does work. It may not work for everyone, but as recovery methods go, its success rate looks pretty good when you look at the multitude of anecdotal evidence. There is no one recovery method that works for everyone. Success rates for any treatment for eating disorders are mediocre at best, so let’s not slam a recovery method that so many people (including myself) have used successfully to help them in their journey, whether that is using it fully or taking bits from it that inform their own personal path to becoming well.

This will be the last time focusing solely on MinnieMaud, because I am not a spokesperson for that method of recovery. I am someone who used MinnieMaud to help my recovery. I am someone who agrees with its main principles, and I am someone who refers to it and uses information from it in order to try and help other people.

MinnieMaud is, in my opinion, a good way to recover. It is not the only way to recover. However, I believe that its underlying principles are needed for a full recovery. Those underlying principles are not exclusive to MinnieMaud. They are not the entirety of MinnieMaud. They are basic principles that underlie the method and are shared by many other people. MinnieMaud was built on top of those principles, and the nitty gritty details of MinnieMaud are not things that I think are always necessary to recovery – I think that is individual. I think that is as clear as I can make it.

If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to contact me through the contact section above, or leave a comment on this article.

Our Bodies and Us: The Disconnect.

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Our bodies are wonderfully constructed, complex, ingenious natural creations. They are fantastically clever, and work to keep us in the best of health. But we have been working against them. We have stopped listening to them. We have decided that they are the enemy and we have been treating them as such.

Our bodies are natural but our culture is man-made, and our culture has decided to wage war on women’s bodies (and to a lesser extent, men’s too). We are bombarded from every direction with the message that our bodies are not enough; that we are not enough; that we must mould and warp and change our bodies into something else to be satisfactory women. We are told that our bodies are not good enough as they were born to be; that they are not good enough in their natural forms. We are told that we must alter them, no matter what pain that means putting our minds and our bodies through. Low carb diets, low fat diets, high protein diets, Paleo diets, Atkins diet, cabbage soup diet (?!), 5:2 diet, raw till 4, weight watchers, slimming world, eating “clean” (because other foods must therefore be “dirty” right?)…it makes me want to scream. Instilling fear of sugar and fats and carbohydrates until there is nothing else that is “safe” to eat creates more and more anxiety around food and makes us try to restrict further and further. Equating certain foods with morality and superiority and “making the right choices” makes us turn on one another as if eating a certain way can make us better than someone else who chooses to eat differently. Food has become about being “good” and being “bad”. Food has become about being worthless or worthwhile. Food has become our means of exerting control over our bodies and our lives.

All the while, our bodies are being ignored. They give us a pang of hunger, and we focus on something else. We pass a bakery and saliva pools in our mouths, and we swallow and walk on. Our brains direct thoughts of food to our brains over and over, and we shut them down. Our bodies keep sending us signals, and we pretend that they are not there, and instead, we listen to the magazines and other media telling us to ignore our hunger…drink a glass of water instead…eat a celery stick. We have become so far removed from our bodies that we listen to an unnatural ideal rather than the natural being of our bodies. We are so disconnected that we read information on what we should do with our bodies in regards to food and exercise, instead of actually listening to them. Our society has made us so focused on our bodies: how they look, what we do with them, and what we put into them, that we are panicked by it, and in turn, it has become an obsession. Health; fitness; food…we follow other people’s advice on what to do with our bodies and pay no heed to what our bodies are communicating to us. We are out of touch with what we really need.

Breaking away from that is hard, but freeing. Your body will thank you, and so will your mind once you learn to reject dieting culture and embrace your natural weight, shape, and size. If you develop a healthy relationship with food and your body, eating intuitively will come effortless as you follow your hunger and cravings. Healing, and repairing that relationship between you and your body will allow you to reconnect and work with your body, rather than against it. This will, in time, lead you to naturally eating a balanced diet – this includes “junk” food too. We need to start viewing food as food, rather than something that is “good” or “bad”, “healthy” or “unhealthy”. Food is fuel, and food is also part of our enjoyment in life. It has no place alongside morality. None of it should be demonised. None of it should be feared. None of it should be restricted. When you stop listening to outside noise, and start turning your focus inwards, that is when you will be able to be your healthiest. When you get back in touch with your body and start to really listen to it, that’s when you will start getting healthy again, both mentally and physically. If you fancy a fruit salad, eat a fruit salad. If you fancy a doughnut, eat a doughnut. No rules, no restriction, no foods that are off limits, and no foods that you “should” or “should not” eat. Shut out our dieting culture and embrace your body’s signals.

