Tag Archives: diet

Eating Disorders and Willpower: An Absurd Association

will power

Willpower. It’s something that we associate with strength. It is something that we admire in others, and it’s something we want for ourselves. And in this day and age, it is problematically associated with dieting and weight loss. The association even extends to restrictive eating disorders. I want to tell you how wrong it is to think that the two are synonymous.

I want to firstly consult the dictionary. Let’s take a look at the definition of “will”:

Will
noun

1. the faculty by which a person decides on and initiates action.
“she has an iron will”
synonyms: determination, firmness of purpose, fixity of purpose, will power, strength of character, resolution, resolve, resoluteness, purposefulness, single-mindedness, drive, commitment, dedication, doggedness, tenacity, tenaciousness, staying power, backbone, spine; More
2. control deliberately exerted to do something or to restrain one’s own impulses.
noun: willpower
“a stupendous effort of will”

A person with an eating disorder does not decide to have one. They do not have any power or control when developing or having an active eating disorder. They do not initiate action: the eating disorder does. They have no say in the matter whatsoever. So using “will” in the context of eating disorders is absurd.
Let’s also have a look at the definition of willpower itself:

noun
1. control of one’s impulses and actions; self-control.

Again, there is no control when it comes to an eating disorder. There is certainly no self-control. In actuality, it is the opposite that is true: someone with an eating disorder is completely out of control. They are not deciding to abstain from food or drink. They are not deciding to compulsively exercise. They are not deciding to vomit their meals into toilets and trash cans. They have no control over their ever dwindling intake, the inability to eat ice cream, or the ten miles they feel they must run. The severe mental illness that they are suffering from is running the show, not the person with the illness. Eating disorders are not a choice, and to insinuate that someone with an eating disorder has willpower is to insinuate that they have a choice.

You might be someone who has previously considered an eating disorder to be a choice, and are looking for an explanation of how it is not. Let me first stress: eating disorders have a genetic link. This means that if you do not have the genes to develop an eating disorder, then you will not develop one. If you have the eating disorder gene (which is being researched: the specific gene has not been identified as of yet, and it is most likely a combination of genes, not just one) then it is possible to go through life without triggering it into action. However, if environmental factors trigger the gene (and the triggers are plentiful: dieting, bullying, death of a loved one, abuse, parents divorcing, illness, fasting – you see how these can be both emotional or physical triggers), then you will develop an eating disorder. Genetics load the gun, environment pulls the trigger, the saying goes. So genetics have an important part to play in the development of an eating disorder, and you don’t get to choose your genes.

Here are some examples of how it works inside the mind: if you had to choose between eating a highly restrictive amount of calories and living with aching hunger, or feeling like tearing your own skin off, would you comply with your eating disorder or your hunger? If you had to choose between exercising until you felt like you might vomit and pass out or feeling so disgusting in your body that you would consider killing yourself, what choice would you make? If you had to choose between not eating a slice of pizza that you desperately crave or feeling like such a failure that you punished yourself by cutting you body multiple times in multiple places, what would you choose? And when you see those options, does it really look like much of a choice any more? Each option is torturous and punishing, but one always gets you closer to the goal of losing more weight, or at least attempting to. You’ll feel better when your body is perfect, the eating disorder says. You’ll feel better if you barely eat. You will be more in control, it lies, and there are so many lies it will tell to keep you from fighting against it. 

The more the illness pervades the mind and the sufferer responds to the eating disorder, the more things like food and weight become a source of anxiety. Each time you respond to the voice telling you not to eat or you will feel something unbearable, the more the message in reinforced in the brain. You see, when you avoid something that makes you anxious, the more the brain is told that it is something to be anxious of because it is being avoided, and the more anxious you become of it. Another sneaky way the eating disorder survives is to completely distort the perception of the sufferer, so that their body looks to them to be completely different to what anyone else sees, and in a lot of cases, the thinner they become, the fatter they feel. This way the eating disorder continues to dictate the actions and thoughts of its host (and yes, that is what you feel like: just a host to a demon that is making you diminish in size inside and outside day by day).

I could go on, but let’s get back to willpower.

