Awareness,  Personal Story

mental health & disordered eating

Today is World Mental Health day &, as this is an issue close to my heart, I just had to do a post on disordered eating. Just to be clear, this is a post on disordered eating, not eating disorders. While I’ve studied psychology, I am not a psychologist. It’s not my area of expertise so I’m going to steer clear of it.

I’m also coming at this from a personal perspective, more personal than educational. That’s because I think it’s incredibly important to talk about mental health. This is really embarrassing for me, especially when working in the field I’m in but if you don’t talk about stuff like this, it becomes isolating.

Here goes nothing

As a sufferer of depression, anxiety & a comfort eater I’m extremely interested in this area.

Disordered eating impacts not only a person’s physical health, but has far-reaching implications for their mental, emotional & social wellbeing. Professionally I’ve found that it’s often difficult to separate a persons eating behaviours from what’s going on in their head. I often find it necessary to focus on the mind as well as they body.

First things first, lets define some things

Disordered Eating

The term ‘disordered eating’ covers a range of eating behaviours which may be considered ‘abnormal’. These are often associated with an eating disorder diagnosis, but not always. The only difference between the two is both the severity of the behaviours & how often they occur.

Disordered eating takes many forms so here’s a list:

Binge eating, non-religious fasting or a cycle of both

Purging (vomiting, use of laxatives or diuretics, excessive exercise)

Restricting meal sizes or skipping meals

Obsessive calorie counting & chronic dieting

Unbalanced eating, eg: restricting a food group or type like fats or carbs.

Supplementation with substances found to alter physical appearance (eg: steroids)

Normal Eating

‘Normal Eating’ is defined using the relationship a person has with food rather than the types or amounts of food consumed. If the relationship is problematic, so is the eating.

Here’s a list of ‘normal’ eating behaviours

Varied eating from day-to-day, both types & amounts of food.

Sometimes over-eating & under-eating happen but it’s not problematic.

Enjoying some foods just because they taste good without judgement or labelling (good vs bad)

You still get cravings sometimes

Eating (both regular & treats) form a small part of an overall balanced life. In other words there’s not a lot of time & energy invested in thinking bout food.

Disordered eating is usually accompanied by a decreased ability to cope with stress – this is definitely true in my case. When I’m stressing (which happens a lot when you’re anxious) I find I’m overcome with an overwhelming desire to eat. Now that I’ve worked in this field, I know some distraction techniques such as those listed in my snacking post, & they do work for me most of the time. I’ve only reached this point because of a lot of hard work, practice & learning from my mistakes. I still do it occasionally but not nearly as often as I used to. I couldn’t tell you why a person educated in nutrition & the appalling effects eating like that has on your body, would do such a thing. I don’t know why I do it but I do know it’s uncontrollable when it hits & my strategies don’t work.

My Dr has been heavily involved from the get go & asked me whether I do it because I like the taste of the food I’m eating. My answer to that is no. It happens so quickly that I don’t even really taste the food. I’m just trying to fill a hole that can’t be filled.

While I’ve struggled with this my whole adult life, it got much worse after my depression & anxiety went from mild to severe. I’ve gotten a whole lot better as I started getting a handle on my mental health, but I still lapse sometimes & believe me, it’s not a pretty sight. I don’t enjoy the food, I just “need” to eat until my stomach hurts (a lot) & then I just keep eating. I get so uncomfortable that I can’t sleep at night & I don’t want my husband to look at or touch me because I’m so ashamed. I can’t tell you what it’s like to suffer from any other type of disordered eating but if it’s anything like this, it’s extremely disruptive & distressing. It’s also physically & psychologically painful.

How serious is it?

People suffering from disordered eating also have an increased risk of suicidal thoughts & behaviours. This is especially true in young people & is just heart-breaking. It goes to show how far-reaching its effects are.

For those with disordered eating, feelings of guilt & shame often accompany symptomatic eating behaviours. Being aware of how your eating behaviours appear to others also increases social isolation for shame or fear of over- or under-eating.

Worryingly, dieting is a major risk factor for developing an eating disorder. In 2011-12 over 2.3 million Australians 15+ years reported they were dieting. For around 60% of these people, weight control was the major reason for dieting, especially those in the 15-30 age group.

Girls who’ve dieted moderately were found to be 5 times more likely to suffer an eating disorder in the future. This number increases to a whopping 18 times for girls who severely restricted their intake.This is very concerning. Most of the girls I was in highschool with (including myself) restricted our food intake at one time or another.

How many people do you know who are currently dieting or have a history of dieting? Chances are the answer is not zero. Maybe you have dieted at some point in your life too.

Disordered eating is a cruel burden to bear & for my part, it’s been incredibly hard to live with. I’ve definitely felt shame, guilt, anger, psychological pain & anguish because of my inability to control my eating. As a nutritionist, I’ve berate myself for being a “fraud” who can’t even practice what she preaches. I’m not a fraud though, I’ve gone to uni, put in the hard yards & I have earned my qualification. It’s all just part of the negative self-talk that accompanies disordered eating either past or present.

What can I do about it

Disordered eating can be treated. The longer you’ve been suffering the harder it will be, just like breaking any long-held habit. It’s a difficult process & needs the right support, resources, personal determination & commitment. I’ve been working on my own for about 5 years now & still lapse from time to time.

In fact, I’m about to start seeing a psychologist who specialises in disordered eating & kick this problem for good so that the next time it hits, I’ve got the strategies I need in place. If you are suffering (& it is suffering) under the hold of disordered eating, please speak to someone. Talking to someone you can trust whether personal or professional will help you decide which steps you need to take to regain control. Once you have support & an idea of what you need, just go & do it. You’ll be better off for it. Imagine all the time, energy & resources not dealing with this will free up for the things you care about.

I hope this article helps you. Either to better understand your own or someone elses disordered eating. Even just to help you understand that you aren’t alone in this, not by the longshot.

I’ve included a few links below if you need any further information.

Eating Disorders Victoria National Eating Disorders Collaboration

Psychology Today

If you suspect you may have an eating disorder, seek help from you GP as soon as possible.

If you would like to work with me to regain control of your habits I have a range of packages available for one-on-one consultations. I’d love to help you to get your life back.

Did you find this post useful?

Do you have any questions or anything else to add?

I’d also love to know what you’d like to see in future posts. If you’d like me to write about something in particular leave a comment below.

Happy reading!

Kathryn Carter

I’m Kath, qualified nutritionist & personal trainer. I believe a personalised, flexibile approach to gaining physical & mental well-being is necessary for achieving sustainable lifestyle changes that support both these aspects of health. In the near future I will be offering a range of nutrition & lifestyle education services designed to gain the life my clients want in a way that works for them.

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