The first week of February marked Eating Disorders Awareness Week.
Nearly a million Canadians live with a diagnosable eating disorder and millions more struggle with food and weight preoccupation, according to the National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC).
Eating disorders are serious illnesses that impact physical and emotional health and behaviours. They are observed in people of all ages, genders, body weights, and racial/ethnic backgrounds.
An eating disorder is not just a dieting attempt gone off the rails.Eating disorders are complex and can manifest in different ways from person to person.
Many factors contribute to the development of eating disorders, including biological factors (e.g., genetics), psychological (e.g., personality traits, emotions, and attitudes), and sociocultural (e.g., family and peers, appearance standards, social media).
This intersection between mind, body, and the surrounding environment – and their complex interactions – helps contextualize the development of an eating disorder. An eating disorder is not a personal choice.
Eating disorders are perpetuated by several factors, including social reinforcement, weight stigma, and diet culture.
How often have you said or have heard your friends and family members say:
“I can’t wear this – it makes me look huge.”
“Let’s be bad and order a plate of nachos for our appetizer.”
These are just some examples of diet culture – messages society gives us about food, bodies, and health – in action.
People who have disordered eating may thus hide their illness, be secretive, or feel ashamed due to the societal stigma around it.
But they deserve support. As a friend or family member, it may be difficult to know what to say. Here are some suggestions from the NEDIC that may help with initial conversations:
Use “I” statements: Use “I’m worried about you” instead of “You’re worrying me.” The former comes from a place of caring, while the latter may place blame.
Focus on emotions rather than symptoms: Say “How have you been feeling lately?” instead of “How much did you eat?” or “Why aren’t you eating?”
Encourage help-seeking: Say “I have some resources that might be helpful – how about if I share them with you?”
When talking about bodies – your own or others’ – here are some recommendations from the NEDIC:
Identify and express your core emotions: “I am feeling sad today” instead of “I feel so fat today.”
Validate other’s emotions and avoid arguments: “I am sorry you’re feeling like that. What can we do to take the focus off your body?” instead of “You’re not fat, you’re beautiful!”
Don’t join in by engaging in fat talk about yourself: Share what your journey with body image has been like and model positive self-talk, instead of saying something like “You hate your thighs? Well, I hate my arms.”
Give non-body related compliments: “Your courage inspires me” instead of “You look great, have you lost weight?”
Remember, eating disorders are treatable.
There are many pathways to treatment and support in our community. Primary care providers, mental health, and allied health services can all help. Community-based programs, individual and group therapy, online chat, and peer support groups are just some examples.Support from friends and family is often key to getting well.
With the pandemic creating new challenges for those managing difficult relationships with food, take some time to learn about resources in your community. It may help save a life.