As a side note, it’s important to understand that if you have been dieting or restricting, that your hunger may be powerful and insistent, and your cravings may be strong for the foods that you have restricted (and therefore have fear and anxiety around). This is normal. If you don’t give your body enough energy, it will have an energy deficit, and will need more energy than usual until it is energy-balanced again. If you restrict certain things, your body will want them more, as it is often low on carbs and/or sugars and/or fats, and “forbidden” foods will also always be the ones you want most. If you respond to your body and work with it by providing it with the energy that it is asking for and the foods it is craving, it will settle down. It will become energy-balanced, and it will not be lacking in any food types, and when you stop viewing certain foods as forbidden, it will not want them as much. When all food is available to you, you don’t feel the need to eat certain foods as if it is the last time you will ever eat them (which you may have felt before when you let yourself have a “cheat” (I shudder at this word) snack/meal/day). When your body is energy and nutrient balanced, your eating will be balanced. When you are lacking in something, your body will give you signals in the form of hunger or cravings.

Listen to your body. It is cleverer than you, and it certainly cleverer than dieting culture and the media. Listen to your body, and embrace it.

Men with Eating Disorders: Suffering in Silence

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Eating disorders amongst men: we are not talking about it enough. We are not doing enough to end the stigma against eating disorders in general, let alone for the male population that suffer with them. We need to raise awareness. We need to be having conversations about it. We need to be educating the general public about it. We need men on TV, in magazines, on the internet, on every social media platform, to speak out about their struggles and help others do the same so that they can get the help and the support that they need. The thing is, many men don’t feel comfortable talking about it with their closest friends and family members, let alone the public. In fact, they aren’t just uncomfortable: they are terrified, and this is because of the incredibly detrimental stigma wrapped around eating disorders that is magnified tenfold when it comes to the male population. And when people don’t get help, there’s an increased risk of them dying from complications due to their eating disorders.

Out of those with eating disorders, it is reported around 10% of sufferers are male, although these statistics are unreliable due to the fact that so many men do not come forward for treatment and so are not recorded as part of the statistics. A recent study on a large university campus found that the female-to-male ratio of positive screens for eating disorder symptoms was 3-to-1 (you can read more statistics with references in my article Men Get Eating Disorders Too).

For this article, I talked to two men with eating disorders, a friend of mine, Leo*, who is a man in his mid-twenties from the UK, and Joshua*, an Italian-American, who got in touch with me via this website to talk about his experiences with his eating disorder and the stigma surrounding men with eating disorders.

Leo talked to me about how his eating disorder affects him in day-to-day life, and about the one and only time he sought help from a professional.

“I wake up every morning and the first thing I do is check the mirror and look at myself and think I’m fat. I will do it again after a shower and again once I’m dressed. I will do this throughout the day while at work if I go to the toilet as well. I try not to eat to much because in the back of my head is someone saying you’re fat, you’re fat, don’t do it. People at work have joked about me being fat, and I cannot get rid of them saying it over and over again in my head. I want to be perfect, I want to feel normal, and it probably started with the bullying at school and has always sat with me. I went to the doctors and explained that I didn’t feel normal and I hated eating food and I wanted to make myself sick and all I got was the doctor telling me that I need to eat to be healthy and we need food to survive, and that was pretty much it.”

Leo experienced disordered eating for three years, before developing a full blown eating disorder which he has now suffered with for seven years. He struggles with restriction, self-induced vomiting, and compulsive exercise. As you read, when he opened up about it to a doctor, he was met with dismissal. After describing his fear of weight gain, and sustained body hatred, his doctor chose not to explore this further and just told him to eat. I asked him about whether he would consider going back again to see if his experience could be different if he saw another doctor.

“I don’t go back to the doctors because it is embarrassing. I’m a guy and I have to not show weakness. I tried to cry for help and no one cared and so I shut all my emotion off towards it.”

Unfortunately, this is all too common an experience for men, and because of these negative experiences, men don’t seek help in the first place, or don’t go back again after being met with invalidation. Doctors are reportedly less likely to make a diagnosis of eating disorders in males than females (again, you can read my article “Men Get Eating Disorders Too” for references and more information). Not only is there limited training in eating disorders for medical professionals, but the stereotype of eating disorders being an illness exclusively suffered by white, young, females still lingers, and professionals are not exempt from absorbing the myths and stigma that surround eating disorders. Coupled with the damaging pressures from society telling men what they apparently should be like, people seem to have a really hard time accepting that men can suffer from such a debilitating illness as an eating disorder. These societal pressures, which include not showing emotion (or not too much, whatever that means), not crying, not needing help or support, are aspects of being a woman, and they are also supposedly aspects of being weak (because, just in case you are unaware of this entirely ludicrous concept, in our patriarchal society, being like a woman – and therefore being a woman – means that you are weak). On top of that, eating disorders are seen by some as obsessional vanity, whereas they run much deeper than that, and can stem from a variety of things (bullying, abuse of any kind, sense of worthlessness, deep insecurity, trauma, to name a tiny proportion of triggers). They are also a biological illness with genetic links. Your genetics play a part in determining whether you are someone who will develop an eating disorder or not. Those who understand eating disorders already know that developing one is not a choice, but this provides further and solid evidence for those who may not be able to fully comprehend the fact that there is no choice when it comes to mental illness. Still, so many people are still ignorant about mental health. Leo says,

