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Written by Lindzie O’Reilly, on-campus registered dietitian at the University of Guelph
Multiple times per week (sometimes multiple times per day) I am bombarded with messages about the dangers of sugar for our health and the benefits of removing it. What far fewer people are talking about are the dangers that come along with eliminating sugar completely.
It’s true – eating too much sugar day after day after day can have negative consequences for physical and mental well-being. That doesn’t mean, however, that we should cut it out completely. While avoiding sugar as a rule or aiming to quit “cold turkey” can seem appealing, it’s important to know the consequences of that approach before diving in. The true sweet spot is somewhere in middle, and the path that we take to get there is the most important.
We are evolutionarily programmed to crave sugar. In times of scarcity, sugar was a necessary source of energy for our ancestors. Craving sugar does not necessarily mean you have an addiction, it means that you are human. The most reliable way to induce a craving is to create a situation of scarcity – tell yourself you are never ever going to eat chocolate again and I guarantee you will crave it (and also feel worse about eating it, but we’ll talk about that in a minute). A great way to debunk the idea of ‘’sugar addiction” is to challenge yourself to eat nothing but sugar. Seriously, try it. Nothing but sugar for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks. I promise, it will get old pretty quickly.
Aiming to eliminate sugar completely is a recipe for the “what the heck” response. We’ve all been there. “I told myself I wasn’t going to have dessert with dinner, but I did any way. I’ve really messed up. I might as well have a second dessert, and while I’m at it, a third. I’ll start fresh tomorrow.” When we aim to avoid something completely, not only does it make it really likely that we will eat it, it makes us feel terrible about ourselves when we do eat it. Once the negative self-talk begins, it’s nearly impossible to make rational decisions that prioritize what is truly best for our well-being. Instead, it drastically increases our portion sizes and also the likelihood that we will engage in secretive behavior (sneaking back down to the kitchen for another slice of cake when no one is looking or stopping for another snack on the drive home).
Eliminating sugar completely in the name of health represents a very narrow focus of health. Eating foods that provide enough fuel and nutrients to support energy and health is certainly important. It’s also incredibly important to eat foods that we like the taste of, and to give ourselves permission to truly enjoy those foods. It’s important to surround ourselves with loved ones and share food, laughter and memories together. Imposing rules and restrictions on food makes it challenging to honour all of the different reasons why we eat and adds a layer of stress to situations that is not helpful in pursuing well-being.
So, If the path to well-being is somewhere in between eating cookies for every meal of every day and never eating cookies at all, how the heck do we get there?? That path involves gradual change and self-compassion. Most of us are great at highlighting the things we’re not happy about and identifying the things we think we should stop doing. Instead, there is a lot of value in taking time to reflect on our strengths and the things we are doing well and could do a little more often.
Instead of focusing on specific foods to avoid, it can be helpful to focus on the bigger picture. Can you take a break every few hours throughout the day to have something to eat? One of the biggest contributors to food cravings is a situation of scarcity. Intentionally or unintentionally, many people eat too little during the day resulting in a food debt that leaves them feeling exhausted, irritable, and out of control around food.
Food rules and black and white thinking have become so common in our society that we often forget there can be a middle ground. Diet talk highjacks our social media and our social gatherings. We collect food rules like badges of honour and try to bully ourselves into behavior change. Unless you have a medical reason to avoid a food completely, cutting it out of your life will inevitable do more harm than good. What would it look like if you experimented with kindness and self-compassion instead?
By Therese Kenny, MSc
Therese is a PhD student in the Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology program at the University of Guelph.
This week, I found myself at a “thank-you” breakfast. A beautiful spread had been provided with pastries, bagels, fruit, and hot drinks. To be honest though, there wasn’t much gratitude. I spent the entire breakfast listening to colleagues talk about what they should and shouldn’t eat, how bad they were being, and which foods were “okay” to consume. When I left, I was angry and frustrated. How could these lovely people be so ignorant about diet culture? How could they have enjoyed any part of this breakfast that was so graciously provided? Above all, I felt tremendous sadness: the food that was meant to connect us had ultimately left us ashamed and disconnected.
Food plays a significant role in our culture and many gatherings revolve around food. Think back to the last holiday, staff party, potluck. With all these food-centered events, there are many opportunities for diet culture messages to be transmitted. These gatherings, however, also provide an opportunity to counter or challenge these messages. It is for this reason that I am writing a post about some of the most common diet culture phrases, along with some ways to change the dialogue. My hope is that we can all be a little more mindful of how we speak and more compassionate towards ourselves as we navigate this messy, diet-centered world.
Oh, you’re so good. You are only having X.
Why this is problematic: When we make statements about the “goodness” or “badness” of people’s food choices (including our own), we assign moral value to food. This is problematic because it equates someone’s worth with what they eat. People’s (inherent) worth is not predicated on what food they put in their body any more than it is on the air that they breathe.
How to change the dialogue: First of all, it is probably best not to comment on what others are eating, unless you have a severe allergy and want them to move elsewhere. Second, when talking about our own food choices we can begin to change the language to talk about “delicious”, “satisfying”, or “fulfilling” foods. If you catch yourself using “good” and “bad”, take a pause to think about how this makes you feel and if there is a way to shift your perspective. Often the foods that we categorize as “bad” are the foods that bring us pleasure, connection, and satisfaction. In my mind, none of these things is bad. In fact, these are the things of which I want to grow more in my life!
I’m planning on not having X later.
Why this is problematic: Restricting or limiting what we eat in response to a previous meal or snack is known as a compensatory behaviour. That is, we use the restriction to compensate for something else that we may have had. People also sometimes do this with exercise. Have you ever heard someone talking about “having to go to the gym” after an event? This reinforces the societal message that there is a limit to what can be eaten in one day and that if one exceeds this limit they are obliged to make up for it. It also, once again, ties one’s worth to what they put in their body. It is 100% natural that the amount and types of food we eat will differ across days, weeks, months, and years. There will be times when you have the energy and financial resources to make home-cooked meals and there will be times when you are just too busy or don’t have the money so you pick-up take-out or make Kraft Dinner.
How to change the dialogue: Approaching each meal and snack with a sense of curiosity can help to allow us to better listen to our bodies. Maybe you don’t want the donut during the staff meeting because you are not in the mood for something sweet. And maybe you do. Both are alright. Stopping the talk about and the act of engaging in compensation is key, however, to being able to reach this point. Even if you are not ready to start making the journey to this point, limiting (or better yet, eliminating) the compensations talk at group events will likely be appreciated by those around you!
I shouldn’t have eaten that.
Why this is problematic: When we talk about whether you “should” or “shouldn’t” have something, we are implicitly saying that there are rules about what is and isn’t okay to eat. This is problematic because, again, it puts food into categories, whether that be good/bad, healthy/unhealthy, okay/not okay, the list goes on and on. These dichotomies send the inaccurate message that there are rules about what our bodies can have, which, unless you have an allergy or dietary restriction, is utter nonsense. When we put food into categories, we reduce it to its component elements, forgetting that food has long been so much more than macronutrients. Food allows for connection, compassion, and love.
How to shift the dialogue: Focusing on what you gained from the food can be helpful in shifting the dialogue. Do you have more energy? Do you feel satisfied? Were you able to connect with your friend, parent, child, sibling? Thinking of food as being more than just energy in allows us to truly enjoy the gifts that food provides, rather than spending our time in guilt or shame.
