Do you have an unhealthy relationship with food? What’s the difference between an eating disorder and disordered eating? How can you change the food and workout conversation?
Like all mental health, eating disorders still have a stigma to them. It’s taboo but it’s so common. Kate likes to say “disordered eating” … 30 million people, of all ages and genders, in the United States, meet the criteria for the diagnosis of an eating disorder but there are so many more men and women who really struggle with disordered eating. Disordered eating behaviors, disordered eating behaviors, and disordered thoughts about their bodies.
What does this look like in someone? Sometimes when we think about exercising, we relate that to food. Sometimes we end up exercising to eat so we add up the calories we can have, or, the compensatory behavior of hitting the gym extra hard because of eating or drinking too much the night before. That’s a disordered eating kind of thought. E.g. Going to a birthday and feeling bad for wanting to eat the cake. It’s a birthday, you should eat cake. Don’t feel bad about this, it is a normal thing.
Cake is a sometimes food. We don’t eat cake at every meal, every day. An apple could be an all the time food. We either go all or nothing with food, it’s either good or it’s bad, and that’s not the truth. Food is so much more. Yes, food is fuel, but it’s also a way that we communicate with each other, its a way we remember our heritage and loved ones, a way to soothe people when they’re grieving. In some religions, food (or fasting) is even a way that we talk to God. Food is complicated and saying that it is good or bad really limits what this vital piece of our life is. If you ate cake every day, it wouldn’t be your favorite food anymore, keep it for special occasions.
An eating disorder is a multi-dimensional, biopsychosocial, diagnosable mental health issue. It can be passed on through DNA but you don’t have to have those genes to have an eating disorder. The commonage of onset is puberty, and then again between 18 and 24. Biologically, that’s when those biological factors get triggered. Then there are the psychological issues e.g. you get bullied for the way you look, or your family only seems to love you if you look a certain way. An eating disorder is usually a combination of all of those things. That’s not true for disordered eating. Women, especially, are shaped through these messages to think about our bodies and food in a way that is toxic, not healthy, and just not fun.
We shouldn’t all still be talking about this, especially not after the age of 25. Even 60-year old women are still talking about this. We haven’t grown or learned enough and that’s sad. After centuries of progress, we can do whatever we want now, yet, somehow we are standing around and talking about our workout routines, what we ate or didn’t eat, and why we don’t like our bodies instead of talking about our lives and our successes, or even our failures.
For centuries, women have been fighting for a voice, for rights, and for independence, but sometimes there is this undercurrent of infighting. Comparing our bodies, our workout routines, who’s eating what diet. This weakens us as a group because we’re not talking about the important stuff. We need to talk about supporting each other and continuing to move forward instead of stuff that is not interesting and not important in the long run.
We have a natural inclination to compare and feel envy and maybe even jealousy sometimes, but if we can practice gladness for other people, we will end up a lot happier at the end of the day. Just be glad for that person because their success or excitement for their achievement has nothing to do with you, it’s just theirs. It’s hard for women to practice gladness, we’ve learned this behavior, but we can unlearn it and we can teach the next generation to be glad for others, to stop comparing, and separate ourselves from other people.
We have a tendency of putting food into two categories: forbidden food and good food. When you catch yourself doing this…there’s no such thing! A healthy diet comes down to three main components…balance, moderation, and variety. Is this balanced? Am I doing this in moderation? Am I eating a variety of different foods? If we can stick to those three goals then that should help us stay on track. We need to listen to our bodies instead of listening to other people talk about their bodies or an advertisement that’s trying to sell us something.
We’ve gotten away from what we as women are designed to do. Our civilization has developed way faster than our brains have. Because we started to betray our brain’s basic functioning and basic needs, we get away from this. On average, women’s bodies want to hold on to 17% body fat which is exactly the amount of body fat that women would need to survive without food for 9 months. Our bodies are designed to do two things: survive and reproduce. Our bodies want to hold onto this fat just in case there’s a famine and we need it. Thankfully, famine isn’t something that we need to worry about anymore but regardless, this is a testament to how amazing our bodies truly are.
“The way we move our bodies is different for everybody, you know because we’re not all the same in terms of being able-bodied for example, or having access to fancy exercise equipment. So, it’s going to look different, and your moving body looks different than mine. And that’s okay.”
Exercise! Exercise is a fundamental component of keeping our bodies healthy, but the way we talk about exercise around our kids is really important. We need to focus on “am I eating to exercise or am I exercising to eat?” and you’re going to want to make sure that you’re modeling appropriate behavior. When talking to your kids, instead of using the word “exercise”, maybe say, “Every day I need to move my body.”
Kate Fisch is a licensed psychotherapist and founder of Northside Mental Health. Kate’s clinical experience and area of expertise is in the field of eating disorder treatment and substance abuse treatment.