Why Eating Disorder Sufferers Cannot ‘Just Eat’

A little insight into why it isn’t that simple

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Photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash

To someone who has never suffered from an eating disorder, it seems bizarre that we cannot quite simply just eat. An eating disorder is an extremely complex mental illness and like any illness, it isn’t something that can just be snapped out of.

Would you tell an alcoholic to ‘just stop drinking?’ Would you tell someone with a broken leg to just get up and walk? Mental illnesses, just like physical illnesses need care and treatment.

For a start, all the stereotypes and stigmas surrounding eating disorders should be ditched. The sooner we get this image of a teenage girl in a hospital as the ‘eating disorder image’ and understand that any person, any age, any gender can suffer, the more people will get help. The sooner we understand that there is more to look out for than someone simply not eating, again the sooner sufferers can be helped.

I have a friend whose sibling has an eating disorder. I don’t believe he was given the help he needed due to the stereotype. Research from Beat, the leading charity for eating disorders in the UK, suggests that up to a quarter of sufferers are male.

And that’s before we get into those outside the study — there are campaigns about ditching the stereotype because studies also show that there are thousands of sufferers who are undiagnosed, turned away from treatment, and not taken seriously. In the case of my friend’s sibling, he was not taken seriously because there is a common myth that men don’t get eating disorders.

I have acquaintances through social media — we message and offer support to each other- — some of them are also victims of late intervention. Some of them don’t seek help until late because of fear of not being taken seriously because of stereotypes. Some do seek help and are not given it, this could be due to gender or weight.

I will always remember one occasion with my therapist when yet again I questioned my diagnosis. I thought I was a fat fraud I was for eating. My therapist said that no matter how restrictive sufferers may be, they still eat something. Otherwise, they would be dead.

Is it any wonder I struggle to tell people about my illness? That stereotype has been ingrained in my head, so what will everyone else think of me if they see me eating?

I’ve heard people say “why would you want to starve yourself?” Or “surely the side effects of hair loss, hair growth where you don’t want it, and teeth loss (just to name a few) are enough to put you off?” Or simply “please just eat.”

Mental illness doesn’t work like that. If only it was that easy. If only it were a matter of choice. In An Apple a Day, a book about anorexia by Emma Woolf, she says:

“Have you ever tried to make an anorexic eat a piece of cake on their birthday? We are not just being stubborn. We simply can’t do it.”

How I can relate. The voice of the eating disorder demon in the sufferer’s head is just too loud, too strong.

For some of us, it stems from one simple comment. For others, it is triggered by trauma. It could even be a combination of these. My own anorexia was triggered by a mixture of things: a troubled relationship followed by a bad breakup, hatred of my body, triggering comments. For many of my acquaintances, their eating disorder was triggered by one simple comment.

“You’ll get fat if you eat that,” is a typical one. For others, it is nothing to do with body image and it was caused by trauma leading to an obsession of needing to have control.

Going back to Emma Woolf’s book, she writes that she had no desire for an emaciated body. Like me, it was a need for control after a break-up.

When Freddie Flintoff bravely shared his battle with bulimia, he talks about how comments from the media about his weight triggered it.

We live in a society that not only promotes diet culture but also seems to promote hating our bodies. We are made to feel like we should constantly be aiming for that perfect body. It doesn’t exist.

There is so much more to eating disorders than being on a diet or striving to look like a supermodel. If there was more understanding of what it was really about — the obsession, the need for control, and the fear, we would feel more understood. And while the media insists on bombarding us with weight loss tips, spare a thought for those people that are on the other side, who really don’t need to lose any weight but feel like all they ever hear about is this very subject. As the eating disorder takes over and all you hear about is weight loss tips, the obsession grows.

For me, the eating disorder is mostly about the need for control. That includes not hearing about how as a society we need to lose weight. That includes not having food demonised. How I wish the media could just get the balance right and that maybe one day I can be as confident as these Instagrammers who love to treat themselves and aren’t ashamed about it.

It's not about wanting to not eat. The eating disorder becomes a coping mechanism, this need for control in a scary, unpredictable world. This need for control, this need to hang onto the eating disorder turns into obsession and terror around food.

The obsession

One of the common traits of eating disorder sufferers is to look at ‘food porn.’ Namely indulgent meals or sweet treats there are a lot of fitness Instagram profiles, some of whom are influencers, who promote ‘cheat days,’ or ‘IIFMM’ which stands for If It Fits My Macros. Macros are nutrients, namely fats, proteins, and carbohydrates, and while some people count calories, some calculate how much of these nutrients they are supposed to have every day, depending on a number of factors, and they use these numbers to balance their diet with healthy foods and the most amazing food porn.

And then there are those that don’t need to watch their intake at all they can eat whatever they want. These profiles often have the most amazing concoctions, they know where to go for the best gelato or cookie dough and they aren’t one bit ashamed about it. I spend far too much time scrolling through wishing I could just be them. Wishing I looked like them, could eat like them, and could promote the fact that I do so without any shame.

Other sufferers while away time looking at recipe after recipe, possibly without any intention of baking or cooking any of these recipes. We binge watch shows about food or diets.

What’s the point? Why do we waste our time like this? Simple. The more you restrict and control your intake, the more you think about it. Deny yourself food and you won’t be able to stop thinking about it.

We reward and punish ourselves with it. Allow a more indulgent ‘safe food’ if you’ve restricted your intake all day.

All your plans become fixated around what the food situation is going to be and it ends up affecting everything you do (or don’t allow yourself to do!) This leads me to talk about the second of the three.

I would just like to add that I am not having a go at any of these Instagrammers or influencers. We choose what we read and while there are some individuals that promote the wrong kind of content and set a bad influence there are many individuals that use their platform to promote awareness about eating disorders and provide very inspirational content to sufferers to encourage them to recover, to seek help.

The control

For me, I think the worst of the three is the controlling side. I think a lot of my anorexia stemmed from a need to be in control when another aspect of my life was out of control. It stemmed from being scared and needing the shield that anorexia gives you, even if it is a poisonous, life-threatening shield.

For me, the world is scary and unpredictable, people are scary and unpredictable. Anorexia lulls you into a false sense of security, of course, you are not really in control, you are under this demon’s power. But you feel in control.

Every eating disorder sufferer has their own rules, their own ‘safe food’ and their own ‘fear food.’ These rules take over your life, avoiding one social occasion after another. It’s awful to admit, but it feels safe in this scary, unpredictable world, having these rules that are predictable, food is either safe or unsafe.

It’s not normal at all, but eventually, you get so sucked into this shielded life that everything else becomes abnormal. I cannot imagine letting go of the ‘control,’ letting other people in, sitting back and letting them make all the plans. For me, spontaneous is not something I can do. I need to have that control.

The Terror

Far from hating food, terror is a completely different emotion. As the eating disorder demon gets its claws in further and further and as your condition gets worse, the more you fear food. Just like the more you restrict, the more you obsess, the scarier it all becomes — not just food, but life itself and everything life has to offer. These include social occasions, relationships, anything that could interfere with anorexia and the hold it has over you, the strict routine, the rules that govern you. Suddenly, your life revolves around the eating disorder, and it's scary to try to break free.

To sum up

I hope this helps anyone who wonders why on earth can’t ‘just eat.’ There are many reasons why individuals develop eating disorders. Different individuals have different circumstances, different reasons. But simply refusing food? Eating disorders are a lot more complex than that.

My life revolves around animals- working as a dog groomer and puppy parent to my gorgeous rescue dog. In between dog haircuts I love to write!

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