I’ve said this many times but I have a love, hate relationship with social media – probably more so at this time of year than any other; its always the same, the conflicting messages alternating between holiday cheer, to a high state frenzy about how many calories we will all consume, to advice on how we should “burn the excess”.
And while we may well have eaten a bit more than normal for a few days, in reality its often that we have eaten differently and the “excess” may not actually be anywhere near as much as we are scare mongered into thinking.
Just to be clear I’m not saying that we should all become sloth like and take up residency on our sofa; lets face it, isn’t it tradition in most families to go for long walks before or after mealtimes? A time to catch up, reconnect with each other and enjoy the benefits of just being outside. What I am opposed to is the pressure that so many of us feel that you HAVE TO, and must EXERCISE in order to “beat the bloat”.
I’m sure that most of you reading this will still be in the post Christmas lull, still enjoying spending time with our families, catching up on well needed down time, as well as finishing off turkey and cheese board left overs. But, for those with an Eating disorder, this is one of the biggest challenges of the festive period –a change to normal eating patterns and food choices –it throws them into a state of panic with their anxious minds working over time creating all sorts of catastrophic outcomes. Its important to appreciate that individuals with an Eating disorder will always look for validation to maintain their behaviours –it makes them feel safe –controlled and contained, even when it will be apparent to those closest to them that the behaviours are anything but safe. Remember an eating disorder is not really about food or body image, this is just the medium they use to project how anxious, unhappy and uncomfortable they feel within themselves; it is their inability to sit with difficult emotions, constantly looking for ways to run away or numb deep rooted fears and perceptions.
Over the last few days I have been inundated with messages from those I work with, as well as new individuals, in a complete state of anxiety. Concerns that they won’t “get it right” because their normal foods are not available; the stress about having to sit around watching films or playing board games. Their minds playing tricks on them, with more and more intrusive thoughts about how this “lack of control” is going to end in tears. Somehow if they deviate from their usual food and training rules, they will become unfit, unhappy and balloon over night.
This is how irrational the eating disorder mind is.
The reality of course is that while they have an eating disorder and are restricting their intake and/or underweight, they are not making any training gains; and if anything they are just putting their already vulnerable body under more stress. That’s a huge challenge when working with eating disorders –it’s a silent illness in that so much of it is psychological but at the same time the body is slowly deteriorating –hormones, digestive system, bones and heart –individuals only sit up and take notice when its too late.
And when it comes to the fear of changes to weight, have you ever seen anyone physically balloon over the festive period?
No, because it is not a thing. In reality when our bodies are working optimally, they automatically regulate through homeostatic control. It will adjust our metabolism and send signals around satiety and hunger, because fundamentally, the body is always trying to achieve energy balance. Its only when we try to override this internal barometer to either extremes of severe restriction or over consumption that we may find our body works against us; but even then it doesn’t have to be long lived.
Helping individuals understand physiological recovery from an eating disorder is one of my roles –helping them to challenge their pre-conceived mind sets and well rehearsed “coping” behaviours is all part of the process. Of course physiological “recovery” doesn’t automatically equate to full recovery. Eating disorders are complex and while some have described it as being “taken over by an external force”, the reality is that an eating disorder really is a manifestation of your personality traits that have gone off kilter. So recovery involves working with trained psychologists and counsellors who can help you manage these personality traits – the perfectionism, the self criticism, the concern over other people’s perceptions of them. And this, is an evolving and on going process; it is something you have to continue to work on through your life. Learning to navigate emotions and not having to react to every single thought.
That said, physical recovery alongside this is imperative; as the body becomes restored physiologically, biochemically and endocrinologically, only then can we engage our brain and learn to become more rational.
As we go into 2019, the inevitable onslaught of food and wellness trends are going to hit us –we cannot avoid it. While they may be dressed up with new titles and slightly different food rules, the bottom line is, they are all still selling you a so called formula to happiness and yet can you really dress up happiness as a method of eating or a fitness trend?
For those who are vulnerable, either already suffering from or susceptible to developing a dysfunctional relationship with food, they will be in search of this golden nugget, this fast forward button and it is these individuals I worry about the most.
One new trend that is fast emerging is around the theme of “Intuitive Eating”. Its not new, its been around for a while and also has previously been branded as “Mindful Eating” however since the middle of 2018, it has definitely become a buzz word and hailed as the “non-diet approach” to eating.
There is some evidence that this approach can work in those that need to lose weight and previous over restrictive diets have failed; it has a health rather than weight loss outcome focus, which I completely agree with. Its about tuning into those innate basic instincts of hunger signals we are all born with.
However, there a few areas where I do not condone the use of these Intuitive eating practices; during the recovery from Anorexia, Bulimia. Orthorexia or in athletes.
In those individuals recovering from an Eating Disorder, I have spoken to many experts in the field of eating disorders, psychiatrists, endocrinologists and academics and they all agree with also what I observe in clinic. When an individual has severely restricted their nutritional intake, it results in endocrine dysfunction and the body responds in a way that preserves energy. Hunger signals disappear and will not return until the body’s physical, biochemical and endocrine function restores.
Until this point, if you ask an individual with an eating disorder to intuitively eat, they will intuitively eat nothing.
Its also important to remember that restrictive eating behaviours, especially chronic, also cause huge structural changes to the brain. Studies have demonstrated that in many cases, it can take up to 5 years after an individual a has restored and maintained their health physically, before the brain catches up. So while there may be a time and place further down the line to teach someone recovering from an Eating Disorder to intuitively eat, it is likely that by this point, they will already have tuned into their hunger signals and will be managing it without having to be taught something their body instinctively can do.
From an Athletic point of view, exercise, especially intense exercise can often result in an immediate decrease in appetite. If an athlete tunes into this, rather than responding to appropriate recovery requirements, it can lead to chronic under fuelling, once again hampering endocrine response to get the progression they are looking for and potentially causing a decline in their metabolic adaptations; many will not see the body composition or performance outcomes they would expect.
So before you embark on any New Year, New You trends, take a moment to think about your real motives –why are you looking for answers through how or what you eat? Has this formula ever worked previously? If not, then why set yourself up to fail again?
Maybe its actually time to understand where the root problem with your discomfort and poor sense of self lies.
Make 2019 the year you learn to live your life not just exist it.