“People look at it as a female disorder. I have mentioned it in conversation with friends and family, and I always get the same opinion – that it’s a woman’s disorder because they are weak or have issues because of how society sees them.”

Leo feels like he can’t talk to anyone about his eating disorder, because they won’t understand. He is terrified of the reaction that he could get.

“I can’t talk to people because they won’t understand. They won’t understand waking up every day feeling the way I do about myself and how I want to fit in and for people not to say I’m fat or chubby. I can’t talk to them or even want to talk to them because my step-dad, my brother-in-law, and I are always in competition in everything we do and I wouldn’t let them know I am weak. I don’t know how they would react. They will see it as a weakness and will think less of me. Even my mum wouldn’t understand.”

I ask if he thinks his mum would view him as weak. “I’m not sure, but I don’t want to risk it.” The concept of men (and women) with eating disorders being weak is so persuasive that Leo sees his own eating disorders as a weakness in him, but says that he doesn’t make the same judgement about anyone else.

Another issue we have to look at is the “ideal” male body that our society has created. Women face a huge amount of pressure to look a certain way thanks to our society, our diet culture, and the media continuously shaming women, telling us to lose weight, giving us diet tips, banging on about “health” 24/7, and showing us a disproportionate amount of slim, beautiful women who have been photoshopped to the nth degree, but whilst we do receive the majority of this pressure, we forget that there’s so much pressure going around that there’s plenty left over for the guys too. Men are being exposed to an increasing amount of images and messages pertaining to what a man “should” look like, and this is extremely harmful. Leo has been affected by this.

“Having 0% body fat and all the muscle in the world is the only way to fit in society for men. Women are seen as having to be skinny but men have to be both skinny and muscular.”

Whilst this is not a reality, and in general only men who are fat or very thin experience stigma around weight, the message has become so strong from the media that for some men, this is how they feel – that they and their bodies will not be accepted unless they look a certain way. The expectations that this is driving some men to have for themselves are unrealistic and unhealthy, and is having a dangerous impact on the mental and physical health of men.

Eating disorders can also be harder to spot in some men because it is more likely for women to have dramatic weight loss, whereas in men their eating disorders can expressed through “bulking up” and hitting the gym, which is not seen as particularly suspect in a society so keen on advocating exercise and showing male body “ideals” as lean and muscular. It is important to note that if an individual is taking performance-enhancing supplements in their attempt to become more muscular and then engages in weight lifting, they are at increased risk of suffering a heart attack or stroke (this paragraph has been taken from my article “Men Get Eating Disorders Too”).

Joshua also talked to me about his experience with an eating disorder.

“My situation largely stems from my cultural love affair with food and how the outside world placed such an unnecessary stigma on what are “good” or “bad” modes of eating. I am an Italian-American, and as such, our lifestyle revolves heavily on cooking and family gatherings that centre on delicious dishes. It is a tradition and rite of passage to learn how to cook for many of us. This is an overwhelmingly positive facet of our heritage, but the media’s obsession with “thin” and “perfection” have demonized any sort of fascination with food beyond what they deem “healthy or fit.” Admittedly, I was heavy as a child and into my teen years – but with changes in my daily lifestyle and just growing, I evened out to what was my normal weight (which was apparently still slightly “larger” than the projected ideal). I still enjoyed any type of food that I wanted and never did I have to restrict. Naturally, as I got older, I became interested in finding a meaningful relationship with a girl. This was when the pressure of having to achieve that outrageous image of “true masculinity” began to weigh heavily on my mind, and my interactions with women in my age group reinforced these damaging gender stereotypes.”

Joshua was also influenced by the media.

“The problem is that “having abs” and looking like an actor/model is so much more than losing weight – it is about obsession to the point of illness.”

Joshua was shamed for his appearance when he became very ill during his eating disorder.

“Ironically, I never did achieve the appearance I aspired to even when I was dangerously skinny. I merely became an emaciated mess, which ended up working against me as I was told it “feminized” my looks and made many girls lose interest.”