At the end of the day, diet culture is so engrained in our culture that it is a HUGE undertaking to begin to push back. Thinking about and changing the way we speak, though a seemingly small step, can have enormous benefits for you and the ones around you. Research shows that changing how we talk can change how we feel. And I bet that thinking about that donut as being “satisfying” or “delicious” makes you feel a lot better than viewing it as “bad” or “off-limits”.
Natalie Doan- BAH, MSc Student Public Health and Health Systems
Due to the complex nature of eating disorders, approaches toward treating eating disorders often involve a multidisciplinary team of doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists, dieticians, social worker, nurses, etc. Treatment also addresses different components of eating disorders, such as the physical, psychological, and interpersonal factors that contribute to and maintain eating disorders. This article will briefly describe five empirically-based psychotherapy approaches to treating eating disorders. Please note, this is not an exhaustive list.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy- Enhanced (CBT-E)
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is a popular psychotherapy used to treat many mental disorders. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy-Enhanced is a version of CBT that is modified for individuals with eating disorder pathology and is considered the gold standard in treating eating disorders. This type of therapy rests on the theory that disordered eating pathology is rooted in cognitive factors such as over-evaluation of the body, perfectionistic standards, and the need for control. The behavioural component of CBT-E focuses on reducing problematic eating disorder behaviours such as restriction, bingeing, purging, and body checking. Common activities in CBT-E include self-monitoring, cognitive restructuring, and behavioural chain analyses.
Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT)
Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT) was originally developed for people struggling with Borderline Personality Disorders, but has now been applied to treat a range of mental disorders, including eating disorders. This type of therapy is based on the affect regulation model which assumes that impulsive and self-destructive behaviours are caused by the inability to regulate and manage emotions. DBT is grounded in the concept of dialectics- the coexistence of seemingly opposite truths- and incorporates cognitive behavioural, meditative, and acceptance-based strategies to do so. The main modules of DBT include: mindfulness, distress tolerance, emotion regulation, and interpersonal effectiveness. DBT is used to treat eating disorders based on the assumptions that many individuals with eating disorders have difficult describing, tolerating, and expressing their emotions and that negative emotions are one of the most common triggers for symptomatic behaviours. This type of therapy is particularly effective for treating impulsive and problematic eating disorder symptoms where emotion dysregulation is a key culprit.
Cognitive Remediation Therapy (CRT)
Cognitive Remediation Therapy (CRT) targets weakness in cognitive processes underlying eating disorder symptoms. This therapy rests on the assumption that many Individuals with eating disorders often have cognitive styles characterized by inflexibility and excessive attention to detailed information. Cognitive inflexibility can manifest as persistent, rigid, conforming and obsessional thoughts or behaviours around food, weight, and routines. CRT helps individuals become aware of inflexible thinking patterns by reflecting on the process of completing simple cognitive games, reflecting, and then applying it to eating behaviour symptoms. Ultimately, these exercises help individuals see how thinking styles influences their eating disorder symptoms and overall quality of life. CRT also encourages practicing psychological flexibility outside of therapy sessions to strengthen neural connections, with simple (but challenging) behaviours such as taking a different route to destinations.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) contrasts some cognitive therapies (i.e., CBT) in that it focuses on changing actions rather than thoughts, feelings, sensations, or memories. To do so, individuals are encouraged to: accept reactions and be present; choose a valued direction; and take action. In the beginning of ACT, individuals identify core values and commit to creating goals to fulfill their values. In the process, ACT enables individuals to open up to unpleasant emotions and learn that they are a normal part of living an authentic life. In the end, this therapy should lead to reductions in avoidant coping styles that may enable eating disorder behaviours.
Cognitive Remediation and Emotion Skills Training (CREST)
As mentioned above, individuals with eating disorders often struggle with emotions. Therefore, Cognitive Remediation and Emotion Skills Training (CREST) was developed to help individuals with eating disorders to improve their emotional processing, the ability to process stress and other emotionally charged events. CREST aims to improve emotional processing by using simple experiential exercises to normalize emotions. The use of simple, concrete, and engaging exercises allow individuals to develop a more accessible range of vocabulary and skillfully manage their emotions. This adjunctive treatment for eating disorders covers themes such as thinking about feelings, recognizing your emotions, thinking positively, and expressing your emotions.
By : Sarah B
When I first got out of residential treatment a year ago, I used to write - a lot. I wanted to scream recovery at the top of my lungs. I was so proud of all the hard work I had been doing and how much joy recovery brought me that I wanted everyone, suffering or not, to know that recovery was possible. My instagram stories were chalked full of recovery rants, realizations, motivation and opinions. I flooded my facebook page with inspiring quotes, educational articles, statistics and anything mental health related. I had (and still do have) so much I wanted to share with the world about recovery, but lately the shame of stumbling my way through this journey has kept me silent.
Why is shame so powerful? Why once you give it an inch does it take a mile? Why does shame follow imperfection? Why do we let shame silence our voice?
I’ve been told recovery is not linear, and that phrase has been drilled into my brain for years now, yet somehow I thought I would be the exception; that I would be the first one to do recovery perfectly. In previous efforts towards recovery I would start off incredibly strong once leaving treatment without faltering - cue the black and white thinking. As soon as a slip occurred I would be upset, and ultimately ashamed of myself. In that moment I would instantly decide to throw in the towel and let myself relapse. If I couldn’t do it right, I wasn’t doing it at all.
This time around is very different. So here I am admitting struggle, and of being imperfect in my recovery. Acknowledging this is hard for me. I pride myself as being the strong one, in control (as many of us with eating disorders try to be), and as someone who is always okay. In the name of keeping up appearances, my social media presence declined to hide my imperfect recovery, conversations with friends and family were limited and surface level, and the shame of my struggle consequently silenced me. I didn’t want to let anyone in or to know that I wasn’t okay and struggling to hang on to my recovery that I had worked so hard for. I wish so bad that transparency and honesty came easy in recovery, but they don’t. Well, not for me at least.
It takes a great deal of courage to admit you’re not okay, that things are hard again and you’re scared. Perhaps it’s out of fear that others will be disappointed or upset with you, or maybe you’re comfortable in your struggle as you welcome the warm arms of your eating disorder creeping back in to keep you safe. Whatever it is, silence seems to be the answer.
When I first noticed my stories and posts straying away from mental illness and recovery topics I initially told myself it was because I was moving on with my life, getting back into the swing of things without my eating disorder. I had a job, friends, goals, commitments, appointments, clients and the reality of every day life. Of course recovery was still a priority for me, I just no longer felt the need to let the world know about it - for all I knew, I was fine. Little did I know, that in sharing my recovery journey with others I was in turn keeping myself accountable. Therefore, without being vocal I lost the accountability that I had set up for myself. Which sooner than later turned into secrecy fuelled by shame.
According to Brené Brown, “Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging.” The majority of my life I have spent seeking acceptance paired with a burning desire to belong. Therefore it makes sense, that when my recovery is on shaky ground and not going as well as it could be, I consider myself flawed, unworthy and living in fear that those closest to me will abandon me, so I stay silent. Shockingly enough however, I am incredibly worthy, despite my flaws.
