Updated: Jun 2, 2021
Today marks World Eating Disorders Action Day, an independent, grassroots effort that started in 2015 to "link affected people and countries together in a united effort to improve the understanding about eating disorders and offer hope, solutions, and change."
This year's theme is Equity for Eating Disorders, which focuses on recognizing all forms of eating disorders equally and striving for equity among underrepresented groups.
As a clinician, I've learned that so many people have distorted, unkind views and opinions about their bodies—and its reach is far and wide. Women of all ages and social locations have admitted to experiencing horrific, nasty thoughts about their bodies, and heterosexual, cisgender men have shared similar experiences—something I was surprised to learn given that this population is seldom associated with this presenting concern.
There aren't only one million Canadians who have a diagnosis for an eating disorder according to the National Initiative for Eating Disorders, but eating disorders have the highest overall mortality rate of any mental illness with estimates between 10 - 15%. (Suicide is the second leading cause of death.) In other words, if left untreated, its consequences can be fatal.
So without further ado, today's post is about how to befriend your body in small yet impactful ways so that a healthier relationship can develop between your mental and physical health.
So much of crap out there about nutrition, fitness, and weight loss is just that—crap. Here's what we do know:
Dieting doesn't work. In fact, research suggests that 80% of people who lose a significant amount of weight do not maintain their weight loss for 12 months. They're also more likely to gain more than half of what they lost within two years. Dieting doesn't work for a number of reasons:
Dieting has been shown to significantly reduce one's leptin levels, our body's satiety-inducing hormone, which means that we feel hungrier more often, increasing our likelihood to eat more and eventually gain weight.
When we diet, our body's basal metabolic rate—or the amount of energy we use when we're simply resting—slows, decreasing the amount of calories we burn in a day.
When we're dieting, there are actually neurological changes that cause us to become more obsessed and fixated on food. This is precisely why people with eating disorders find themselves in a vicious cycle of obsessing about calories/food, which causes them to restrict themselves, which makes them become even more fixated on calories and food.
2. Be mindful of how your social circle and/or social media pages are affecting your relationship with your body.
The fact that someone's body is used as conversation piece in today's world astounds me. Young teenage girls have told me about their parents encouraging them to go on a diet even though they're completely healthy. Others will share stories of getting together with friends and having entire conversations about what's wrong with their bodies for hours. In what world do we think these are the ingredients for helping each other develop healthy, kind, good-willed relationships with our physical bodies?
And don't even get me started on social media. If I had a nickel for every time someone told me about how bad they felt about themselves after seeing some Instagram influencer posing in a bikini, I'd be a millionaire. We forget to take so many things into account when comparing ourselves to influencers though, including (but not limited to) the following facts:
Influencers very frequently edit the living hell out of their photos, similarly to how magazine pictures are overzealously photoshopped
Influencers, personal trainers, nutritionists, and the like literally make a living off of how they look a lot of the time, making it much easier, convenient, and understandable that they are prioritizing eating clean and working out in ways that the general public cannot
You have no idea if someone is achieving their physique in healthy ways. For all you know, they could be starving themselves, binging and purging, or engaging in very restrictive and disordered eating patterns
The point is this: take some time to consider how your social circles and/or social media accounts are affecting your relationship with your body. If you discover that there are particular people, places, or circumstances that regularly trigger disordered thoughts or habits, it might be time to set some boundaries or find some new friends. As I tell a lot of my patients: nothing is worth your mental health.
3. Learn about intuitive eating.
Intuitive eating is a "self-care eating framework" that focuses on helping people: differentiate between emotional and physical hunger, make peace with food, refrain from using words like "good" or "bad" when describing foods, reject diet culture, and much more. That said, it is something that definitely comes more intuitively for some people over others.
It's worth noting that I seldom recommend intuitive eating as an initial intervention for individuals who have a history of disordered eating. Rather, the first line of treatment in these cases is to have people adopt a consistent, regular eating schedule as their bodies have often lost the ability to actually monitor and tend to hunger, fullness, and the like.
That said, for people who have successfully been in recovery from an eating disorder for a few months—or for the rest of the general public—intuitive eating is a beautiful approach that is certainly more sustainable and holistic than diet culture ever has or will be. Buy the Intuitive Eating Workbook here.
4. Start noticing and changing your Inner Body Talk.
To develop a healthier relationship with your body, it's essential that you change your self-talk. Recovery will not be possible if you continue to call yourself a "fat pig" 203859320985 times a day, period.
As Dr. Thomas Cash outlines in The Body Image Workbook, people with body image issues tend to possess a number of appearance assumptions, including:
Physically attractive people have it all.
My worth depends on how I look.
The first thing people notice about me is what's wrong with my appearance.
By managing my physical appearance, I can control my emotional and social life.
(There are many more of these, but here are just a few.)
It's important to intentionally challenge these assumptions. For example, if managing your physical appearance really helped you control your emotional life, wouldn't you be happier by now? If that assumption is true, why hasn't it "worked" yet?
As another example, when you think of the people who you admire and respect, does their physical appearance have anything to do with it?
From there, practice labelling and externalizing harmful self-talk the moment it arises and correcting it accordingly—even if you don't believe it at first. I often tell people that their body image issues are the result of harmful propaganda that's been around for decades in Western culture. Our beliefs about our bodies didn't happen overnight so it's going to take a hell of a lot of intentional unlearning to change our relationship with our physical self.
5. Change your focus.
Recently I was doing a workout on an online workout platform I'm currently obsessed with, The Studio by Jamie Kinkeade. There I was sweating my butt off (literally!) and being hard on myself for struggling to complete the workout when one of the instructors said, "Think about what a privilege and gift it is to move this way!"