Although no one should ever reach any weight, shape, or size by unhealthy means, this shows again the idea of an “ideal” body shape and size for men that has pervaded our society. Whilst no one is naturally emaciated, many men are naturally slim and can feel ashamed of being so. In fact, within a couple of weeks of being with one of my partners, he asked me, “Is my body okay? Am I too skinny?” because he was naturally slim. I had never even considered that this might be an insecurity of his, but it is more common than we think. Insecurity is rife amongst both men and women, and whilst this is damaging in itself, this can also contribute towards the development of eating disorders, which are severe and life-threatening. Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, and other restrictive eating disorders follow close behind.

“I find it so difficult to explain to anyone I meet (especially potential dates/prospects) that I am trying to heal from this battle. It is such a strange position to be put in – knowing that double standard of men not expecting to be concerned with weight or appearance (to be outwardly cavalier/macho) but still having to hide their true feelings when exercising themselves into oblivion for muscles/being defined. Gender roles and expectations for men are just as serious [as they are for women] – yet they fly under the radar as something that doesn’t happen and are laughed at by those from older generations.”

These myths, stereotypes, and stigmas need to become a thing of the past. We need to be talking about eating disorders more in general, but we also need to start prioritising the inclusion of men in every conversation that we have about it. We need people to stand up and talk about their experiences, but this should never have to be their responsibility in the first place. We need to educate ourselves and each other about the realities of eating disorders and how they affect men as well as women. We need to dispel the untruths and we need to be more proactive in challenging hyper-masculinity in our society. We need to help our men, and we need to help them to ask for support. If we don’t, we are going to lose them. If you are someone who looks down on men with eating disorders; if you are someone who sees them as weak, put that aside now, and take the time to research eating disorders. Keeping your mind shut to their suffering is costing them their health, their happiness, and sometimes even their lives. These are your sons, your brothers, your husbands, your friends. Each minute we continue to treat our men with eating disorders as weak; each minute we continue to dismiss them, we put their lives in danger.

*Names have been changed for confidentiality

Digestive Distress in Eating Disorder Recovery

tummy troubles 3

So you’ve started recovery from a restrictive eating disorder, and suddenly you’re experiencing tummy troubles: troubles you may or may not have been expecting. I know that when I started recovery, I was unprepared for the physical symptoms and did not attribute some of them to recovery process. I wish I’d known more: my mum and I were baffled when I started sweating so profusely at night that I was soaking the sheets through, and I thought I had Chronic Fatigue Syndrome at one point when I was unable to even sit up in bed I was so tired. Both of these are normal recovery symptoms (sweating lots indicates your metabolism speeding up, and exhaustion is your body telling you to rest and repair).

The first set of symptoms to normally occur, however, are those related to your digestive system: gas, bloating, constipation, diarrhoea, acid reflux, indigestion, partly digested food, abdominal pain, and having very frequent bowel movements. These symptoms are not fun, and they are certainly not comfortable. However, recovery is about persistence.

tummy troubles 2

Restriction has a huge affect on the body, and with the digestive system, if it the body isn’t processing food regularly and consistently, it will stop wasting energy on working so efficiently. The digestive system slows down: a healthy person’s digestion rate is about 1.5 hours, whereas someone who has been starving themselves can have a digestion rate of 4 or 5 hours. This means that when you start to nourish your body with adequate and consistent energy, the digestive system will need a while to catch up. During the beginning of your recovery, because your digestive system will be working slower, food will sit in the stomach or bowel longer than it should do, which can result in abdominal distension, gas, and constipation. Or the body can go I’VE FORGOTTEN HOW TO PROCESS THAT, which can result in diarrhoea.

Restriction also can result in critical bacteria in the gut being reduced, and digestive enzyme levels being not as they should be, which also contributes towards digestive issues.

Wastage of muscles in the abdominal area can also cause distension as the muscles are not strong enough to hold things in more firmly when food is eaten. Do remember though that your stomach will distend slightly throughout the day naturally – the more food, the more your stomach will distend, and this normal and healthy. Those in recovery though will often find that the bloating and distension is far more extreme than that of a healthy person -and that is normal for the recovery process. Remember that your stomach has most likely shrunken during starvation, and will need to be stretched back to a normal size with refeeding. This is not going to be a great feeling, and it is likely to cause pain and tenderness.