Meghan Trainor caused uproar with her incomprehensible comment about her apparent lack of willpower to “go anorexic”.

I wasn’t strong enough to have an eating disorder. I tried to go anorexic for a good three hours. I ate ice and celery, but that’s not even anorexic. And I quit. I was like, ‘Ma, can you make me a sandwich? Like, immediately.’

Her comment is one of such extreme ignorance that it makes my blood boil. For one, strength doesn’t come into eating disorders. Strength is something of value. It is a brilliantly positive trait to have; something you use in the face of hardship; to get through something or to defeat it. It is something that you use to fight and beat an eating disorder, not something you use to continue its existence. It does not take strength to have an eating disorder: it takes sickness and misery and intense self-hatred. It takes strength to recover. Secondly, you cannot “try to go anorexic for a good three hours”. Anorexia is first and foremost a mental illness (like all other eating disorders), not something that you can just “try” and then stop because you get a bit too hungry. “Trying” is not part of an eating disorder. You would never in a million years “try” to have an eating disorder if you understood what it entailed. It’s not about having the willpower to “go anorexic”. Any eating disorder is a disease that creeps up on you and slowly invades your mind bit by bit until it has wormed its way into every part of it, and then suddenly you realise that you are drowning in it and there is no conceivable way out. You don’t just “go anorexic” for three hours and then choose to stop. Need I say it again: there is no choice. And no, funnily enough eating ice and celery for three hours only does not mean you have a serious and deadly disease.

Willpower is inextricably linked to choice, and we know that eating disorders are not a choice, so the two cannot be thought of in conjunction with each other. Ever. To talk about eating disorders requiring willpower undermines the helplessness and hopelessness that someone feels whilst being under the control of such a powerful and deadly disease. To talk about eating disorders requiring willpower – a positive trait we all want – undermines the sheer anguish and torment someone suffering from one has to experience every second of every day. To say eating disorders require willpower is to inadvertently say that there is something that tortured person has that you admire. You are looking into eyes full of pain and saying, “I want what you have.

Willpower is a positive thing. Having an eating disorder is a living hell. Willpower is strength and control. Living with an eating disorder is being crushed under a dictator that ultimately wants you dead and feeling unable to do anything but obey and walk knowingly into the jaws of death. Willpower is willpower and eating disorders are eating disorders. Let’s not mix up the two.

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Vyvanse and BED: Money-making in Disguise as Treatment?

vyvanse pic

Fairly recently, Vyvanse – a drug known for treating ADHD – was approved to treat binge eating disorder (BED). I was first made aware of this drug via a message sent to my blog from a woman living in the US who was angry about the effects this could potentially have on people who were prescribed it. I did a bit of reading up about it, but soon forgot about it. The topic came up again when a friend linked me to an article about the drug being used for treating BED, which I read, and my interest was piqued. I started thinking about the problems that would arise from it’s approval to treat BED that are both numerous and highly concerning.

In May 2013, the DSM-V was published, with BED being newly recognised as a psychiatric disorder. On the surface, this sounds great: sufferers of BED were finally being recognised and validated, but a further look into this and the subsequent approval of Vyvanse to treat it raises some serious questions.

In a society where almost two in five (37%) women and one in six (18%) men in the UK are dieting “most of the time”, and 108 million people are on diets in the US, a huge amount of us are restricting on a daily basis, and when we “fail”, we feel shame, guilt, hopeless, and anger at ourselves. And failing is inevitable, because diets do not work. Dieters often end up in a restriction/binge cycle, and mistake their dieting for normal behaviour, and so only take note of their binging and see this as a weakness rather than a normal biological response to starving the body. If the body has an energy deficit due to restriction, it will seek to restore balance by compensating later on. So with that in mind, we can now look at the criteria for BED:

  • Recurrent episodes of binge eating. An episode of binge eating is characterized by both of the following:
    • eating, in a discrete period of time (for example, within any 2-hour period), an amount of food that is definitely larger than most people would eat in a similar period of time under similar circumstances
    • a sense of lack of control over eating during the episode (for example, a feeling that one cannot stop eating or control what or how much one is eating)
  • The binge-eating episodes are associated with three (or more) of the following:
    • eating much more rapidly than normal
    • eating until feeling uncomfortably full
    • eating large amounts of food when not feeling physically hungry
    • eating alone because of feeling embarrassed by how much one is eating
    • feeling disgusted with oneself, depressed, or very guilty afterwards
  • Marked distress regarding binge eating is present.
  • The binge eating occurs, on average, at least once a week for three months.
  • The binge eating is not associated with the recurrent use of inappropriate compensatory behavior (for example, purging) and does not occur exclusively during the course Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, or Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder.