At times it is challenging to believe this and counter the thought that if I’m honest with loved ones they will be disappointed and give up on me. Although throughout my recovery I have been doing things differently than before which now needs to include overcoming the shame of struggling. Admitting that what once came easy not too long ago, is now difficult again (I’m still trying to figure out why, how or where I went wrong) is not easy. I learned in treatment that secrets keep us sick. As hard as it is to be vulnerable and honest at times, I have come to realize it is crucial to keep myself from spiralling back down into the grips of hell with my eating disorder. Consequently, I told on myself to my treatment team and with their help I am gradually putting myself back together again. This process of speaking honestly about where I’m at is new territory for me, yet relieving to no longer have to carry around the burden, loneliness and shame that my struggle brought me. Brené Brown also states that “shame cannot survive being spoken” and I feel that on a deep level.
Recovery is messy - it’s hard - it’s painful - it’s exhausting and it’s scary. I’m slowly learning and accepting that bumps in the road are normal, setbacks can lead to comebacks and falling doesn’t make you weak, it’s in the picking yourself back up that makes you strong. If I could give one piece of advice when you find yourself living in silence under the cloud of shame, it is to find your voice and fight for your damn life.
Written by Amanda Raffoul, MSc
Every year on May 6, individuals and organizations around the world recognize International No Diet Day (INDD). The objectives of INDD are to challenge misconceptions about dieting, push against the industries that sustain diet culture, and reinforce the harms of dieting among people across age, gender, culture, and body size. First, it’s important to delineate what exactly we are fighting against...
What is dieting & “diet culture”?
Traditionally, “dieting” has been defined as any intentional change in behaviour to achieve weight loss. But since body ideals are constantly changing and push different messages for different people in different ways, this definition of dieting as intentional weight loss might be too narrow. Instead, dieting can be seen as any intentional change to one’s weight, size, or shape to achieve a body ideal. This can range from changing one’s diet and exercise habits to lose weight, to trying to lift more weights and taking supplements to gain more muscle (and everything in between).
Dieting behaviours themselves can range in healthfulness - but just because one behaviour for weight change seems less harmful than another, it doesn’t make it any less of a dieting behaviour. Many diets disguise themselves as “lifestyle changes” or “healthy living”, but still reinforce messages of diet culture that permeate every facet of our lives. This can include constant remarks or discussions about weight among our friends, coworkers, and people in the media; seasonal days or events that encourage weight loss (e.g., “beach body season”, New Year resolutions), or a focus on “health” or “wellness” that prioritizes weight loss over actual wellbeing.
Who is dieting?
Dieting is incredibly common among the Canadian population. From my own research with other collaborators at the University of Waterloo, we’ve seen that over a 3 year period, 7 in 10 girls reported dieting to lose weight and that half of Canadian young adults have tried to lose weight in the past year. Dieting is most prevalent among women, non-binary persons, people who perceive themselves as “overweight”, and individuals with lower levels of health literacy. People within these groups are often targeted by industries that promote diet culture and pressure them to purchase products and give in to trends that promise wealth, success, and happiness if they can achieve a particular body ideal - but this is far from the truth...
So what’s the harm?
You may often hear that ~96% of diets fail, and that when diets don’t work, people are at a greater risk of weight gain. Although this fact has been supported by dozens of studies over decades of research, the focus on eventual weight gain just serves to reinforce elements of diet culture. On INDD, the goal is not to make people fear weight gain if they diet, but to inform them of the harms associated with dieting behaviours and attitudes.
Instead, let’s focus on overall wellbeing. Dieting has been associated with:
● poorer cardiometabolic health (especially among “yo-yo” dieters);
● an increased risk of eating disorders;
● an increased risk of engagement in harmful behaviours, including substance use;
● greater likelihood of stress, depression, and anxiety; and
● poorer overall dietary quality.
How to break free from diet culture
Diet culture surrounds us in every sphere of our lives. Begin by aiming to challenge and investigate common statements about weight, size, shape, and their associations with “health” and “wellness”.
Do what works for you and your body, and embrace alternative frameworks to wellbeing such as Health at Every Size that shift the focus away from weight to wellbeing.
If you require it, seek support from reputable organizations, agencies, and practitioners within your community who dispel diet culture from their values, messaging, and practices.
The Waterloo-Wellington Eating Disorders Coalition (WWEDC) is dedicated to raising awareness about INDD in our communities - check us out on Facebook and Instagram to help spread the word in your own networks and make a difference today!
Amanda Raffoul is a PhD Candidate in the School of Public Health and Health Systems at the University of Waterloo. Her research examines the unintended consequences of weight-related policy on dieting, disordered eating, and weight bias and stigma among young adults.
By: Suzanne Dietrich, Registered Dietitian
When life deals us tough situations it's common to turn to one of the quickest, most gratifying ways to numb the emotions that arise - food. Do you eat emotionally? What does it look like for you? Does it look like eating beyond your fullness cues or ignoring your hunger cues? Emotional eating can exist upon a continuum. At one end it might be not eating at all, while at the other end it might be eating a lot. For some people where they fit on the continuum might change with the type of emotion. Read further for a fresh perspective on emotional eating.
Just like our body sends us signals to go to the bathroom, go to sleep, sit down, stand up, etc., our body sends signals when we are hungry for food and when we are full. These signals can be interrupted or hard to hear when we are dealing with stress or illness. With emotional eating, one might not be able to tune into these cues because they are distracted by emotions, or they might choose to ignore them. For many emotional eating is looked at as very negative, but let's look at some alternatives here...
1. Drop the guilt & shame - Believe it or not, when a client shares with me that they have been emotionally eating I often respond by saying, "I'm glad you found a way to deal with those tough emotions during those hard moments." Sometimes it is hard to bring out your best coping skills, maybe eating is one of them for you. For many, a feeling of guilt or shame is attached to this emotional eating. But are self-induced feelings of guilt and shame helpful? Maybe? For most people, they are not. Can you drop the side of guilt and shame? What about viewing emotional eating as a window of opportunity about what is going on inside of you?
2. Be Aware - Can you use these moments of discomfort as an awareness opportunity? Can you name your emotions? Evelyn Tribole & Elyse Resch, authors of the Intuitive Eating Workbook say that "the tendency to eat emotionally could provide you with a strange gift.... this urge is actually a voice from within." One helpful way to remember this is the phrase "Name it to tame it," coined by Dr. Dan Siegel.
3. Permission to sit with your feelings - Your emotions deserve to be dealt with and your needs deserve to be met. Can you give yourself that permission? You don't need to act on these right away, even being able to sit with them and feel them can be helpful. Becoming an intuitive eater is about taking time to figure out emotional triggers. If you feel an urge to eat when you are not physically hungry or restrict when you are physically hungry - can you set the timer for 5 minutes and try to identify some of your feelings in a quiet spot? Often we don't give ourselves permission to acknowledge our emotions and they get left behind or stuffed down. If you need help with this, consider seeing a therapist for guidance.
4. Meet Basic Needs - Once you have given yourself permission to identify your emotions, figure out your needs. If your basic needs are not being met - such as sleep, life balance, nourishment from food, and stress management - you may not actually be emotionally eating - you may just be disconnected because of limited self-care. Either way, how can you meet these needs? I know it is easier said than done. Just remember it doesn't need to be perfect. Here are some questions to ask yourself....
Do you need more restful sleep?
Do you need a more regular eating routine? Or more variety in your eating?
Do you need to give yourself permission to be more relaxed about nourishing and/or play foods? Dieting or too many food rules and lead to uncomfortable hunger & fullness.
Do you need more alone time or social time?