The other thing to talk about is IBS and food sensitivities. During your eating disorder, your body can become unused to processing certain foods, for example, carbohydrates could be one. Dairy products could be another. This could lead you to think that you have a gluten or lactose intolerance if in recovery you start to reintroduce foods like bread, pasta, biscuits, cakes, and pastries, and/or ice cream, cheese, chocolate, and milk back into your diet and you get adverse digestive effects. However, this is generally not the case. If your body has become unused to processing foods that you have restricted for a long time, it is logical that it will now have to work up a tolerance again (like babies have to). It does not mean that you will be permanently intolerant. Abstaining from these foods that you are sensitive to will only mean that the body never gets used to processing it again. Refeeding and reintroducing these foods slowly into your diet – with the help of a doctor if the results are severe – will help your body develop a tolerance to them again and heal the gut. The same is true of IBS. Your doctor may have diagnosed you with IBS if tests for other conditions came back negative. Most of the time, sensitivities and IBS are resolved with refeeding, so give it time. Recovery requires patience and perseverance, so bear with the discomfort and keep on going. If after years, certain symptoms have not resolved themselves, then it is time to look for other causes, but this is fairly uncommon. Obviously if you have diagnosed food allergies or diseases/conditions such as Celiac disease, Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis, neuropathy disease, or have any obstruction in the GI tract, or have any other diagnosed medical condition that would be dangerous and cause damage to you if you were to increase certain foods/types of foods into your diet, then the paragraph above does not apply to you.

So, onto gas. This is probably the most awkward of the recovery symptoms. Smelly gas; loud gas; persistent gas; gas that wakes both you and your partner up with a start when you trump in the night (yes, that happened to me). It can feel embarrassing, but it’s one of the most common symptoms in recovery. If it happens in front of someone (which it probably will) just giggle about it. It may even help to pre-warn them if you are happy to let that person know that you are in recovery from a restrictive eating disorder. It means that they will be expecting it and you can laugh about it (which you can do even if it is a surprise). Everyone farts- you’re just going to be letting off wind a hell of a lot more than the average person for a while.

Frequent bowel movements are also normal. This can be a sign of your digestive system speeding up. I went to the toilet to poop up to seven times in a day for a while (yup, really). If your bowel movements are loose, this could be the I’VE FORGOTTEN HOW TO PROCESS THAT from above.

It is important to continue to eat, even when it is the last thing that you want to do. If you are experiencing a lot of pain, then it is okay to give yourself a break and eat when it feels more tolerable, but discomfort and slight pain is normal and it is important to eat adequately and consistently. However, if you are worried about any symptoms that you are experiencing, please see a doctor to determine if there is anything other than the normal recovery process going on in your body.

So how do you deal with these recovery symptoms?

tummy troubles

Firstly, if you are experiencing constipation, eating fats can help move things along. Getting some fibre never goes amiss to prevent it from happening, but this is recovery, so doing healthy people things won’t necessarily work. Warm water is also extremely helpful for constipation – I’d never heard of it before but it has saved me a couple of times. If your stomach is not feeling so great, herbal teas can help settle it, and a hot water bottle can help ease pain or discomfort. For acid reflux and indigestion, there are over the counter medications that you could use, or you can visit your doctor for other options.

I know it sucks, but don’t give up – these symptoms do not last forever. Be patient, and stay on course. Keep moving forwards. As Churchill once said “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” You will come out the other side.

New Year’s Resolutions vs Eating Disorder Recovery

Happy-New-Year-Banner-2016-15

So New Year’s Eve has come and gone, and people are scribbling their new year’s resolutions all over social media and bringing them up in conversation. And if truth be told, it’s boring. It’s boring and it’s pointless, because most people jump simultaneously on the resolutions and diet culture band wagon and publicise their diet/weightloss/health/exercise #goals for 2016, which predictably (and thankfully) are forgotten about a month or so into the year.

For some people, it’s not just boring, it’s anxiety-provoking, and those people are those recovering from a restrictive eating disorder. After knuckling down and recognising and accepting that weight gain is part of the process, as is eating much more, ceasing exercise during recovery and cutting it down in general for life, and eating and regaining a healthy relationship with “fear foods” which generally consist of high fat, high carb, or high sugar foods/food groups, they then have to watch everyone pledge to lose weight, exercise more, and cut down on “unhealthy” foods.

If you are one of those people, it’s going to be hard seeing and hearing about all these new years resolutions that trigger negative thoughts and emotions, and tempt you to engage in the same behaviours that for most would end in the cessation of them, but for you would end in the spiral back down to misery and sickness, and could end in death. It could be an obvious impulse to just say “fuck it” and relapse, or it could come under the manipulative guise of “health” – that eating disorder voice whispering in your ear that going paleo, cutting down on carbs, or hitting the gym would not be a behaviour but just a way to get healthier (Nope. It’s a behaviour. It would be many steps backwards and the path to full relapse). If you are experiencing any of the above difficulties, you need to remember to focus on yourself. Other people’s behaviours should not impact on your own. You know where it would lead you, and it is important to make it your utmost priority to do what is best for you, your recovery, your happiness, and your health. Don’t allow other people’s insecurities and anxieties about their weight and shape influence your own actions. Instead, empathise with them. Know that they are not feeling happy with themselves and hope for their sake that they find a way to accept their bodies as they are naturally and celebrate themselves as beautiful people with beautiful bodies.

