Hollieats: Raising awareness about eating disorders, negative body image and society’s relationship with food

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I usually talk about the fun of food, but the truth of the matter is, eating disorders and body image issues are unfortunately common among individuals, yet normalized and ingrained within society. The pandemic and the changes it has wrought upon our lives have drastically exacerbated the mental health crisis that has long gone unaddressed. Isolation, extreme changes in lifestyle, anxieties of contracting or spreading COVID-19 and external factors that prevent adequate access to resources are all legitimate concerns that we or others we know are facing. Awareness of such issues in conjunction with other socioeconomic stressors is imperative for working towards a cultural shift in which mental illnesses can be prevented and treated, especially as social media and certain food trends promote particular body types and eating habits. 

“The best-known environmental contributor to the development of an eating disorder is the socio-cultural idealization of thinness,” the National Eating Disorders Association says on their website. The most common eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, bulimia and binge eating disorder. “Eating disorders are real, complex, bio-psycho-social diseases that can have serious consequences for health, productivity and relationships. They are not fads, phases or lifestyle choices.” 

People of all ages, genders and racial and ethnic identities experience pervasive thoughts of body image and can develop an eating disorder. This year, Feb. 22 to 28 comprises National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, headed by NEDA. The theme for 2021, “Every Body Has a Seat at the Table,” seeks to draw attention to the marginalized communities underrepresented in conversations about eating disorders and body image, challenge systemic biases and offer support through resources and shared experiences. 

“Despite similar rates of eating disorders among non-Hispanic White, Hispanic, Black, and Asian people in the United States, people of color are significantly less likely to receive help for their eating issues,” NEDA says, citing various studies about eating disorders across U.S. ethnic groups and access to care. “In a study of adolescents, researchers found a trend towards a higher prevalence of binge eating disorder in all minority groups.” 

Certain diets and “clean eating” have been popularized through social media, as celebrities, foodies and dieting companies alike restrict and dictate foods for the supposed sake of weight, nutrition or just trying to keep with a trend. Calorie-counting, intermittent fasting and food substitutes pick apart the necessity and joy of eating and may cause negative long-lasting views of food for a person struggling with disordered eating. 

“Labeling food as ‘clean’ or ‘dirty’ is just dieting by another name, and dieting is the most important predictor of developing an eating disorder compared to those who do not diet,” NEDA says. Over one-half of teenage girls and one-third of teenage boys use unhealthy weight control behaviors like skipping meals, fasting or vomiting. 

Being able to identify signs of disordered eating in oneself or others can be difficult, especially as it manifests in different ways. NEDA shares some things to look for regarding overlap with other mental health conditions such as withdrawal from usual friends and activities or feelings of isolation, depression, anxiety or irritability. However, other signs of an eating disorder may include preoccupation with weight, food, calories, dieting and/or body image; the development of abnormal, secretive, extreme or ritualized food or eating habits; compulsive or excessive exercising; or evidence of binge eating, such as the disappearance of a large amount of food. 

Acknowledging an eating disorder and seeking support and treatment isn’t easy; however, there are resources and ways you can begin the process of helping yourself or helping a loved one. NEDA offers a short eating disorders screening to help an individual determine if it’s appropriate to seek professional help; they offer a hotline for call or text which can be reached at (800) 931-2237 or via online chat. They also offer a series of articles about being part of a support system for someone coping with an eating disorder.  

The National Alliance on Mental Illness similarly offers a HelpLine at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), a crisis line (text “NAMI” to 741741) or info@nami.org and shares ways treatment can help one cope with harmful behaviors. NAMI also shares ways to support a family member or friend.  

“Labeling food as ‘clean’ or ‘dirty’ is just dieting by another name, and dieting is the most important predictor of developing an eating disorder compared to those who do not diet.”

National Eating Disorders Association

Even if you may not have a clinically diagnosed eating disorder, you may have experienced disordered thoughts, have a negative body image or a less-than-ideal relationship with food that can occupy your thoughts and prevent you from focusing on what you want to. Some ways I’ve sought to combat this in daily life is to resituate myself in situations that contain harmful language or actions concerning food, such as when others judge how much or how little someone is eating or commenting on the nature of the food, even if it isn’t intentional. If I see a post about calorie counting or food swaps on Instagram, I click the “Don’t show me this again” option. I’ve also started following a registered dietician and UConn alum, Sarah Chau (@balancedbysarah), who shares posts and stories of her daily life and food, as well as important information and thoughts about food. She also shares posts from other RDNs and those focused on mental and emotional wellbeing, which is helpful since I don’t necessarily want to follow a bevy of dietician-focused accounts, but still benefit from the reminders. 

As discussed in Jordana Castelli’s article yesterday, organizations like UConn S.H.A.P.E. (Students Helping to Achieve Positive Esteem) engage with the issue through initiatives to educate students about disordered eating and by raising awareness of body-related issues. The university offers a variety of resources for students seeking professional or informal support, such as through the Nutrition & Physical Activity Services. 

There are many more resources out there for those hoping to learn more about seeking treatment, serving as support for others or just trying to build a healthier relationship with food. NEDA week is a reminder that eating disorders are ongoing issues for many in our society, but those living with one aren’t alone. 

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