For me, this criteria is extremely problematic. This criteria is pretty vague, and in conjunction with a society that vehemently fears over-eating and weight gain, becomes a fit for a large proportion of people. Let’s take a look at it in more detail:
– “an amount of food that is definitely larger than most people would eat in a similar period of time under similar circumstances” – this is particularly non-specific, and in our society, many people have a distorted view on what is larger than most people, especially when so many are restricting. It is also normal for someone who has been restricting to experience eating more than normal, because of the body trying to restore itself to being energy-balanced.
– “a sense of lack of control over eating during the episode” – many people feel out of control when it comes to food because we are made to feel that out of control if we are not eating in some strict and regimented way. That feeling is even more accentuated when the drive to survive overcomes the person’s desire to diet, and the body makes up for lost energy by “binging”.
– Eating rapidly is also part of the drive to get energy in as fast as possible when it needs it.
– Eating until uncomfortably full is easy to do when the body requires more energy than the stomach has room. The desire for food is just another way for the body to communicate hunger, and people often do not recognise this as a type of physical hunger (the brain is part of our physical being as well).
– Eating alone when eating what someone considers more than normal, or when someone is experiencing reactive eating in response to restriction, is – unfortunately – normal because of the way our society has surrounded food in a thick layer of shame.
– And if you are dieting, or misinterpreting your eating as a “binge” (because I would argue that many people have a distorted view of what a binge actually is), this is likely to happen “at least once a week for three months”.

“With these diagnostic criteria [for BED], there is huge potential for a false positive. Do a lot of people struggle with binge-eating? Absolutely. Are all of these people actually ill? That is the major question around this diagnosis and the Vyvanse treatment,” said Lisa Cosgrove, a professor and clinical Psychologist at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.

So what we have here is a list of things that those with BED suffer from, but written in a way that it could easily fit someone misinterpreting their eating habits because they have distorted ideas of what binging is, or are not aware of the effects that dieting has on the body. This means that these people could go to the doctors, tick all the boxes, and receive a diagnosis. Our fatphobic society steeped in diet culture would have no problem with that. A quote from Ray Moyniham in  Motherboard talks about this:

“You have to be extremely sensitive to the fact that there are people who are really suffering severe and debilitating symptoms from a condition,” said Ray Moynihan, a senior research fellow at Bond University in Australia and the author of Selling Sickness: How the World’s Biggest Pharmaceutical Companies Are Turning Us All Into Patients. “But when we put so much energy into medicalizing normality, it takes resources and attention and care away from people who are seriously ill.”

Now on to June 2014, where Shire wins the key patent ruling for the drug Vyvanse. The Telegraph writes:

Shire hopes to increase sales of the drug by broadening its uses into other patient groups, such as very young children and sufferers of the newly-recognised psychiatric problem binge-eating disorder (BED).
The drug maker told investors on Monday that it expected to make $300m from sales of Vyvanse to BED patients by 2020, following a successful clinical trial showing the drug helped control binge eating.

This raises a red flag for me: Shire will desperately want to make as much money as possible before its patent expires, and this means expanding its treatment to those with other illnesses other than ADHD. Shire had already thought of BED as an option, and already had that idea in the pipeline. Is the fact that BED was finally recognised and put into the DSM-V just when Shire needed a new illness to treat a convenient coincidence, or something more dubious?

In January 2015, Vyvanse was approved to treat BED. The fairly vague criteria for BED could mean that BED is over-diagnosed and over treated, with a drug that is an amphetamine. Hang on, what?

Amphetamines became extremely popular in the mid 1900s as a weightloss drug, before concerns about the dangerous side effects caused the FDA to ban amphetamines from diet ads.