Are there maintainable boundaries that you would like to set for yourself? Is it time to take a vacation from social media?
The beautiful visual graphic above designed by Johnine Byrne is a great way to see the 3 principles of self-compassion - 1) Self Kindness 2) Recognizing our common humanity & 3) Mindfulness. Research tells us that self-compassion is linked to less severe binge eating, found here (Godfrey et al., 2015) and here, (Webb and Forman, 2013). Research has also demonstrated self-compassion might be a beneficial approach for reducing body dissatisfaction and disordered eating, see here, (Braun et al, 2016).
Ultimately the question to ponder is: Is this emotional eating/or not eating interrupting my ability to live life? If so, how can I expand my coping toolbox? Intuitive Eating is a way to develop peace with food.
*See the entire blog, with graphics and video clip at: https://www.gutinstincts.ca/blog/what-is-emotional-eating-gut-instincts-nutrition-counselling.htm
Too busy…too chaotic…too much to do… never enough time. Sound familiar? We live in a fast-paced world where for some, the day doesn’t have enough hours to get everything done. This week someone said to me “I can’t afford to lose an hour of time with Daylight Savings time. I’m barely keeping it together already!”. The reality is, time is one thing that keeps going and we can never get it back.
So what kind of a life do you want to live? One that doesn’t have enough time for the things and people you love? Caught up so much in your own thoughts that you miss out on beautiful moments? Or one that is fully present, slowed enough to stop and see the details and appreciate the people and world around you?
My personal theme for 2018 was ‘simplify’. Finding a way to slow down, be present with my kids, husband, friends, clients and in everyday moments. To slow down my thoughts, focus on doing what makes sense, rather than doing what feels familiar. It was a tough adjustment but it was LIFE CHANGING. REALLY.
Here are some ideas to try:
1-Practice gratitude everyday. I call them ‘gratitude vitamins’. Take daily, morning and evening. Say 3 things you’re grateful for even before your feet get out of bed, and as they tuck in at night. Its perspective shifting.
2- Show up in mind and body. Put down your phone, set aside that homework or work email, and do things one at a time. Watching your favourite tv show? Just do that one thing, and be fully into it. Be willing to lessen multitasking and trust me, it will make a difference.
3-Prioritize self-care. Focus on getting restful sleep, nourishing your body by eating intuitively and moving your body in fun ways. Throw away the self-judgement and critical self-talk. Say no when you mean no, say yes when you mean yes.
4- Figure out who matters to you most. Love them hard. Show up for them, encourage them, listen to them and make sure they know they’re loved. Life can change in an instant, and nobody leaves this world wishing they spent less time with their loved ones.
5-Be wonderfully, unapologetically YOU. We are all mean to be different – in looks, personality, talents and interests. Comparison will only rob you of your joy. Stop wishing and hoping to look different, be different, or be better. Appreciate your body for what is has done for you today, and your mind for what is has learned today. Slow down, and take each day for the gift it is.
“Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.”
― Mother Theresa
Written by Alison Elliott, MSW, RSW
Over the past week, I have felt the enormous support for Eating Disorder Awareness Week (EDAW). Landmarks across Canada have been lit up purple, as has my social media feed. People have courageously shared their stories to promote awareness and to spread the message that eating disorders cannot afford to wait.Read More
I first developed an eating disorder when I was 13, but it wasn’t until I was half way into my undergraduate degree that I faced the harsh reality of my eating disorder. When I was in my third year of university, I started to cope with stress using very problematic eating disorder behaviours. Things escalated quickly and I had to leave school for treatment. Beginning then, I became aware of how destructive my eating disorder was, and wanted desperately for things to change. However, in the beginning I struggled greatly with having a clear perspective of what was conducive towards my recovery. Today, things have improved immensely and I now wish I could go back to my younger self and tell her what I now know about recovery. Here are the 6 things I wish I knew when I started treatment.Read More
When perfectionism was assessed across different stages of eating disorder recovery, it was found individuals who were fully recovered had slightly lower level of perfectionism than those with active or partially recovered eating disorders (Bardone-Cone et al., 2010). Therefore, levels of perfectionism may depend on the stage of recovery the individual is in. Luckily, recovery from both symptoms of perfectionism and eating disorders is possible.Read More
*This blog was written by an individual with lived experience with an eating disorder. Content may by triggering for some people and the advice provided is based on the author's experience and should not be taken as professional or medical advice.
By: Sarah Braun
4. My Ability To Accept Love (and Gifts)
The month of December is a very busy, exciting and celebratory time in my life. Aside from Christmas, I also have the joy of celebrating my birthday and sober anniversary. My first year in recovery being mere days after my birthday, I decided to celebrate turning another year older and my success by paying tribute to all my hard work surrounded by my loved ones. Up until my 28th birthday, I was convinced I would be part of the “27 club”. In the past I had never wanted to make my birthday a big deal. Partially because I felt I didn’t deserve to be celebrated and partially because I was scared of the shame I would feel, if and when, nobody showed up; I felt as though someone like me, who felt was such a burden with my eating disorder and addiction didn’t deserve to feel loved or be celebrated. Over the course of my recovery, that mindset has changed. I deserved to be loved then, just as I much deserve it now. I only wish I knew that back then.
As friends and family flooded in and gathered around the table I was overwhelmed with a sense of love and pride. I was swarmed with tight hugs, warm comments, thoughtful cards and precious gifts. A part of me still felt undeserving of these acts and the love being shown, however I’ve learned to combat those negative thoughts and accept reality for what it is. Therefore, I allowed myself to embrace it all. The love I felt in the room that day was something I had never experienced before and it’s all because I was open to accepting it. Had that love been there all along? Maybe, I’ll never truly know. All I do know, is that in the moment, everything I had ever wanted was surrounding me.
5. Anxiety & Triggers Are Still (Very) Real
The holidays can be a stressful time of year for anyone, not just those who live with mental illness, although that does (in my opinion) make it that much harder. This year I went into the holidays determined to make it my best one yet, as it would be my first Christmas in recovery and I wanted to prove that all my hard work has paid off. Turns out, the expectations I had for myself were set too high, and they were ultimately unrealistic. In my mind, I had convinced myself that I was far enough along in my recovery that fear foods and calorie counting wouldn’t get the best of me and that I could handle whatever came way. I believed that I could cope with being around those who were using my drug of choice. I thought that the drunken behaviour and words of others wouldn’t effect me or trigger flashbacks to my previous self. Turns out, I was wrong.
I have just over one year clean and sober under my belt, and have been committed to recovery from my eating disorder for the same length of time. I learned very quickly that the addiction and eating disorder do not care. There is no time limit, or finish line - they are relentless. To be honest, I already knew this, and perhaps was in a bit of denial. Or maybe I just hadn’t been exposed to the situations and triggers that I encountered during my time home. Either way, anxiety is still real, regardless of how far along you may be in your journey. It can still effect how you react and handle events in your life, expected or unexpected. I am not as invincible to reality as I once thought. Some meals were extremely overwhelming and I caught myself counting the calories or justifying and minimizing my portions. Some days I hated not being able to calm my nerves with a drink. However, I got through each day.
My holidays weren’t perfect - from from it actually. Looking back, I’m happy that they weren’t. I’m grateful I was put in uncomfortable, unfamiliar and triggering situations. I’m glad my emotions were all over the place and my anxiety sky-high at times. Rather than sailing through on smooth seas, I learned how to navigate my recovery over rough waters I hadn’t yet been through.