How true that is!
So many of us focus on what's wrong with our body or what we dislike about it without realizing how miraculous it is. It does so much for us on a daily basis, from digesting our food to helping us walk from one room to another. And yet, what thanks do we give it?
I also think something so many of us lose sight of (myself included) is the privilege that comes with being able-bodied. The fact that I am able to run upstairs to grab a glass of water between sessions is, in and of itself, a gift, and it's one that we seldom stop to really think about or appreciate.
6. Get a team together.
For individuals who are in the throes of an eating disorder, it takes a team of trained, skilled practitioners for recovery to be possible. Psychiatric interventions might be necessary to help address chemical imbalances. A dietitian and/or naturopath who can create a food program that's specifically designed for your body is essential. Talking things through with a therapist gives you a safe space to be honest about what you're going through and learn healthy coping strategies, while having supports outside of your sessions—whether that's through talking to friends or engaging in healthy hobbies—help fill any gaps. When it comes to eating disorders, "rallying the troops" can make all the difference, and you're worth it.
7. Be open to "failing."
Almost every person I work with who has an eating disorder is also highly perfectionistic. This translates into having extremely rigid rules when it comes to eating, food, and/or exercise. Words like "should," "always," and "never" are very common, as are acts of punishment and competitiveness. Simultaneously, self-compassion and grace are completely foreign concepts, creating a vicious cycle.
Learning to loosen our rules about our appearance, eating, and exercise takes a lot of time, energy, and, most importantly, repetition, repetition, repetition. There is often a degree of exposure therapy that comes into play with eating disorder recovery. For example, people will be asked to break some of their eating-related rules in slow, graduated steps so as to help loosen the grips of the perfectionism. Consider asking yourself what eating rules you are following as you read this and if there are ways to be more flexible with yourself.
8. Learn emotion regulation techniques.
^ Boxed breathing is one such technique that can help calm the nervous system
If there's one diagnosis that is most similar to eating disorders, I believe it's obsessive compulsive disorder. Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) involves having intrusive thoughts—A.K.A thoughts that are really "sticky" and convincing—which cause the person a significant amount of distress. As a way of alleviating the distress, the individual will perform a compulsion, which will usually be some form of avoiding or "checking" behaviour (i.e. Googling one's chance of contracting a disease for three hours). This is very similar to the process of an eating disorder if you think about it: someone has an intrusive thought about their body, appearance, or food, they experience distress, and their "compulsion" is to restrict their caloric intake, purge, or binge.
What's really happening here is that the person is looking for instant relief from pain and suffering to regulate themselves. However, these short term "fixes," though seemingly effective in the moment, become less and less powerful over time, causing the person to have to use more extreme tactics. Further, the coping mechanism itself ends up having more costs than benefits, dissolving the individual's self-confidence, relationships, and overall quality of life.
It's imperative that someone in recovery learn how to regulate themselves without needing to binge or purge. This might involve learning mindfulness-based stress reduction strategies, grounding techniques, distraction strategies, and more.
8. Consider becoming more body neutral.
While "body positivity" is a well-known movement/philosophy by now, I know some people (myself included) find the concept quite daunting. An option that might be more approachable is body neutrality, which promotes the acceptance of your body as it is and encourages us to recognize its abilities and non-physical characteristics.
An important component of this movement is to "decentralize the body as an object" (source) by challenging the notion that our worth is defined by our appearance. So, it invites people to focus on recognizing and prioritizing how they feel in their body while also acknowledging that you might not love your body every day—and that's okay. As I tell many of my patients, accepting something doesn't necessarily mean liking it.
This links to point #5, which is about changing your focus. Rather than working out to burn calories, for example, you might start engaging in a form of movement simply because it feels good.
For more information and exercises about practicing body neutrality, click here.
The Bottom Line
Market research in the United States shows that the weight loss sector has been growing by about 6% per year since the 1980s—a trend that has been occurring alongside a rising obesity rate. Additionally, the weight loss industry in the United States is worth approximately $65 billion each year. You read that correctly: $65 billion. And one of the main ways that that industry is able to sustain such an absurd number is by feeding us misinformation and convincing us to hate our bodies. This happens through showing photoshopped bodies on our Instagram feeds, promoting weight loss products that are completely unregulated and ineffective, blaming our weight gain on a "lack of willpower," and shoving different fad diets in our faces every year.
The reason why changing our relationship with our bodies is so hard is because we still live in a system that depends on us having a poor relationship with our bodies.
And yet, hope is not lost! Recognizing how we, ourselves, are keeping ourselves in this system is crucial. Notice the moments when you're telling yourself that you "should" look like that random Instagram influencer who might have a personal trainer and chef for all you know. Recognize the moments when your Inner Body Talk is unnecessarily harsh and gently try saying something more compassionate to yourself. Set goals that have nothing to do with your weight but on how you feel in your skin.
And above all, never forget that your body is just one facet of you. There is so much more to you than how you look, from the values that you have to the company you keep. You are so much more than what you look like, so you might as well focus on appreciating or enhancing the things you have more control over!
If you're reading this right now, I invite you to make a donation as a way of honouring World Eating Disorders Action Day. Here is a list of Canadian organizations and charities to which you can donate. I invite you to share this posts across your social media too so we can continue to spread awareness. The hashtags for this year are: #Equity4EatingDisorders, #WorldEDDay2021 and/or #WeDoAct2021.
If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, please contact email@example.com to inquire about booking an appointment. You may also contact the National Eating Disorder of Canada (NEDIC) and utilize their national toll-free help line, instant chat, and resources.