This piece was written by one of our contributors; graduate of an MSc in Health Psychology – Joe O’Brien.
We see it all around us on social media, TV, and in real life. Advertisements for weight loss foods, gym programmes for fat loss, skinny coffee and YouTube videos titled “The 10 things you need to do to get in shape this summer”. What is it? “Diet culture” – the idea that happiness and good health comes from being thin and losing weight. In fact, the weight loss and diet industry is worth tens of billions each year, which is incomprehensible when you consider that diets are typically unsuccessful in the long term and more than 50% of dieters returning to their baseline weight within five years.
The Fiji Study
Alongside that, exposure to diet culture and a narrow scope of body types, contributes to the rise in disordered eating from orthorexia to binge eating. Just look at the famous Fiji study on disordered eating. What the researchers did was assess a group of Fijian schoolgirls who had never been exposed to Western media and had no access to TV. The TV was introduced to this particular group in 1995 and they measured the difference in eating behaviours after three years of exposure, and what they found tells its own story. There was a significant rise in disordered eating behaviours after the TV was introduced to this community, and a considerable shift in the attitudes of these women around aesthetics and weight loss. Why? Because simply being exposed to these unrealistic, narrow representations of body types can subconsciously or consciously change our behaviour. This is relevant now because almost all forms of media are flooded with these diet-culture fuelled representations of body types which through consumption alone, is enough to potentially change the way we think about ourselves, and in turn our eating behaviour.
This is important because of how prevalent disordered eating and chronic dieting seems to be, specifically binge eating and the number of people who want to reduce their number of binge eating episodes. The prevalence of binge eating disorder (BED) is estimated at between 1.1-1.9% of the population but the DSM-V estimates that people who suffer with binge eating but don’t meet the criteria for the disorder is far higher, closer to 10%. If you are someone who struggles significantly with binge eating to the point where it’s impacting your life and your day to day functioning, it’s important to see a mental health professional or your GP for guidance, however many people at the sub-clinical level simply wish to improve their relationship with food, and here are some steps to do so.
One of the biggest contributors to breaking the binge cycle is developing self-compassion in relation to their eating behaviour. Self-compassion is the idea that we are kind, non-judgemental and accepting towards ourselves and to our disappointments or difficulties. Individuals who have eating disorders tend to be more self-critical and prone to shame or guilt, which in turn could trigger some of the dieting or restrictive behaviours that follow. This is part of the early stages of the cycle of binge eating, so developing an attitude of self-compassion can contribute to improving your relationship with both body image and food. Higher levels of self-compassion are linked with lower levels of body image dissatisfaction as well as lower rates of disordered eating. The idea of self-compassion is essentially not being so hard on yourself when you do have a difficult time. There are plenty of people who might try and bring you down in life. Don’t be one of them.
Restriction and food rules
Anecdotally, this is one of the scenarios I hear regularly – someone has a big weekend or comes back from a holiday and feels guilty for the extent in which they’ve gone “overboard” with food or alcohol, and those feelings of guilt or shame turn into the urge to “do something” about it. That action is generally restriction or dieting, which tends to feed the cycle of binging rather than reduce it (restriction can work for some, however, is generally problematic for those who struggle with food behaviours). For example, has anyone ever told you to just “calm down” when you’re upset or angry? Most people end up doing the opposite – it increases your level of distress. Now think about what happens when you restrict yourself of food or make food rules like “I can’t have *insert favourite food here*”. Tell yourself you’re not allowed something, and you’ll likely want it even more! Restriction feeds into the cycle of binging so the second aspect of binging to address is removing these black and white “food rules”. Everyone should have permission to eat what they enjoy and not have guilt or shame related to food. Part of that guilt comes from when we set ourselves these unrealistic boundaries such as no eating after a certain time, no carbs, no chocolate, no “unhealthy” foods (there are none!), and by the sounds of it, no enjoyment!
Although there are many ways to improve your relationship with food and improve binge eating, these two aspects are common areas where people may struggle. If the only things you gain from reading this blog is not being so hard on yourself and removing the black and white rules around food, then it is certainly a start to improving your relationship with food. Remember that exposure to “diet culture” and unrealistic body representations has an impact on us, even if we’re aware of it. Exposure is enough to impact our perceptions, so please be cautious over what you expose yourself to in relation to TV and social media. If you are struggling with your relationship with food, body image issues or any type of disordered eating, this blog is in no way a substitute for clinical contact and professional treatment. Talk to your GP or a mental health professional for best advice. In fact, the best standard of therapy for eating disorders currently is through psychological or behavioural therapy, usually delivered as part of a multidisciplinary team which has a success rate of 50%, according to a recent meta-analysis.
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