6. I Can Survive
With the holidays now over, I have been able to take some time to step back and reflect. And guess what? I survived, I’m here to write about it. My body didn’t spontaneously combust because I indulged in some holiday treats. My heart didn’t explode from what felt like paralyzing anxiety. I didn’t miss out on, or not have fun at gatherings because I’m sober, quite the opposite actually.
I had my reservations about what the holidays in recovery would look like and what they would entail. This was a whole new territory for me, my recovery and my life. Despite some moments being terribly difficult and challenging my recovery, others were incredibly powerful and I learned more about myself, my strength and my ability each time. The skills I have learned and have been practicing over the past year helped me stay afloat as I used them more than ever during this high pressure, high stress time. I continued to label my anxiety, and all my emotions for what they were, why they were there and what they were telling me. I acknowledged my triggers and rerouted my automatic thoughts. I took time to incorporate some much needed self-care into each day. Overall I survived, and most importantly I learned that I can bounce back from a tidal wave of emotions and slippery behaviours that I once was convinced would be the death of me.
The holidays no longer need to be a time of year to avoid or fear anymore. With recovery, they can be enjoyed, experienced and appreciated. It is by no means easy, but it is possible - just like recovery.
By: Sarah Braun
*This blog was written by an individual with lived experience with an eating disorder. Content may by triggering for some people and the advice provided is based on the author's experience and should not be taken as professional or medical advice.
1. It’s Not Bone-Chilling Cold
Living with an eating disorder brings with it an unbearable cold. For many years my body was unable to keep itself warm and regulated in the summer months, let alone the colder ones. I had always dreaded the dark and chilly days of winter. I would drape layer upon layer of clothing each time I left the house and nothing would suffice. Being inside wasn’t any easier. The thermostat would constantly be set at what others would call ‘sweltering temperatures’ and even then, my hands were ice and my body shivering. I would try my best to erase the continuous chill in hopes that alcohol could warm me up, but it was never successful. Nothing was able to comfort me from that bone-chilling cold.
This year is vastly different. My body is now in a place that is able to sustain warmth. My blood circulates properly and I have a healthy amount of fat cushioning my bones to protect me from the elements. I have found myself numerous times venturing outside in nothing but a light jacket or sweater in what are supposed to be winter months. My wardrobe has greatly expanded and activities now seem unlimited. Sometimes it feels as though I’m experiencing a whole new season. As any winter, there are still cold days and I have to remind myself that it’s not just me experiencing them - that’s a true reflection on the weather and I am grateful that I am alive to feel it. I sometimes find myself waiting for that relentless and unbearable cold to return, but it hasn’t and I don’t plan on letting it.
2. Having People To Shop For Is A Blessing
I have always enjoyed shopping for others, and as I spiralled more and more into my eating disorder and addictions, that enjoyment faded. Perhaps it was because I felt as though I no longer had anyone left in my life I could shop for. Who would want to spend the holidays with an alcoholic? They’d likely just toss it to the side or into the trash because it would remind them of the girl with the eating disorder. It wouldn’t bring joy to anyone because it came from the sick, lost and dying girl. Perhaps my gift-giving passion began to falter because all I cared to spend my money on was drugs, alcohol and food that would later end up in the toilet. I was self-centred in my thinking and would rather forget about the holidays altogether with my unhealthy coping strategies. Either way, in the past, this time of year always loomed over me. I would spend hours questioning my existence, my sense of belonging and the burden I believed I brought to the lives of those I loved.
Being in recovery for the first time since I was 10 during this holiday season has been so much fun. I spent the weeks between Halloween and Christmas carefully planning, shopping and making gifts for the incredible people I have in my life. I’ve heard it said that giving is the best feeling in the world, and now I can confidently agree. I had never truly experienced the joy that came with it until this year. As I was out in the hustle and bustle of the holiday season it dawned on me what a blessing it is to have people in your life to shop for during this time. I was overwhelmed with happiness thinking of all the special relationships I have in my life today that I would not have if I did not choose recovery. Even more exciting than the planning and effort that went into each gift, was the expression on their faces as they opened them. The time and thought dedicated to each one had truly shined through. As I no longer spend my time and money centred around my addiction and eating disorder, I was able to show my loved ones just how much they mean to me. Something I was unable to do during my struggle, as I constantly pushed people away trying to isolate myself completely. Now, I know Christmas is not about the presents under the tree, but instead about the people around the tree, and this year I’m beyond grateful that I have people around the tree to give to.
3. I Enjoy Eggnog
The holiday season is very much known for indulging in both food and alcohol. In previous years, I refused to enjoy the snack trays and appetizers set out at parties or even sit down for Christmas dinner with family. Instead I filled my stomach with alcohol and spent my time at whatever establishment was open when I needed to escape.
A well-known holiday favourite of course is egg-nog. Throughout the course of my illness this drink terrified me to my core, and I steered clear of any offerings. Even if it was an alcoholic version of the drink, I would not allow myself to taste a sip, paralyzed by fear of extra calories. I spent the majority of my life telling myself and others that I simply did not enjoy the taste. Being in recovery for the holidays this year, I wanted to re-test that disordered assumption. Therefore one of the goals I made over the holidays was to try eggnog. To my surprise, I enjoyed it. I will admit thoughts of calories still swirled in my mind as I enjoyed the thick and creamy beverage, but I liked it nonetheless. I did not let it impact or dictate the rest of my evening, and more importantly, my meal plan. It is normal to indulge a little over the holidays and I refused to let my eating disorder take control and ruin yet another Christmas. This year I was able to sit down with my family for dinner without a tense and strained conversation. The humour and love in our home had returned.
I wish I could say that I made it through the holidays without an eating disordered thought, or craving for alcohol, but I did not. Even though I am in recovery, I still struggle with thoughts and urges from time to time. The only difference this year is that I did not act on them. Some days were harder than others, but through it all I learned that the holidays can be fun without alcohol and that enjoying the specialty treats, like eggnog, is okay (and delicious!)
You may have heard Brian Wansink’s name before, or at least might be familiar with his work. For more than two decades, Wansink researched what he coined ‘mindless’ eating. Some of his many ideas around food include the idea that we eat larger portion sizes when eating off larger plates, and that we eat larger portion sizes when distracted. Throughout his work, he makes suggestions around how we can modify our environment to manage our portion sizes and eat amounts that are right for our bodies. In 2016, however, evidence began to mount that there were problems with Wansink’s work. By fall 2018, fifteen of Wansink’s studies had been retracted (that’s a lot!) prompting his resignation from Cornell University.
Throughout the process of eating disorder recovery, it’s common for individuals to learn about different types of eating, such as mechanical eating and mindful eating. It’s common to be encouraged by health professionals, myself included, to begin to notice and relearn how to listen to the physical signs of hunger. If Wansink’s work is discredited, does that mean that all of that advice was wrong and that all of the work you’ve done on mindful eating was in vain? I don’t believe so.
While the size of your plate, your company at the dinner table, or the size of your food packaging may not make as much of a difference as Wansink thought, I still believe that there is value in the idea of mindful eating. I think this situation is a good reminder that eating is a tricky thing. We eat for a lot of different reasons, which means it’s important to approach eating with a variety of strategies.