The most serious risks include psychiatric problems and heart complications, including sudden death in people who have heart problems or heart defects, and stroke and heart attack in adults. Central nervous system stimulants, like Vyvanse, may cause psychotic or manic symptoms, such as hallucinations, delusional thinking, or mania, even in individuals without a prior history of psychotic illness. The most common side effects reported by people taking Vyvanse in the clinical trials included dry mouth, sleeplessness (insomnia), increased heart rate, jittery feelings, constipation, and anxiety. – take from here.

Vyvanse was approved for treating BED after only two 12-week studies.

“I tried (and failed) to persuade the DSM 5 group that BED was a premature and dangerous idea precisely because I feared it would be a backdoor excuse for drug companies to promote stimulant diet pills,” Dr. Frances Allen, a psychiatrist and frequent critic of the DSM-5, told Motherboard in an email. He has had particular concerns about the new criteria for diagnosing eating disorders. “The rushed approval of Vyvanse realizes my worst fears”

People actually suffering from BED are desperate to get rid of their mental illness, but therein lies the issue: BED is a mental illness. I have severe reservations about an appetite suppressant being used to combat an eating disorder that for a lot of people has roots in trauma, and other deep-seated emotional problems. The appetite of that person isn’t the issue: the drive to eat as a coping mechanism is. And not only are we going to be dealing with actual sufferers, but those misdiagnosed because of the ill-defined criteria, and those faking the illness to get a hold of Vyvanse, either because of its street value, or because of its use as a weightloss drug. Which brings me to the dangers of those with restrictive eating disorders reeling off the list of BED symptoms, and getting a prescription of Vyvanse to continue their downward spiral that only leads closer and closer to death. Because a binge eating disorder diagnosis relies on self-reported behaviour, it means that it is not difficult to fake, and consequently, it is not difficult to get a diagnosis. Pro-ana sites are already sharing their experiences with Vyvanse, and tips on how to get hold of the drug. The consequences of this could be catastrophic.

I received a message to my blog recently when the subject of Vyvanse came up:

I was recently diagnosed with BED and prescribed Vyvanse. My psychiatrist gave it to me because he said I was gaining too much weight. He gave it to me to use as a weightless pill. I don’t think that’s okay. In the past I have suffered from anorexia and bulimia. So of course, I accepted the pill. Hoping it would be easier to not eat at all. I think this may be a problem for a lot of people very soon.

This shows that already Vyvanse is being misused by doctors themselves, who are supposed to be people that we trust with our healthcare. But with the pharmaceutical industry being all about the money-making, it’s hardly surprising.

In my opinion, the inclusion of BED in the DSM-V, the vague diagnosis criteria, the subsequent research into using Vyvanse to treat BED, and the swift approval of that usage, are linked together. The pharmaceutical company have helped themselves to make more profit off both those with BED, and so many without it, with a drug that in my opinion will not successfully treat the disorder it has been approved for. And this drug is likely to have devastating consequences.

Food is Not a Moral Issue

cake

“I’m being naughty today”, the woman in front of me paying for her coffee and brownie says to the cashier. I grit my teeth and bite my tongue. I want to tell her that the word “naughty” does not apply to food. I wanted to tell her that being naughty is doing something wrong, and food is not a matter of right and wrong. I wanted to tell her that food is not a moral issue.

“I’m treating myself today” is another one I hear often when in the queue at coffee shops; the women looking guiltily at the cashier, wanting to justify their hesitant decision to buy a slice of cake. The underlying message is always “I’m disciplined usually! I swear it’s just this one time! I don’t usually eat cake!” And underneath that, is the belief that cake is bad.

How can a food be bad? It doesn’t make sense when you really think about it. Food fits into the category of inanimate objects. They are not alive, and do not possess a personality or a concept of right and wrong. Food cannot be good, and it cannot be bad. Food is food. Food provides energy, and different types of nutrients dependent on the type. Eating one type of food doesn’t make you good, and eating another type of food doesn’t make you bad. It just means that you are eating a food type. Having cake does not have an impact on your morality, and therefore, neither the cake nor you are bad.

