Tag Archives: mental health

Men with Eating Disorders: Suffering in Silence

men and eating disorders

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.

 

Why Do We Find it So Hard to Accept that Our Weight is Not as Within Our Control as We’d Like to Think?

bridget jones

Most of us have grown up in countries preoccupied with weight. We have grown up being told that it is down to us what size we end up at, that we have control over what weight we are, and that it’s about having willpower and making the “right” choices about what we put in our mouths. We’ve been told to count calories, exercise at the gym, resist cake, fill up on fruit and veggies, and even to curb hunger with glasses of water. We’ve been told to ignore hunger, wage war on our bodies, and to trust the information given to us by the media and the weightloss and dieting industry. Even our doctors have gotten on board with the “healthy is only for the slim” message, regardless of evidence to the contrary.

But recently, health at every size and weight set point theory are finally starting to become recognised as fact. Information about our bodies having varying, individual, healthy weights that the body will attempt to stay at regardless of what you eat is at last wedging itself into the media. Information about the fact that you can be fat and be healthy is now getting noticed, rather than being swept under the rug and buried by the pharmaceutical and weight loss industries that benefit hugely from the majority of the population trying to alter the way that their bodies look.

But even though this evidence is coming to light, people still seem to be having a hard time accepting it. By people, I mean healthcare officials and others who get to make the big decisions about what information is given as guidelines for health. By people, I also mean the public. Even though the evidence showing those who are in the “overweight” BMI category are living longer than any other BMI category (yes, including the “normal” category) was so overwhelming that it was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, people are still trying to find reasons to why this could be other than it actually just being the obvious: that it’s healthy to be “overweight”, and that “overweight” is not overweight: that we have to accept this as reality, like we would with any other comprehensive scientific study. Even the medical community keep trying to bury their heads in the sand and subtly hide or erase the information that the (many) studies have given us.

Other studies show that you can be any shape, weight, or size, and be healthy (this becomes less likely with the very morbidly obese and the underweight, but that is not to say that there are not those in both categories that are healthy), and many, many studies show that food and weight is not as correlated as we have been told it is (for more information on weight set point theory go to “Weight Set Point Theory!” under my links section). In fact, it probably doesn’t play much of a part at all, unless you are starving yourself so that your body cannot maintain its weight because of the lack of energy, or you are stuffing yourself to the point of nausea every time you eat so your body cannot cope with the excess energy. The latter is not a common occurrence, except for those with binge eating disorder (which is far less common than you think it is, but that’s a conversation for another time), whereas, unfortunately, the former is – because of the influence the dieting and weight loss industry has had on us, and the prevalence of restrictive eating disorders. The body actually has it’s own system for regulating body weight when you are listening and responding to it properly, not ignoring hunger, and following cues from the body to eat whatever it wants, whenever it wants. If you are in touch with your body and can eat an amount comfortably within your day, then you’re not eating too much, and your body can regulate the energy it is being given so that you still maintain within your healthy weight range that is individual for your body.

So why, even with all the hard facts and evidence, it is so hard for us to accept that a) you can be fat and healthy and b) if you want to be healthy, you have to let your weight be what it is supposed to be naturally?

It’s something that I’ve had to think about, because this is a topic close to my heart and one that helped my recovery from atypical anorexia, and because I’ve come across people on the internet and in my life that have point blank refused to even look at the research showing them that the misinformation that has been drilled into us from our fatphobic, thin-obsessed diet culture isn’t actually reality. It’s frustrating, and it’s sad. I am lucky that most of my friends are at ease around food, and – even though they have their own insecurities about the way that they look – accept their bodies as they are. However, I have a few friends that include those who go on and off diets, desperate to find a way to feel better about their bodies, those who flit between diets and disordered behaviour whilst loathing the skin they live in, and those who battle eating disorders (and before I end up validating the myth that diet culture is a common cause of eating disorders, it’s not, but it sure as hell makes recovering all the more difficult). It’s these people that I feel so sad for, and all the billions of others that are at war with their bodies, that don’t know about – or can’t accept – the fact that their natural, healthy weight is not under their control. And I feel sad for all those who are naturally in the overweight or obese BMI ranges, whose natural, healthy weights are where there bodies are at, but are constantly shamed and abused for those bodies that they are in. And I feel sad for those who have spent their life yo-yo dieting, only to see their weight go up and up and not understand why (side note: it’s because your metabolism slows down during the diet because your body is being starved, and then it stores energy as fat when you go off the diet and so you subsequently gain weight, so you end up back on a diet again, and the cycle continues, rather than letting your body heal and settle back at its natural, healthy weight range). And I feel angry at those who remain wilfully ignorant and keep judging and condemning those who are overweight or obese.

culture

But back to the question: why is it that we find it so hard to accept that maybe body diversity is great, and that people can be healthy at any weight, shape, or size,  and that we can’t dictate what our weight is if we want to be healthy and happy?