Many individuals with an eating disorder have spent a long time ignoring physical hunger cues or may have a very erratic food routine that makes it challenging to interpret physical hunger cues. I believe that there is a lot of value in working to notice and reconnect with what physical hunger looks and feels like for you. Practicing (yes, it takes a lot of practice) mindful eating can teach you many things. To name a few, it can help you learn about your body’s needs, how certain foods make you feel physically and mentally, and what foods you actually like or dislike. Once you have a solid food plan in place that is making sure you’re meeting your nutrient and energy needs, mindful eating can bring flexibility to your food routine.
Mindful eating, however, cannot stand on it’s own. There are many situations where it is important to eat even if your body is not giving you physical hunger cues. This is a common situation in the early stages of recovery when you are working to establish a regular routine with food. These situations can continue to occur even in the later stages of recovery if you are stressed, anxious, have just exercised, or have a cold of flu. Challenging yourself to eat mechanically in the absence of hunger cues is a very important skill that helps prevent situations where you feel over hungry (or hangry), experience low energy, or may feel out of control around food when you do eat.
Both the ideas that Brian Wansink brought forward about mindful eating as well as his recent discreditation are important for many reasons. They remind us that mindful eating (and eating in general!) is tricky to study and that many factors influence why we eat or don’t eat. Practicing mindful eating is still valuable, as long as other skills around eating are maintained and still utilized. Mindful eating cannot stand alone and cannot be used as the only strategy or explanation for why we eat.
Blog post written by Lindzie O’Reilly, MAN, Registered Dietitian, Student Health Services, University of Guelph.
Symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and a stressed stomach include abdominal pain, bloating, constipation and diarrhea. These symptoms can be irritating, embarrassing, anxiety provoking, and can have a significant impact on quality of life. Aside from the common cold, symptoms of IBS are the second most common reason to miss work or school. In individuals with an eating disorder, symptoms of IBS or digestive upset are even more common than for those in the general population.
A diagnosis of IBS in and of itself is a frustrating diagnosis. It’s a diagnosis of exclusion, meaning you have worked with a doctor to rule out conditions such as crohn’s disease, celiac disease, or a stomach ulcer, yet you still have symptoms. A diagnosis of IBS often brings relief in that many serious conditions have been ruled out, but frustration in that usually very few recommendations are given in terms of how to improve or manage your symptoms. It’s common for individuals with digestive upset to feel so desperate for an answer that they are willing to try anything.
An option that is gaining popularity online and among alternative health care practitioners is IgG food intolerance testing. Before considering this test, it’s important to educate yourself on the science behind it. The current consensus among allergy professionals is that IgG testing is not validated and has risks associated with it.
What is a food intolerance?
Food intolerances are a real thing that can have a significant impact on one’s quality of life. They can cause symptoms of IBS, along with skin rashes and joint pain. Food intolerances, however, are very different from food allergies. A food allergy is an immune-system response that can cause anaphylaxis and an increase in IgE antibodies in the blood. A food intolerance causes symptoms and discomfort but usually does not cause harm or damage to your body and does not trigger an immune-system response.
How can we test for a food intolerance?
Unfortunately, an accurate and validated test for food intolerances does not currently exist. The only way to truly determine if you have a food intolerance is to complete an elimination diet under the supervision of a registered dietitian who can help you pinpoint foods that may be triggering your symptoms. In an elimination diet, it is important to remove certain foods to see if symptoms improve, and equally important to reintroduce foods to see if symptoms return and to ensure you are not needlessly restricting your food routine. Embarking on an elimination diet to determine if you have a food intolerance is a long process that requires patience and guidance.
Then what is IgG testing?
Immunoglobin G (IgG) is thought to be a marker of exposure to foods, and a measure of our tolerance to them. This means that individuals typically have the highest IgG levels for foods that they eat regularly. It is completely normal and healthy for all individuals to have positive IgG test results. Somehow this test has come to be marketed as a way to detect food intolerances, when it actually detects our tolerance to foods.
But if there isn’t a good test out there, can’t I at least try the IgG test?
The IgG test is very expensive ($300-700) and, according to the Canadian Society for Allergy and Clinical Immunology, not a valid way to detect for food intolerances. Instead, this testing often results in individuals following needlessly restrictive diets. For someone with an eating disorder, it is very likely that an IgG test will be triggering. The test results can cause significant fear and anxiety around specific foods when there truly is no benefit to excluding these foods from your food routine.
If you experience symptoms of IBS or a stressed stomach, it’s important to create a support team that includes a doctor, a dietitian, and a counsellor to help you determine your individual triggers while still including a wide range of foods and preserving a healthy relationship with food.
Blog post written by Lindzie O’Reilly, MAN, Registered Dietitian, Student Health Services, University of Guelph.
As 2018 comes to a close, I am bracing myself for the unavoidable onslaught of New Year’s resolutions. Unfortunately, many (if not most) of these resolutions will focus on trying to change one’s weight or shape and this can be triggering for the millions of individuals who have experienced or are experiencing an eating disorder. Beyond this, making resolutions to try to change your body simply reinforces the message that weight equals worth. So how can we navigate the messiness of appearance-based resolutions as we enter 2019?
1. Acknowledge the appearance ideal. The appearance ideal is the image that the media sells us about how we should look. This ideal tells us that if we look a certain way then we will be happier, healthier, and more successful. Every time we try to change our body to fit with these standards, we reinforce the appearance ideal and give the beauty industry more power. This year, I challenge you to ask yourself why you are making a weight or fitness-based resolution. I imagine that you will find that it is influenced, at least in part, by the appearance ideal and the belief that thinner or fitter equals better. I also challenge you to think about whether this is in line with your values and/or what you want to achieve in life. For example, I value being connected to others, so focusing my time and energy on losing weight or going to the gym, rather than spending time with my family, actually interferes with my ability to be the person I want to be. If an appearance-based resolution is interfering with your goals or values, maybe it is not the best resolution to make.
2. Make resolutions that align with your values. Core values are fundamental beliefs that lead us toward our goals. They reflect ways we want to act (e.g., generous), ways we want to be (e.g., authentic), and things we find important (e.g., connection). Everyday we are presented with choices that bring us closer to or farther away from our values, and New Year’s resolutions are no exception. I challenge you then to make a resolution that aligns with your values and brings you closer to the person you want to be. For example, if you (like me) value connection, a resolution might be to catch-up with a friend once every week. If you value courage, you might resolve to share a vulnerable experience with a friend or family member. These types of value-based resolutions will likely bring you genuine happiness and connection to your true self and others.
3. Take care of yourself. If you are triggered or upset by people talking about their weight- or appearance-based resolutions, give yourself permission to take a break. Take some space and try to find your center. Remind yourself of your values and ask yourself whether picking an appearance-based resolution is right for you. It is okay to walk away from conversations that are unhelpful, especially if they may compromise your well-being. Weight-based resolutions have been engrained in our society for years and it is unlikely that this will change overnight. Instead, you may have to make choices to protect yourself, like asking a family member to stop talking about their resolution to lose X pounds, sending them this blog, or walking away. Whatever you need, it is okay for you to distance yourself from harmful resolutions.
At the end of the day (or year), January 1st is just another day. When the clock strikes midnight you will still be the same person that you are today; changing your weight or shape will not alter who you are at your core. So why not come up with some resolutions that lead you to the person you want to be? Why not make resolutions with the aim of finding genuine happiness and contentment? Why not resolve to be more connected with your values on December 31st, 2019? What do you have to lose?
