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Eating disorders awareness - early help through talking therapies

If you have an unhealthy relationship with food or someone you love has an unhealthy relationship with food, you may want to explore how to shatter the myths and misunderstandings of eating disorders.

I think lockdown has really highlighted some of the challenges with eating disorders.

The eating disorders charity BEAT have actually seen an 80% increase in people contacting them by social media and a 35% spike in calls across the UK around eating disorders negatively affected by lockdown.

And, I just wanted to clarify what qualifies as an eating disorder, because I think that the perception of eating disorders is very focused on a middle-class, young, female narrative.

In reality eating disorders also includes overeating, compulsive or binge eating, people that exercise too much and are obsessed with body shape or body image and is also known as orthorexia.

I think there are far more men that suffer with compulsive and binge-eating than women. It also impacts people differently from different cultures.

Hence, I really want to challenge the eating disorders stereotypes and share a more diverse narrative. Here are two different perspectives on eating disorders I recently shared with two women at very different ends of the eating disorder spectrum on my 'Better Mental Health' Podcast.

Man looking into distance

1. How do we create a healthy mindset on body shape in the fitness industry?

Orthorexia or extreme exercise and diet culture, with obsessive and clean eating behaviours is not balanced.

I did bikini competitions and everything I did was about being quite obsessive with food, living a life that was all about how I looked aesthetically which is a very strange concept now to me.

To let a panel of men mark my body out of 10 and decide whether it was good enough to go through to the next round.

Now, I'm able to speak to my clients about the truths behind some of the images that they see on social media and what it really takes to look a certain way as a woman and expose behind the scenes, it's completely different.

I do quite a lot of talks with my communities to show them what I looked like and what it really took to get there.

And, to explain that at that time, compared to now my body fat percentages were a lot lower, but in terms of strength, you know, cardiovascular fitness, stamina, now I'm leagues ahead of where I ever was there, covering a lot more body fat and just living a healthier lifestyle.

For women walking around with visible abs or a six pack. I think it's important to get the message across.

We're not supposed to walk around with levels of body fat like that, this is the opposite of healthy when it comes to a balanced approach.

So, when girls are looking at these sorts of images on social media and comparing themselves, I want you to understand it's a completely unrealistic expectation to put on your body.

It doesn't represent the majority of the women’s bodies and it certainly doesn't represent health!

Comparison kills, learning to understand better how to create an image that you are happy with based on your body type and shape is a much healthier and more balanced approach.

Woman walking in nature

2. How I accidentally fell into an eating disorder

If you have ever been diagnosed with an inflammatory bowel disease or any other digestive condition, it can be easy to become oblivious to the fact that you may have developed an eating disorder.

When I was diagnosed with IBD (Irritable Bowel Disorder) five years ago. I very easily became very unorganised around eating and started restricting the way I eat. My relationship with food quickly became really unhealthy.

Most of the time I was oblivious to this fact, until somebody else questioned why I am restricting my food so much. And, this just developed into a really bad relationship with food and I became anxious even being around food.

Falling into habits that are not really healthy and getting really underweight or overweight. When I was put on steroids to control the symptoms of my bowel condition. I quickly gained so much weight in a short amount of time.

I would look in the mirror to see this totally distorted image of myself. This wasn't really what I looked like, and I wanted to lose weight very quickly not to have to identify with this distorted image.

If I was going to a place where food is involved, I would try to avoid it or not associate it with anything to do with food.

It physically started to affect me as well, I became really dizzy. Constantly felt really cold, and was very sensitive to cold weather. I got like this thin layer of hair growing all over my body, and all these things really start to play with my psychologically after a while.

It took its toll on my mental health and it became very challenging at times emotionally, making me feel anxious and low.

This is when I reached out to get help. It was one of the most difficult parts of having any eating disorder, actually recognising I had developed an obsession about food.

But, getting a diagnosis and being able to access support was really challenging. I was not recognised as thin enough, and my weight had to get really low before I was offered help.

Woman leaning against tree

Early help through talking therapies

Talking to a therapist really helped me to have a more balanced perspective on food and taking care of my body. Perhaps, I would have been able to make much healthier choices and my condition would have not got so bad before accessing help.

Eating disorders can be life threatening and you should always consult with a physician or suitable qualified medical practitioners.

However, increasing awareness and challenging stereotypes is really important to shift the narrative on eating disorders, and could really help you or someone you love to access support earlier.

Many therapists offer a free consultation and can help navigate or signpost you to the right place.

For emotional support do not hesitate to reach out to a therapist who has experience with eating disorders to bridge the gap between getting diagnosed and receiving support.

If you or a loved one may be suffering with an eating disorder, don't suffer in silence, someone is always here to listen to you.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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London SE1 & NW3

Written by Marteka Swaby

London SE1 & NW3

Marteka has over 15 years experience improving emotional wellbeing. She has worked in many of the UK's largest NHS Mental Health Trusts. Psychodynamic Psychotherapist specialising in compulsive & emotional eating disorders she is currently working in private practice within eating disorders

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