Content warning: This article discusses topics related to eating disorders and disordered eating that may be triggering to some readers.
This week, February 22nd-28th 2021, is National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, or NEDA for short. The goal of NEDA week is to help educate and spread awareness on the topic of eating disorders as well as instill a sense of hope to those who are affected by the disease. As a mental health advocate and someone who has struggled with many of these issues in general, NEDA is a topic that is extremely close to my heart and something I am very passionate about.
While I've never been diagnosed as having an eating disorder, I personally have suffered from many disordered eating habits throughout my lifetime, especially in the last few years. What has taken me a long time to realize is that many of the behaviors I have engaged in before may not even be perceived as disordered due to the fact that it could be deemed as "acceptable" in the eyes of diet culture. What first started out for me as an innocent attempt to live a healthier life became a full-on obsession in which I was constantly living my life in order to shrink myself. Deciding to diet or lose weight can be a really slippery slope for some people, as it was for me. It came to a certain point that I knew the path I was heading on was ugly, scary, and a place I no longer wanted to be. In the last year or so I have really been working to heal my relationship with food, my body, and practicing habits such as intuitive eating that have aided me in that process. And while I am so proud of how far I've come, I still am a work in progress and continuing to grow every single day.
One of the main issues with eating disorder awareness is the fact that there are a lot of misconceptions about what they are and the type of people who experience them. There are many phrases that people say on a daily basis that could be triggering to someone who is struggling and could potentially cause them to spiral down a dark path. They not only shouldn't be said to those who are struggling with an eating disorder, but they really shouldn't be said to anyone for that matter. I know that I am guilty of saying these types of things in the past or just overall contributing to the toxic nature of diet culture and fatphobia. These are issues that have been around for decades, and progress will not be made until we as a whole begin to change the way we think and talk about these types of problems. From my experiences learning more about eating disorder awareness as well as the toxicity of diet culture, I have learned a lot about the way to support people in their recovery as well as ways better ways that we can discuss topics related to food and our bodies. Here are a couple of things that you may have been guilty of saying in the past and why that could be harmful to those who are struggling as well as towards society at large...
1. "Have you lost weight? You look amazing!"
Although it sounds like you may be trying to compliment this person, through this statement you are implying that the only way to look "good" is if you are thin. I remember when I first lost weight this was the one thing that really kept me wanting to continue my restrictive behaviors and not go back to the body I had before. It felt so amazing to hear people finally complimenting me on my appearance and could tell how hard I had been working. However, in the end, it only made me more frustrated when I wasn't seeing that continued progress and fueled my obsession with healthy eating even further. The "thin ideal" is a real issue, one that isn't going to change until society starts to accept and showcase all different body types.
2. "Are you sure you're going to eat all of that?"
Someone else's food choices is not for you to comment on. You have absolutely no idea what someone is going through and what you're saying could lead someone down a very dark pathway. And even more than that, food is NOT a competition. This is something that took me a really long time to accept, because I have always been the kind of person who compared my plate to someone else's. But the truth is no one knows what your body needs besides you. When you finally take time to listen to your own intuition rather than what someone else or an app is telling you to do is when you finally can live your happiest and best life.
3. "She is so much skinnier than me. What diet is she on?"
It is so easy to compare ourselves to everyone all the damn time. However, I have an unfortunate truth to let you in on: if we all ate the same thing and exercised the exact same way every single day, we would all still have different bodies. This was a concept that was really hard for me to grasp at first, because all I did for so long was scroll on social media and copy people's recipes in hopes that I would have the same progress as someone else. News flash: diets don't work, even if you might think they do at first. And most of the time when they don't work you start to internalize it and think it's your fault for it not working. Although it may not be the case for everyone, research has shown that dieting has consistently been linked to eating disorders and disordered eating habits, which is the case for many people I know, including myself. When I finally let go of the constant need to shrink my body was when I finally began living for myself again, and it was the most liberating feeling in the entire world.
The other thing to keep in mind is that social media is a highlight reel. We are constantly showcasing the best parts, the best photos, and the best moments of ourselves. There are also so many pictures that you are looking at that might not even be what the person looks like, thanks to apps like Facetune that can completely change the image we present to others. So the next time you look at a photo of someone else and feel envious that you don't look like that, remember that you may not be getting the full picture.
4. "I feel fat"
Fat is NOT an emotion. It is not something you can feel; it is merely a body type. But because the word "fat" has this negative connotation, you are essentially equating being fat with being ugly or undesirable, which is extremely stigmatizing. When you say you feel "fat," get to the root of that emotion and ask yourself what you are really feeling. It will help you be able to express yourself better and, in turn, no longer marginalize the fat community that is constantly facing oppression and discrimination.
5. "Why don't you just eat?"
One big misconception about eating disorders is that it is simply just a pattern of behaviors such as severe restriction, skipping meals, or binging. Eating disorders are complex, oftentimes severe mental illness that stem from chemical imbalances in someone's brain. They are not to be taken lightly and they are not just easily solved by "eating more." Recovery is a long process, one that is not linear. If you know someone who is struggling with any eating disorder, it is important to be patient with them and understand that these things are just that easy.
