‘A chocolate bar every now and then won’t kill me, but not eating a chocolate bar every now and then will strengthen my eating disorder, which in turn will kill me (and nearly did)’
When I was around 12 years old I developed Anorexia Nervosa and became seriously ill in a very short space of time. I won’t go into the nitty gritty details of my story, but the past eight years have been what could only be described as a living hell for myself and my family. It has been a long journey of hospitalisations, close calls, treatment centres, nasogastric tubes, fights, relapse, weight gain, and the list goes on.
I have had periods of doing pretty well, but last year I had a pretty severe relapse and in January ended up in ICU fighting for my life. How I survived, no one really knows, but here I am to tell the tale.
Along with my parents and treatment team, I have worked really hard and have fought tooth and nail against the eating disorder. I have put on almost 25 kilograms, and am managing to eat three meals and four snacks every day, as part of my treatment plan. That probably sounds incredibly simple to most people, but the fact I am not only still alive, but also at a healthy weight, and am back on track with my eating, is nothing short of a miracle for me.
I am not recovered, not by a long shot. Anorexia doesn’t just disappear once a person reaches a healthy weight. In fact the illness seems to dig its heels in further when they reach a healthy weight. This is because they are literally going against everything that the eating disorder wants. While I have a long way to go in terms of mental recovery, I have come so far in the past six months, and probably the past eight years when I think about it. I have conquered a lot of challenges and fears, and continue to fight every second of every day.
There is no set cause of eating disorders, but certain people are predisposed, or susceptible to developing the disorder. A combination of genetic, biological, environmental and circumstantial factors contribute to the development of the illness. It’s a complex intertwining of these factors that determine the predisposition.
However, just because a person is predisposed to developing one, doesn’t mean that they will actually develop an eating disorder. For people who are susceptible to developing eating disorders, they will only actually develop the disorder if they engage in eating disorder behaviours, such as dieting, fasting, compulsive exercising, binging, purging, etc. If they never engage in these behaviours, they won’t actually develop the disorder. Sort of like if a person is allergic to nuts, they won’t actually have an allergic reaction unless they are exposed to the nuts. I guess you could say the people who are susceptible to developing an eating disorder are ‘allergic’ to dieting and other similar behaviours.
The revised version of the food pyramid has made me feel a little uneasy. I totally understand our current health issues and the need for dietary changes for many people in Australia. However, Nutrition Australia seems to have forgotten the large and ever increasing number of people who have, are developing, or will develop, an eating disorder. There are so many people struggling with eating disorders, or disordered eating, and it is significantly fuelled by the current ‘health obsession.’ (When I was hospitalised in 2008, there was only one other patient with an eating disorder on the adolescent ward, and they were only in for a few days. Besides those few days, I was the sole patient with an eating disorder. When I was hospitalised in 2012, there were, around 11 eating disorder patients on the ward).
While there is no set cause of eating disorders, the behaviours are triggers. Cutting out fun foods (or ‘junk foods’ as they are referred to by Nutrition Australia) might help improve some people’s health, but it will also be a detriment to the health of others. The term ‘orthorexia’, while not a diagnosis in the DSM 5, is associated with the obsession of eating only ‘healthy’ foods. It is an issue not only for those diagnosed eating disorders, but also for a large portion of the general population. All of these fad diets, exercise obsessions, and ‘clean eating’ regimes are becoming the norm, and it is (despite popular belief), not actually healthy.
I have worked exceptionally hard at overcoming ‘fear foods’. There was a time in which I couldn’t bring myself to even look at something like chocolate, or pasta, because of the fear that it was bad or would make me gain weight. Although it is still extremely difficult, I am able to enjoy chocolate, and pasta, and many other foods that were once forbidden.
Life needs to be about balance. I understand that Nutrition Australia are not necessarily saying that we should cut out certain food groups altogether, but for people with predispositions to eating disorders, the new changes are very likely to be interpreted in this way. I know that a lot of people will disregard the new pyramid and will continue to eat in the same way that they always have (and quite frankly, the people who disregard it are likely to be the people who desperately need to be more aware it), however many will take the pyramid on board and see it as the be all and end all – particularly young people, and especially young females, who are being brainwashed by this current health obsession.
We have become fearful and associate poor dietary habits, lack of exercise, weight gain, etc with being bad people. We need to get the message out that it’s okay to have balance. In fact we need balance. Not just for our physical health, but also our mental health. We need to be aware of the potential for this new pyramid to be incorrectly interpreted and taken too far. Eating disorders are fatal, and I have absolutely no doubt that they will become more and more prevalent and will destroy the lives of more and more people.
I am finally in a strong enough headspace to know that I need to do what is right for me, and not what society, and the new pyramid is telling us is ‘right’. However, not everyone will have the same experience as myself and they may not be able to rationalise and put things into perspective. I always say that a chocolate bar every now and then won’t kill me, but not eating a chocolate bar every now and then will strengthen my eating disorder, which in turn will kill me (and nearly did).
By no means am I saying that we need to live unhealthy lives. But we do need balance, and to show our society that it’s okay to not be perfect. I don’t really have anything against the message Nutrition Australia is trying to get out, because I definitely agree that there are a lot of people who are not eating in a healthy, balanced way. However, I also believe that it is critical for the message to get out there that restrictive eating, limiting foods, and being too rigid is dangerous. We all need to hear the message that being self-accepting, loving, and kind towards ourselves is crucial in living happy, healthy lives.
I’m never going to be able to cure eating disorders, but I want to do everything I possibly can to raise awareness, support others, and reduce the prevalence of the illness. The food pyramid is somewhat of a good movement to encourage people to start leading healthier lives, however I believe that for a significant number of people, it has the potential to be very harmful.
I hope it will at least start a fresh discussion on eating disorder awareness, prevention, and treatment and true health.
Claire Mercer, 20, lives in South Australia. She blogs here
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