July is mental health awareness month and so I thought it would be great to hear from an expert about this broad and mostly unspoken field. I have known Karlien since primary school and her passion for her field of work is amazing. She recently did a lecture about eating disorders and I asked her to share her knowledge with you.
“Why don’t they just eat?”
“Eating disorders are for rich white women only; it’s a disease of vanity”
“It’s not a real problem, it’s just dieting gone too far”
“Men can’t get an eating disorder, that’s a ridiculous idea”
“Get over yourself”
If you’ve been in a conversation about anorexia or bulimia, you are likely to have heard one of the above myths, or you may believe them yourself. Today I want to talk a bit about a topic that is close to my heart the past couple of years- eating disorders.
I want to start by having you think of your own relationship to food. What meaning does food hold in your life? If we think about food we soon realise that food holds meaning beyond the physical and biological components. Food is also a means of social connection. How do you celebrate a birthday party? You might make a cake, invite people over for tea, go out for dinner or have a party with snacks at your house. If you think about going out with friends- how often is food involved? Going to a coffee shop and sharing a piece of cake, having breakfast or dinner together. Families connect around food- we braai together on weekends, we bake with our children, we invite our in-laws for dinner. A large portion of our social connection revolves around food and food-based activities. Food does not only hold nutritional meaning, but social meaning. So if food is very difficult for you, or you struggle to engage with food in a way that other people do, this affects so much more than your bodily needs.
And then, to take it a step further, food is emotional. Again, think of your own relationship with food. How do you reward yourself after a big project? You might buy a nice meal, have a beautiful piece of chocolate or celebrate with a drink. During a busy day, you might take time out to process and re-ground by having lunch or going out for lunch. You might start the day with breakfast that gives you both the physical and the emotional energy to deal with food. When you’re anxious you might eat more than you need to, or struggle to eat at all. When you’re sad you might crave certain foods. When you’re happy you celebrate with food. Food is not only physical and social, it is very strongly emotional too.
I’m writing about this because eating disorders are on the rise- not only in wealthy women, but in everyone. Boys and girls as young as 12 years old are going on gluten-free diets, refusing to eat dairy, becoming vegan, all in pursuit of the “thigh gap” or fitting in with the other girls at school. The scary truth is that eating disorders are not only a “vanity” disease, but a serious mental illness that needs serious and ongoing support. It is the mental illness with the highest morbidity rate (10% in people with anorexia), which means that more people die from anorexia than from depression, bipolar disorder, personality disorders etc. If a person with anorexia, bulimia or binge-eating disorder could “just eat” and “snap out of it” then we would not see such a high mortality rate.
In the name of advocacy, I’d like to try and bridge the gap between the misconceptions and the reality of eating disorders. I know this is a large and possibly impossible task, but in the next part, we will discuss this matter in more detail.
Until next time!
Be kind, Be Awesome, Be YOU!
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