6. "Ugh, I wish I could eat as good as you, I've been so bad lately"
I'm sure many of you can relate to an experience in which you had a little too much, or something a little more indulgent to eat, and then immediately felt a sense of "guilt" after the fact. Food guilt is a real thing, and it stems from the fact that we constantly assign foods to arbitrary categories such as "good" and "bad" or "healthy" and "unhealthy." But in reality, how do we actually measure that and what does it mean to be a quote-on-quote "good" food? You are not morally a better person because you ate a salad today, just like you are not inherently a bad person if you eat a donut. Of course, some foods are more nutrient-dense than other foods and that should not be discredited, but you should not measure your worth as a person based upon your food choices. That is a narrative that needs to stop ASAP.
7. "If I just lose 5 more pounds, then I'll be happy"
I was so guilty of being this person, and it honestly makes me really sad. As I think back to when I was in this unhealthy mindset, I've realized that I really don't think it was ever about the weight at all. When I got to a weight I was happy with (at the time), I remember saying "okay well maybe just five more pounds" and then beating myself up when I was finding it was no longer working anymore. Whether it was feeling like I wasn't in control of my decisions or that I was never going to be good enough, there is usually a reason why people who struggle with eating disorders/disordered eating turn to restriction as a means of doing so. If we continue to think like this, we will never truly be happy and that is something that no one deserves to feel like. Regardless of how much you weigh, you deserve to be happy RIGHT NOW, and I urge you all to figure out what that is.
8. "I shouldn't eat that, it has too many carbs"
A big problem of diet culture is that it teaches us to prioritize certain foods or food groups over others. Demonizing certain food groups such as carbs oftentimes leads us to developing a poor relationship with food. Like I've said before, balance is key and all food groups are important for our bodies to consume. Deprivation and restriction is oftentimes a precursor to bingeing, which continues to ruin our relationship with food. Also, there is no one in the world that is telling you what you "should" or "shouldn't" eat. And if you do have someone like that, cut that person out of your life because they are toxic and terrible. Eat what is going to make you feel good and don't let anyone tell you otherwise. P.S. carbs are SO GOOD.
9. "I'll just have a cheat day today, and then burn it all off at the gym tomorrow"
Cheat days are a really dangerous concept, because it implies that it's okay to "cheat" on your diet as long as you restrict the rest of the days. It also implies the idea of this "all or nothing" mentality surrounding food, which coming from experience is a super unhealthy mindset to hold. In my opinion, the key to having a healthy relationship with food is balance, and giving yourself permission to eat food not on any specific time schedule. I've found that this has been a much healthier way to live, both for my body and mind.
In addition, movement for the sake of burning off calories that you ate is also a really toxic way of thinking. We should be moving our bodies because we love them and want to take care of them, not because we want to punish them. Exercise has so many benefits, both physically and mentally, that have absolutely nothing to do with weight loss. Letting go of this mentality will lead to a much healthier relationship with exercise, in which you move your body because you WANT to, not because you have to.
10. "You're not fat, you're beautiful"
This one is tricky because it may sound like you are complimenting them at first. However, this statement is extremely fatphobic. This statement is implying that people who are fat cannot be beautiful, which is obviously the farthest from true. Your beauty is not determined by a jean size or a number on a scale. All bodies are beautiful just the way they were made, and you deserve to take up space in this world.
Let me say this again if you haven't gotten the measure: your body DOES NOT determine your worth as a person. In fact, your body is the least interesting thing about you. It's truly a shame that we spend so much of our time, energy, and headspace thinking about food and our bodies. Imagine what we could accomplish if we finally let those thoughts go. For a long time, I couldn't even wrap my head around the thought of what I could think about if I wasn't thinking about food 24/7. But I promise that you can get there someday, and it's honestly one of the most amazing feelings.
I hope that this has been helpful in recognizing some phrases that could be triggering to people who are struggling with eating disorders or disordered eating, and maybe that you learned something more about this topic. By starting to change the way that we discuss topics related to food and our bodies, we could make serious progress in making our world a more accepting and positive place to live. It is so important to keep in mind that these phrases can be really harmful, whether you intended it to be that way or not. While it is easier said than done, I think it is totally okay to speak up and correct someone if they are saying any sort of phrases that could be triggering to you or your journey to recovery. I am so proud to be apart of a movement that is starting to change the conversation around topics that have been around for years, and I hope that you will join me. If you are interested in learning more about anti-diet culture or intuitive eating, feel free to reach out and I can send you some resources that have really helped me in the process!
And to anyone who may be struggling right now, you are not alone. You are so incredibly strong, brave, and your disorder does not define you. While it may not seem like it, recovery is possible and so worth it. I believe in you and know that you are capable enough to do anything that you set your mind to.
If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, please visit www.NationalEatingDisorders.org or contact the helpline at 800-931-2237.