Ho-Ho-Hold the Holiday Guilt and Shame
The holidays are loaded with triggers, uncomfortable situations, anxiety, diet talk, weight talk and fear foods. Here are some keys to making it through the holiday season without relying on your eating disorder for support.
· Permission is key. Before having a holiday meal or snack stop and think about giving yourself permission. Give yourself permission to have the food you want and the amount you desire. There are no good foods or bad foods. Some foods may have more nutrient value, but other foods have benefits too. Having fun foods will prevent you from binge eating, will help you work towards recovery and may simply nourish your soul.
· Toss the black-and-white thinking! The holidays can be full of trigger foods that lead to unhelpful thought patterns or urges to be symptomatic. Many people who struggle with eating disorders or disordered eating think of holiday meals as the only time to have forbidden foods. This often leads to over-eating or binge eating and robs you of the joy the food has to offer. Choose to think “I can have some now and I can have some tomorrow.” Challenge black-and-white thinking and see food as in the “grey.” This allows for a more normal relationship with trigger foods and takes away the food’s power over you. If you think of it as just food you will be less inclined to binge eat.
· Step away from diet culture. Walk away from colleagues who are talking about the latest diet trend. Ask family members to avoid talking about good foods or bad foods or making comments about bodies. Think about taking a step back from social media that you know may fuel your desires to restrict or change your body.
· Listen to your cues. If you are working on intuitive eating the holiday season is a great time to practice. Check in with yourself and use mindfulness to check into the present. Pay attention to what your body is telling you and listen to your food cravings. Pay attention to whether or not you are hungry for food, when you start to feel satisfied and then when you are feeling full. There is nothing wrong with being over-full. This is common for “normal eaters” over the holidays.
· If you are working on mechanical eating it is a good idea to have a plan. Most people have an idea of the foods that will be present at holiday meals. Think about balancing your meals with all the food groups. Think about filling your plate as you would if you were feeding a friend. This can provide insight into what a “normal” portion might look like.
· Don’t deprive yourself leading up to the big event. If you skip breakfast and lunch you will be ravenous by dinner. This increases your chances of being symptomatic. Instead, eat intuitively or mechanically throughout the day, just like it is any other day.
· Practice self-compassion. Be kind to yourself as you would to your friend. The holidays are tough! Offer yourself compassion and kind words when you make a mistake. Whether making a mistake means slipping with a symptom after a meal or missing out on a holiday celebratory meal because it is just too much - IT’S OKAY! You do not have to be perfect to be moving towards recovery.
· Have a plan for coping after holiday meals. This may mean filling your evening after dinner with family time, playing a board game, having a bubble bath or calling a good friend. Distracting after holiday meals will allow any post-meal anxiety to pass.
· Unfortunately the holidays are often filled with stressful environments and being around people who trigger you. It may seem natural and easy to turn to restriction, binge eating or purging to cope with discomfort. Have a list of alternate coping methods ready for when you are feeling the urge.
Holiday food is not your enemy. Food provides nourishment, it heals both your body and your soul. The act of eating food mends your relationship with food. Food is about spending time with people you love. Food is about culture and tradition. Food is about joy, you just have to feel it.
Michelle Johnson, RD
I was recently at a conference presenting research on binge eating disorder (BED). A handful of people stopped by to discuss my findings, but very few had an actual interest in BED. This lack of interest in, and understanding of, BED is evidenced not only within the research community but also within society at large. BED is the most frequent eating disorder, 2-3 times more common than anorexia and bulimia (Hudson et al., 2007). Yet I have never met someone outside of the eating disorder field who actually knew that BED is a formal eating disorder. So I have been asking myself lately, why the stigma around binge eating disorder?
I think that understanding the shame around BED starts by understanding its key diagnostic feature: binge eating. Binge eating is defined as objective overeating, accompanied by a sense of loss of control (APA, 2013). This is not overeating at Thanksgiving where it is socially accepted, and indeed expected, to do so. For these individuals, overeating happens at times where it seems (and feels) inappropriate or unnecessary. Individuals with BED often say that they cannot control the amount or type of food that they are eating despite not feeling hungry or feeling uncomfortably full.
The stigma around BED is rooted in our fear of challenging long-held beliefs regarding overeating. As a society, we have developed the idea that worth is defined by self-control, and even self-deprivation. Weight loss is seen as some great accomplishment, while weight gain is considered to be a failure. When someone has a “smaller” or “healthier” lunch, we praise their control. When someone brings fast food, a little part of us judges the composition of that meal. To continue this narrative, and preserve our own sense of control, we adopt the position that overeating indicates a lack of willpower. Doing so, allows us to refrain from challenging our own belief that we are worthy because of our ability to “control” our food intake and/or weight.
The reality, however, is that individuals with BED are not lacking in willpower. Binge eating often serves a multitude of purposes including emotion regulation and coping. For some, binge eating provides an escape from unbearably intense emotions. For others, there are biological reasons why they are more sensitive to the taste and smell of food. These individuals have developed skills to manage intense sensations in the face of extreme adversity, emotions, and compulsions. When we think of it this way, binge eating actually makes sense. It is a way to survive. So just like with other eating disorders, treatment for BED requires unlearning of these old behaviours, and the development of new coping skills. And since individuals with BED often seek treatment at an older age than those with anorexia and bulimia, there are many more years of unlearning to do.
In order to overcome the stigma and shame associated with BED, we need to challenge our own beliefs about weight and eating. Overcoming stigma involves all of us, to some degree, embracing that worth cannot be determined by the number on a scale or what we put in our body. Only once we have started to challenge predominant societal messages around weight and worth, can we start to undo the shame and stigma around BED.
For more information about binge eating disorder you can visit https://bedaonline.com/.
By: Therese Kenny, MSc, MA Candidate Clinical Psychology: Applied Developmental Emphasis
Blog written by Lindzie O’Reilly, MAN, Registered Dietitian, University of Guelph
Orthorexia is a term that was first coined in 1998, but seemed to hit wide stream social media in the past few years. Orthorexia essentially refers to an obsession with healthy eating. It’s a tricky disorder to diagnose for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it is not included in the current DSM-V and, therefore, does not have specific diagnostic criteria. Secondly, it’s hard to determine what an ‘obsession’ with healthy eating looks like when we, as a society, can’t seem to agree on a definition for ‘healthy eating’. We all have to eat, so we all have different ideas about food and nutrition. Ideas about food and nutrition abound on the internet, and nutrition is a common topic of conversation between friends and family members.
Orthorexia is a scary disorder. As a society, we are generally overwhelmed and confused by the amount of nutrition information available to us (rightfully so!). Much of the information we are bombarded with stems from personal stories of individuals taking extreme approaches to nutrition or fitness. As a society, we’ve come to normalize behaviours like counting calories or macros, weighing ourselves, and cutting out foods or whole food groups. Essentially, as a society, we are orthorexic. For this reason, individuals struggling with orthorexia often fly under the radar. Their habits and ideas about food and nutrition may not seem all that different than what you hear about in the media. In fact, an individual with orthorexia may even be touted in their family or social circle as an ‘expert’ in fitness or nutrition that others go to for advice. To me, this is scary for two reasons. Firstly, it means that the individual struggling may not get the help that they so desperately need and deserve. Orthorexia can have a variety of health consequences, including nutrient deficiencies and anxiety. Secondly, orthorexia is an extremely contagious form of disordered eating because the ideas shared by the individual struggling are often adopted by those around them.