Remove toxic relationships or negative people from your life if you are finding a certain person consistently triggering. Unfollow people on social media who are likely to post/continue posting about weightloss, dieting, exercising, or anything else that triggers you as an individual. Talk to the people in your life who try to have conversation with you about their diet or exercise routines or similar, and let them know that it is unhelpful for you. Those who love you and care about you will cease pushing these topics on you. Those that don’t are the toxic, negative people in your life that I mentioned above.

Finally, know that your recovery is mandatory. You need to do what is best for you and your recovery, and that means fighting the negative thoughts and getting rid of any constantly triggering people. You deserve to live a happy and healthy life. Keep working for that, and keep moving forwards. You can do this.

Christmas and New Year: Anxiety Aftermath

anxiety

So Christmas and New Year are finally over. Most people with eating disorders approached the Christmas period with intense fear and have probably left it with intense guilt. And that’s okay and that’s not okay. By that I mean that it is okay to experience those feelings. You are not alone and those feelings are not your fault. What’s not okay is that your eating disorder has control over your life, so keep fighting the war against it, and don’t respond to those negative feelings. You are going to be okay and you can get through this.

If you ate more than you usually would this Christmas, went outside your meal plan, or ate what a normal person would eat over the Christmas period, I can imagine that right now you are feeling extremely stressed, and terrified that you have put on weight or that your body composition will change. And if you have put on weight or your body composition has changed, that’s okay. If you have stayed the same, that’s okay too, but remember that part of recovery is about gaining weight, and along with that does come a changing body.

The guilt of going against those eating disorder rules can be overwhelming, but it is important to remember that this is part of recovery. Going against your eating disorder and doing what you deserve is part of fighting the battle inside your head. Eating whatever you want, whenever you want, is the goal, and so if you were able to do that for a day, or two, or more, or even if you were able to eat a little more than normal, you are making small steps towards achieving that outcome. That is a wonderful thing, however terrible it might feel right now.

Unfortunately, feeling negative feelings and thinking negative thoughts are part of recovery. If it wasn’t, recovery would be pretty easy-going. It’s important to push past that and sit with the feeling of anxiety (and other negative feelings) rather than respond to them. The feeling will pass if you give it time to. You can read my post on anxiety management that may help you sit with anxiety and other negative emotions and thoughts.

You may also be feeling triggered by the people around you, complaining that they have put on weight or have eaten “too much” this Christmas, or need to go on a diet because of that. Please ignore them. They are battling their own insecurities and are looking for reassurance that this is okay and that other people feel the same and that they are not alone. This is really, really sad, and something that no one should have to feel. Enjoying the Christmas food is part of the festivity, and no one should have to feel guilty for it. Know that other people’s worries are not a reflection on you, and you should keep in mind that it is not something positive that they are experiencing, but guilt and anxiety and insecurity. So instead of letting their negativity impact on you, empathise with them, as guilt, anxiety, and insecurity are emotions that you are likely experiencing also (albeit on a much grander scale to those who do not have eating disorders). Keep moving forwards towards your goals. Keep moving forward on your journey towards health and happiness. Keep in mind your motivations, and remember that the way you respond to others only affects you primarily. You can do this. Keep moving forwards.

 

Exercise (pt 2): Exercise and Eating Disorders

exercise addiction

This is the second part to the article I wrote last time, which talked about exercise in general and the way that an unhealthy mindset around exercise has infiltrated our society as a whole.

Today I want to talk about exercise and eating disorders.

Like I spoke about two weeks ago, nearly everyone views exercise as something that is healthy, regardless of how it is used. During my recovery from my eating disorder, I told a friend about my compulsive exercise and about how I was trying to challenge it because I was doing x amount of exercise a week because I felt that I had to, and hadn’t been able to stop myself from doing it even when I didn’t want to. She genuinely replied with “Yeah but that’s fine because exercise is good!” Because we have such a warped view about exercise, many people don’t seem to understand how detrimental it is to those with eating disorders, especially when it doesn’t appear to be severe.

Some people with eating disorders push themselves to the extreme when it comes to exercise. Some people exercise for five hours a day, and some more. Some people never let themselves sit down – ever – except when sleeping (and I’ve even known someone to sleep standing up). It is easier for people without eating disorders to understand why this might be a problem, but when you are someone with an eating disorder who exercises in a way that people might perceive as inspiring and healthy; in a way that people might see as #goals; in a way that people aspire to, you may end up with congratulations rather than concern.

