Eating Disorders and Food & Weight Preoccupation: How aware are you?

This colour photo depicts three drawings of butterflies in purple, red, and yellow squares, with the labels ‘acceptance,’ ‘equity,’ and ‘awareness.’ It is from the poster for NEDIC’s May 11-12 conference in Toronto.

We’re a bit late off the mark, but today is the last day the National Eating Disorder Information Centre’s (NEDIC) Eating Disorder Awareness Week. According to NEDIC’s website, the purpose of the week is:

…to continue our efforts to debunk the stigma surrounding eating disorders by spreading the message that eating disorders are not a choice.

They have a broader focus than just eating disorders, however. They  go on to say:

We know that through open, supportive dialogue, we can help break the shame, stigma and silence that affect nearly a million Canadians living with a diagnosed eating disorder – and the millions of others struggling with food and weight preoccupation. Our message can bring important information about these illnesses to people across the country and spread hope to those affected.

What sticks out for me here is “the millions of others struggling with food and weight preoccupation.” I myself have made it through a diagnosed eating disorder (decades ago) and then spent many more year struggling with food and weight preoccupation. Both are devastating ways to live.

There is definitely unwarranted stigma associated with eating disorders. But the received view (not the only view) is that they are deadly illnesses.

Food and weight preoccupation, however, are normalized conditions in our food-phobic and fat-phobic world. The other day, Sam sent me a link to an article, “5 weeks to your best body ever: what to eat.” It offered a 1350 calorie, “easy to follow” diet. Sam commented to me that she was shocked that people are still advocating low calorie diets.

My response to her was that to many people, a 1350 calorie a day diet will seem generous. 1200 calories a day (or less) is still imprinted in the minds of many a chronic dieter. Now I don’t have that in writing anywhere. It’s a number that comes from the memory traces that linger in my mind from years of chronic dieting (often taking in 500-700 calories per day), preoccupation with food (because you’d be preoccupied too if you were starving yourself), and weight (because that’s the whole point: to see the number on the scale go down daily).

Regardless of whether it’s 1350, 1200, or even 1500: to eat like that for five whole weeks is to embark on an extremely low calorie diet that will engender a sense of deprivation, food preoccupation, and may well result in temporary or permanent metabolic damage. Rapid weight loss at the beginning is likely to peter out before the end of the five weeks. And the resumption of regular eating will result in regained weight.

That is how this type of diet goes. And yet it’s not just normalized, but as I said to Sam, my guess is that lots of people wouldn’t even consider 1350 to be particularly low calorie. And considering the range for an average sized reasonably active woman is more like 2000-2200 calories, it’s not enough.

And that’s why we need to be more aware of eating disorders and their more normalized cousin, chronic dieting/food and weight preoccupation.

If you are in the fields of education, health care, or fitness, are an individual with an eating disorder or food/weight preoccupation or a friend or relative of someone suffering, a student, or member of the general public with an interest NEDIC is organizing a conference in May devoted to these issues. The event is May 11-12, 2017 in Toronto. You can find out more information about it here on the conference website.

My closing question: if you have in your head the concept of what constitutes a “low calorie diet,” how many calories would that be? Are you aware at some level that engaging in that type of food restriction is unhealthy and not likely to lead to long term weight loss anyway?

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