It’s difficult to agree on a definition of ‘healthy eating’ because there really truly is not one food routine that is best for all individuals. We all have different likes and dislikes, different lifestyles, and different health conditions to manage. Additionally, we eat for many different reasons. It is impossible to plug your food intake into a nutrition app on your phone, and have it spit out a black and white answer that tells you if you’re doing a good job or not. Simply looking at food and nutrient intake does not honour the fact that we eat for enjoyment and for social reasons, that we must consider factors like food availability and financial constraints, that your food intake must fit within the time constraints of your day, or that your intake depends a great deal on your level of cooking skills.
Really food, like many other aspects of our life, is about balance. We can understand, for example, that it’s possible to sleep too much or too little, and that different people need different amounts of sleep. We can understand that some people in our lives are introverts and some are extroverts, meaning that they do best with different amounts of social time or alone time. In the very same way, it’s okay, and actually quite important, to think about your food intake for the day and to take an interest in the foods you are putting into your body. It’s also very possible, however, for that interest to become unhealthy, and to overshadow other aspects of your life. Here are some signs that someone may be struggling with orthorexia:
· They cut out entire foods or food groups in the absence of a food allergy or medical condition like celiac disease
· They experience fear and guilt when they eat foods other than those deemed ‘healthy’ or ‘pure’
· They spend hours per day thinking about foods that will be served at an upcoming event
· They spend hours per day following food or lifestyle blogs
· They are overly concerned or critical of the food choices made by others
· They struggle to share meals with family members or friends as those individual’s food habits differ from your own
· They feel a sense of pleasure from eating ‘correctly’ rather than from enjoying the tastes and textures of a wide range of foods
· They spend more money than they can realistically afford on specialized foods and supplements
Eating a wide range of foods that you enjoy and that support your physical and mental well-being is important. Looking up new recipes, planning some meals in advance, and trying new ingredients can be a fun hobby. If those activities take up more time or money than any other hobby in your life, or if they require you to make sacrifices that prevent you from sharing a meal with family and friends, it signifies an unbalanced approach to food and nutrition. For more information, or to find support for you or a loved one, please refer to the support materials and list of services on this website.
*This blog was written by an individual with lived experience with an eating disorder. Content may by triggering for some people and the advice provided is based on the author's experience and should not be taken as professional or medical advice.
I always felt that I couldn’t fight back against my eating disorder unless I had a something specific to fight for. It took me ten years to decide something needed to change and that I couldn’t keep doing what I was doing. I didn’t know why I suddenly wanted to get better, but I DID know that if recovery was going to stick this time, I needed to do it my way. In the two years since I started my recovery, these were some key things that really stood out for me:
1. I had to use my past failures as lessons. I had gone through every type of program and had made many attempts at getting better, so I knew what worked and what did not. If I had gone to a dietitian and we decided to change everything at once, I knew it wasn’t going to end well. I needed to ease myself into normal eating habits. Recovery isn’t a race. Slowly changing my diet let me adjust and come to terms with what I was eating. If I had not had that time I would have eventually panicked and gone back to my old ways. It worked the same way with gaining weight. I remember crying to my mom in the hospital years ago wishing I could wake up the next day and be at the weight I needed to be. I had always tried the “gain weight as fast as possible to get it over with” method and it never worked in the long-term for me. Weight restoration is a slow process and allowing myself that time helped my mind catch up to my body. Once it became obvious I had gained weight, I had the mental capacity to realize I felt a lot better even though my size changed. I wasn’t jumping for joy about going up in weight, but I also knew I wasn’t as tired, I wasn’t as grumpy and I was having a lot more fun not thinking about food 24/7. It wasn’t about avoiding the inevitable, it was about giving myself time to adjust in order to prevent a complete riot against recovery. I knew too much too soon would result in me seeking out my eating disorder to provide me the comfort and protection I thought it could provide.
2. I let it out. One night my mom had made this chocolate pie. Initially I declined a piece, then went back after everyone left and quickly ate it. My sister happened to walk into the kitchen at that moment. I looked at her and told her how I ate the pie and felt like shit. I ate it and I was pretty much out of control. She looked at me, grabbed a fork, ate the last few bites and said I ate it because it was delicious. It is so easy to get caught up with the voices in my head. At the beginning of recovery, I had no idea what was considered normal eating. For so long I thought my disordered eating WAS normal. In that situation, my sister normalized eating pie. People eat pies, cakes, cookies, fries, and bread all the time and no one judges them. I had to let someone else hear the voices in my head in order to realize they weren’t rational. Just saying them out loud helped me realize that maybe what I was thinking wasn’t always accurate and was usually pretty ridiculous. Every time I was freaking out about my clothes not fitting or something I ate, the best thing I could do was tell someone. It was as if I could pass those feelings onto someone else and move on from the situation. By keeping them inside, I gave them power and strength. Those voices still haven’t gone away but it is much easier to hear, acknowledge and ignore them.
3. Food became more of a friend. This I was not expecting. I had such a terrible relationship with food for so long that I assumed I would have to force myself to keep up with my meal plan until I eventually got used to it. Well, I was wrong. All of the food I had banned for so long I started to crave and it completely freaked me out. There was a period of time I would secretly eat these formerly forbidden foods because I didn’t understand why I was eating it and didn’t want anyone else to see me eat it. I thought I went from one disorder to another. Looking back now, my body was adjusting. It had no idea if I was ever going to let myself eat that cake again so it needed to get its fill in the moment. It was tough in those times not to hate myself or compensate for it by skipping my next meal. The amount of guilt and shame just because I ate something was staggering. The best thing I could do in those times (and still do) was tell someone about it or look around and realize other people were eating it too. Eating dessert or doing something the internet tells you is unhealthy isn’t a crime. You don’t have to feel guilt when eating. Over time, the cravings went away as my body realized I wasn’t going to deprive it anymore. I began to trust myself and my food choices. I absolutely love peanut butter - probably more than the average person and now I realize that’s okay. Just because other people don’t love it as much as I do doesn’t make me unhealthy or a terrible person.
4. Other people need to adjust too. Once my eating habits improved and my energy was back, for the first time in years, I was ready to be social again. The problem was that I wasn’t being invited to events anymore because people were used to me turning them down. It was a tough realization. I had somewhat assumed that eating and gaining weight were the hardest parts about recovery but it was harder to realize that life had gone on without me. People hadn’t stopped having parties – they were just inviting other people. I had to acknowledge that I had pushed people away for so long that there was no way it could be fixed overnight. I had accept that I had missed out on a lot of moments, but I could start making an effort to be part of them again. As an introvert, this was not an easy task. It may have been luck, or perfect timing but I was able to find a group of people that I enjoyed spending time with and who didn’t dwell on the past. Socializing also helped me see how people who didn’t obsess over food could live these very exciting lives and do so many things. It opened my eyes as to how I could live and how I wanted to live as a 26 year old. Plus – life is more fun when you have people to spend it with.
Sometimes when I am stressed I still count calories to calm me down and sometimes I still have to mentally prepare before eating something challenging. However, I go downtown to eat nachos and I can on the whim make dinner plans. I can live by myself, look after myself and live my own life. In my recovery, I found my independence and that is what turned out to be my biggest motivation. It isn’t always easy, but instead of all the bad things I thought would happen without my eating disorder to protect me, I am thriving.