For those who have exercise addiction, you can’t just stop when you want to, or give yourself a day off (unless you already have a “scheduled” day/time, and then it must be that day/time and none other). You will miss social events if it coincides with your sessions. You will feel incredibly anxious before exercising, and after the exhilaration of finishing a workout has subsided, you will feel the dread of knowing that in less than 24 hours you will be repeating the same monotonous and exhausting work out. You will continue with your exercise routine however much you don’t want to do it, however tired you feel, or however sick you are. It is not enjoyment that drives someone with exercise addiction: it is the perceived need to do so.

As well as being mentally draining, compulsive exercise (also known an obligatory exercise or in extreme cases, anorexia athletica) can have a negative effect on the body. Firstly, by working out intensely every day, the body is being put under a lot of strain, and is not being given any time to recover, which is needed. Those addicted to exercise will work out even if they are ill or injured, which could have serious consequences to their health, including damage to tendons, ligaments, bones, cartilage, and joints. When injuries happen and are not given enough rest to heal, this can result in long-term damage. If the body is not getting the nutrition that it needs, muscle can be broken down for energy instead of building muscle. Girls and women could disrupt the balance of hormones in their bodies, which can change menstrual cycles and even lead to the absence of them altogether. It can also increase the risk of premature bone loss, which is known as osteoporosis. The most serious risk is the stress that excessively exercising can place on the heart, particularly when someone is also restricting their intake, or using self-induced vomiting to control their weight. Using diet pills or supplements can also increase the risk for heart complications. In worst case scenarios, restrictive eating disorders and compulsive exercise can result in death.

The reasons behind exercise addiction can be complicated when it comes to eating disorders. For many people it is an additional means of furthering and/or quickening weight loss, or it could be the main part of someone’s eating disorder, in order to get “fit” or muscular (anorexia athletica). It could be about control. It could be, like the rest of the eating disorder, a form of distraction from feeling or thinking certain things. It could be part of orthorexia (an obsession with eating “healthy” or “pure” foods and leading “healthy” or “pure” lifestyle). Athletes, dancers, wrestlers, gymnasts, and other people who are fixated with keeping in shape and keeping their weight down for their careers are also susceptible to developing exercise addiction.

Although it is not listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, exercise addiction is a serious and potentially life-threatening obsession, and needs to be taken extremely seriously. It is not just a strain on the body but a strain on the mind. It is absolutely exhausting, and completely miserable to experience. It can take up a huge amount of your life and a huge amount of your thoughts, and is extremely unhealthy for your physical and mental health. Whether it  is the main part of an eating disorder, a lesser part of an eating disorder, or a disorder on its own, compulsive exercise is serious. It is something that must be challenged and overcome as part of recovery from an eating disorder, and must be ceased until the unhealthy relationship with exercise is broken and remade into something healthy. Only in remission can someone make an informed and healthy decision about whether to restart exercise and how much/what to do in regards to moving their body. Even then, it’s a fine line.

I talk more about a healthy relationship with exercise in part 1.

If you think you may be developing/have developed an addiction to exercise, seek medical help from your GP.

Signs that you or someone you know may be suffering from compulsive exercise include (but are not limited to) the following:

  • Not enjoying exercise sessions, but feeling obligated to do them
  • Seeming (or being) anxious or guilty when missing even one workout
  • Not missing a single workout and possibly exercising twice as long if one is missed
  • Seeming (or being) constantly preoccupied with his or her (or your) weight and exercise routine
  • Not being able to sit still or relax because of worry that not enough calories are being burnt
  • A significant amount of weightloss
  • Increase in exercise after eating more
  • Not skipping a workout, even if tired, sick, or injured
  • Skipping seeing friends, or giving up activities/hobbies to make more time for exercise
  • Basing self-worth on the number of workouts completed and the effort put into training
  • Never being satisfied with his or her (or your) own physical achievements
  • Working out alone, isolated from others, or so that other people are not aware of how much exercise is being done
  • Following the same rigid exercise pattern.
  • Exercising for more than two hours daily, repeatedly

(sites used for reference and more information: 

http://www.brainphysics.com/exercise-addiction.php
http://addictions.about.com/od/lesserknownaddictions/a/exerciseadd.htm
http://kidshealth.org/parent/emotions/behavior/compulsive_exercise.html
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Exercise_addiction )

Exercise (pt 1): Is it Part of Your Healthy Lifestyle, or Are You Waging War on Your Body?

personal-exercise

My first ever blog post was on the dangers of exercise addiction, but I wanted to reboot this topic and do it over in two parts, focusing more on exercise in recovery from an eating disorder (in part 2), as well as exercise in the general community (part 1 right here), and the effects it can have on both sets of people.