The first, most obvious reason to me is that we have had misinformation drilled into us for so long. We have grown up being told fat is bad and that we are responsible for saying no to so many of the foods we want to eat, responsible for exercising frequently, and responsible for maintaining a slim body. To then hear such opposing information means that our world turns upside down. Food and weight are such integral parts of our culture and society that to have what we think we know turned on its head is disturbing. It’s confusing. It’s shocking. It means we have to rethink everything about that topic. For some people, that’s just too much, so they refuse to believe it: they reject the new knowledge outright. People don’t like change. It’s scary and it makes people feel uneasy and unstable. It also means that if you accept that we are being lied to, then it makes it hard to know what information to trust, and that makes life a hell of a lot harder.

For some people, making choices about food and maintaining a certain weight through those choices are a form of control. People generally like to be in control. And even though we associate food and control being two parts of an equation that results in an eating disorder, those without eating disorders often engage in what is called “disordered eating”, and that can most definitely include feelings of control. Disordered eating is not a mental illness, but it’s an unhealthy relationship with food (and most probably involves body image issues too). It’s also really, really common because of how obsessed our society has made us with food, and because our diet culture literally encourages it. To be someone who uses food and weight maintenance as a way of feeling in control, and then finding out that you don’t need to have that control and actually to not be controlling about food and weight is the best way to be healthy, is an anxiety-provoking experience. So they reject it.

People also don’t like to have laboured under false hope. Those who feel unsatisfied with their bodies (and who doesn’t after our bodies have been attacked and shamed and ridiculed by the media and the dieting and weight loss industry in order to get us to buy their products) and who have gone on to diet, don’t want to know that their efforts are in vain and that they will not maintain any weight loss, that they will probably end up gaining more weight than the weight they originally lost, and that their dieting and subsequent weight loss and weight fluctuations can actually create health issues including higher risk of developing diseases, and a higher mortality rate. People who feel unhappy in their bodies don’t want to hear that they actually can’t make those changes to their bodies, especially if they want to be healthy. They don’t want to know that they are stuck with the body that they have, even though it has been shown over and over that changing your body doesn’t make you any happier (and again, changing your body isn’t sustainable). To actually learn to accept your body as it is can – sadly – seem like a much bigger challenge than changing it.

In addition, there’s a darker reason why people don’t want to accept the changing of the tides where food and weight is concerned: people who make what are considered “healthy” choices about diet and exercise feel morally superior.

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from “How We Eat: Appetite, Culture, and the Psychology of Food” By Leon Rappoport

This makes me feel highly, highly uncomfortable, and it should make you feel the same. What people eat or don’t eat is not a reflection of who they are as a person. It doesn’t make someone a better person if they eat whole foods and abstain from any kind of “junk” food. It doesn’t make someone a worse person if they enjoy burgers and fries. Eating “healthy” doesn’t mean that they have more willpower than someone who chooses to eat “junk” foods. It doesn’t make anyone more superior than anyone else. It doesn’t mean that they are making better life choices. It doesn’t even mean that they are doing the best thing for their body and souls. It doesn’t mean anything except that they are making different choices to someone else. That’s it. That’s all it means. But somehow, it has become ingrained in us that we are morally superior if we make “healthier” choices. And yes, I chose to put that word in quotation marks because I don’t believe that you are necessarily healthier if you only eat “healthy” foods. I also believe that distinguishing “healthy” and “unhealthy” perpetuates a negative relationship with food because it then leads to “good” and “bad”, and there we are, back to morality, guilt, and shame again.

Accepting information that affects us in so many different ways is a really, really tough thing to do. Food and weight is inextricably linked with feelings of superiority and willpower, shame and guilt, with privilege, abuse, money, hatred, insecurity, laziness, greed, power, and sexuality – if not much more. To look at it all anew and recognise how much of it is wrong, and the devastating affect it has had on so many people takes time and patience. It also takes acceptance that those providing us with our health information don’t have our best interests at heart, and that can make some people feel embarrassed for having such blind faith in such a corrupt system.

So I get it. I get that it’s not something that people can just accept at a moment’s notice. But on the other hand you can’t bury your head in the sand and protest blindly against that which is proven fact, however much others try to muddy the water and cloud your judgement. Think for yourself. Educate yourself. Whatever conclusion you come to, make sure you’ve got the information and the knowledge. Don’t just blindly accept whatever you are told as the truth. That is all I ask, for your sake, and the sake of those affected by our obsession with food and thinness…for the sake of everyone. Take control by educating yourself, making the right choices for your physical and mental health, and taking steps towards making peace with your body, as it is.