Bad, indulgent, naughty, sinful – these are all words to describe a personality or moral status, and yet we – and the advertisements that we watch – use them to describe some of the foods that we eat. Why only certain types of food? Who decided that cake, chocolate, or ice cream was indulgent or sinful? Who came up with the idea that eating a burger is bad? Who suddenly felt that consuming a bag of crisps was naughty?

But what about gluttony? you ask, gluttony is one of the sins. If you are of a certain religion, then you’re right: gluttony is, in some Christian denominations, viewed as a sin. I also want to point out that, according to the Bible, wearing two types of material together is a sin, as is divorce, eating shellfish, and your wife defending your life in a fight by grabbing your attacker’s genitals (no seriously: “If two men, a man and his countryman, are struggling together, and the wife of one comes near to deliver her husband from the hand of the one who is striking him, and puts out her hand and seizes his genitals, then you shall cut off her hand; you shall not show pity.“). We seem to over-exaggerate some “sins” and ignore others entirely to suit our society. Gluttony – derived from the Latin “gluttire” (to gulp down or swallow) – means to over-consume food, drink, or wealth items to the point of extravagance or waste. Note that it is not limited to food and is about the immoral actions of wasting food or wealth that could be given to the needy. Note again how it does not specify certain types of foods and is not related to weight or healthy but rather to greed – having so much that it goes to waste. That does not mean eating a piece of cake because you fancy one. It means buying two cakes, eating to the point of nausea, vomiting so that you can fit in more, eating again, and throwing away the rest. (In this example I want to make it very, very clear that I am not talking about vomiting as an eating disordered behaviour. Vomiting to fit more food in was something that historically was used by wealthy citizens so that they could continue to eat more when extremely full, and I would imagine is linked to how gluttony was historically viewed in its accurate portrayal rather than our ridiculous twisted version of “gluttony” in our diet culture orientated society).

Even when I’m aware of all of this and have a healthy and happy relationship with food, it is still sometimes near impossible to not become sucked into the feeling of shame for buying foods that are considered “bad” in our diet culture, even though I myself do not feel that way. Standing in the queue at a store, chocolate in hand, I have felt anxious that I might be being judged for my choice of purchase. This is heightened by the fact that I am not someone who is super slim, and people are far more likely to judge those who are not super slim for their food choices than those who are. This type of judgement becomes more prominent the bigger the body – which is utterly inappropriate and stems from the incorrect belief that food and weight are intrinsically linked and that those who are bigger should eat less or differently to those who are smaller (check out my section on set point theory under “links” for more information), so I dread to think of the way those without any kind of thin privilege might feel at the prospect of being harshly judged for buying chocolate and the like.

I was talking with a friend recently about how people feel they have to behave in a society like ours in regards to food and exercise. My friend, for your information, is the epitome of the “ideal” woman that our society says we should strive to be: a blonde beauty: very slim but with curves in all the “right” places, but she is not exempt from the multitude of insecurities that our society pushes upon us. You can be the “ideal”, and you are still not ideal enough, and that is how the diet and weight loss industry makes billions of dollars per year, because we are always striving to change our body and make it “better”. She says, “I can be dressing up to go out on a night out, and I will have the same amount of insecurities as someone else [with a completely different body type] – they are just different insecurities about different things.”  In our second year of university she was miserable, and on reflection, she now puts a lot of that negativity down to the fact that she was forcing herself to go to the gym and eat salads, just because she felt that was the “right” thing to do. She was restricting her body in the name of being “healthy” and being “good”, when in actuality she was starving her body and subsequently destroying her emotional state at the same time. She has no history with an eating disorder in any shape or form, and even so, our diet culture told her that what she was doing was “right” – something she continued to do for the majority of that year, in spite of  both mental and physical effects.

The message our society gives out about food is toxic and damaging. Start trying to repair your relationship with food. It’s okay to eat what you want, when you want. You do not have a moral obligation to eat in a certain way (the same applies to exercise). Don’t label foods as “healthy” and “unhealthy” (read: “good” and “bad”), as this perpetuates a negative and unhealthy relationship with food. Enjoy your food. See it as a wonderful thing that provides for your body, brings people together, and gives you pleasure.

Food is food. Food is not a moral issue.