Exercise is something that those with eating disorders use and abuse to lose weight, change their bodies, and deal with negative thoughts and feelings in a negative and unhealthy way, but it is also something that has become a toxic part of many people’s lives in the community at large. It has become something that is unhealthy for many people who are engaging in it.

“Exercise…unhealthy?!” you gasp in disbelief, “How can something that is clearly part of a healthy lifestyle be a problem?”

The issue with exercise in our society now is the way people exercise. The issue is why people exercise. The issues are the mentality: the thoughts and feelings behind what is driving someone to exercise, and the outcome that they are looking for.

If you look around at the media, at health food blogs, at doctors recommendations, at magazines, books, and website articles, then you will see that women primarily, but also men too, are constantly being told that they should be exercising in order to lose weight or become toned, or in some way alter the way that their bodies look. I frequently see my friends updating their Facebook statuses letting us all know they have had an intense session at the gym, or tweeting about how they don’t want to go out for a run because it’s cold but that they need to. I see “healthy” lifestyles which include clean eating (eliminating all processed foods and extra additives from your diet, and only eating whole, unrefined foods) and regular exercise all over blogging sites. I can’t seem to avoid fitspo. Society has become obsessed with it.

There are people who genuinely enjoy the physical activities that they pursue as hobbies. There are people who don’t like the physical activities that they choose to do but feel that the results are worth it.  There are people who cannot stand to do the physical activity that they force themselves to do but feel like they have to do it because of whatever the driving force behind their exercise is – which is usually body hatred.

In my opinion, only the first of the three types of active people that I mentioned should be exercising. The others should cease exercise and heal their relationships with their bodies and themselves before resuming any physical activity. They should find physical activities that they genuinely enjoy that are primarily focused on having fun and/or socialising rather than changing the way their bodies look.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not condoning a lifestyle of sitting on the couch eating Chinese takeaways and playing videogames forever after (but if that’s what makes you happy, by all means, go for it! No judgements made), as I believe movement is part of a healthy lifestyle, but I do not think that anyone should be forcing themselves to do a workout that they don’t find any enjoyment in. I do not think that anyone should be wasting time engaging in activities that they do want to do purely because they are driven by a society telling them that their bodies are not good enough as they are and/or that they are lazy and unhealthy if they do not engage in x amount of physical activity doing certain types of exercise.

“I really don’t want to go the gym today, but I know I need to/have to/should,” is a common comment that I hear from colleagues, friends, and strangers, and this is a result of the insidious and toxic system that is diet culture. Nobody has an obligation to engage in physical activities that they don’t enjoy. Nobody should.  These days we see exercise as something we don’t want to do, but something that we have to do. Doctor’s orders. Exercise has become something we associate with gyms and aerobics and gruelling runs, which most people don’t really enjoy. We’ve lost touch of recreational activity: doing things that we enjoy that involves physical activity. The enjoyment part is primary, and the activity secondary.

Being active is great, but only when you have found something that you actually enjoy. This could just be leisurely strolls through the countryside, or hikes in the hills. This could be swimming with your kids, or challenging a friend to a few badminton games. This could be finding a team sport that makes your heart race and your grin wide. It could be practising mindfulness through yoga, or getting competitive with a colleague whilst playing squash. This could be once a week or once a day. Whatever makes you happy. Not whatever makes you lose weight, or whatever gives you abs. Not whatever gives you a tiny waist or bulging arm muscles. Not whatever burns the most calories. Whatever makes you happy.

Physical activity should be done only if it adding to your life, not something that comes at a cost. Not something that you dread. Not something that you have to make yourself do. Exercise is something that is pushed on us as categorically healthy, but it’s just not when it comes at the expense of someone’s mental or physical health, and it’s not when the drive behind it is body dissatisfaction, or downright body hatred. On the extreme end of the spectrum, exercise can also turn into a dangerous addiction, and in the case where exercise becomes the focus of someone’s life it needs to be taken very seriously, and this is something that I will talk about in my next article in the coming weeks (part 2).

If you are exercising not because you want to, but because you feel that you should, or have to, then I would highly suggest that you take time out, stop the exercise that you have been engaging in, and take the time to evaluate if what you are doing is actually benefiting you. Assess your reasons for exercising, and start building a positive and healthy relationship between you and your body. Because you need it, and you deserve it. Your body is perfect just as it is. Learn to love it, not to wage war on it. Then find movement in your life that makes you smile. Find movement in your life that you look forward to. Find movement that brings you positivity, and never expend energy in the name of diet culture ever again. You are beautiful, and this is what you deserve.