***TRIGGER WARNING: This post contains details of eating disorders and mental illness including suicidal thoughts. People who are currently battling these issues may find this content triggering. Support helplines are included at the bottom of the post***
For about 15 years from the age of 4, I battled with a severe fear of food (food neophobia), which resulted in me becoming underweight for my age and nutritionally deficient. Looking back now, I can see that watching my mum struggle with anorexia nervosa for as long as I can remember, was certainly a causal factor for this. In my teens, my ongoing struggle with body image lead me to the binge and starve cycle, before I became pre-diabetic and hypertensive by the age of 19.
Later on, in early adulthood, I unknowingly repeated a more controlled version of binge/restrict when I began calorie counting with the intention of improving my health. I successfully reversed pre-diabetes and hypertension but eventually slipped further into the dieting trap I was actively trying to avoid, without ever realising I was actually dieting.
You see I wasn't restricting certain food groups, or even eating a low amount of calories. I honestly thought I was being healthy, but I realise now, after a lot of internal work, that my mindset was completely disordered. I had treated the physical signs of illness, and not the underlying psychological issues or my mental health - depression, anxiety, poor body image, eating in rebellion in response to my mum's anorexia and emotional eating.
So after recognizing these issues and starting my recovery, here are the lessons I've since learned about physical health, fitness, mental health, diet culture, intuitive eating and body positivity. I've briefly mentioned these lessons in my previous blog post: Overcoming Eating Disorders but I wanted to expand on them much more here.
1. Logging food & tracking fitness can be the start of a slow slide into the dieting mindset.
Dieting is something I've always wanted to avoid after seeing how weigh-ins and weight gain affected my mum. I've never restricted particular food groups or tried diet pills, laxatives or other so-called 'quick-fixes'. So I honestly thought I was safe from diet culture. But that's the problem with diet culture; it permeates everything. From the battle cries the group fitness instructor shouts over the music ("burn those calories!"), to the way food is marketing with a moral value ('guilt-free', 'syn-free', 'clean', 'good'). It's very hard to stay immune to this, even when you think you're avoiding diets, you're still exposed to diet culture and you're even more vulnerable to it when you're looking for help, without trustworthy source of guidance, as I was when I set out back in 2011 on my mission to get my physical health back on track.
Using a food and fitness logging app was making me feel guilty whenever I went over calories, or eat when I was already full because I was a little under. Keep in mind - this was in spite of the fact I had deliberately set out to avoid dieting and was intending to log my food to keep track sodium and sugar intake for the sake of reversing hypertension and pre-diabetes. Imagine what this could do to someone who was consciously dieting! Watching my friends on MyFitnessPal lose weight when I had gained, or my Fitbit friends pack in 10,000 steps a day when I had only done 6,000 (often because I'd been swimming or lifting weights, rather than walking!) was making me feel rubbish. It was just an online version of dieting clubs, where women pay to sit in a circle to discuss why they've gained 1lb this week and feel shame for 'coming off plan'. I thought at the time I had found community and support, as women who attend these dieting clubs also say, but what I'd really found was just a different type of crowd-based dieting - a calorie-focused one that just hadn't been dressed up as a point or an syn, but still tricked my mind into restricting my food intake somewhat and worrying about the scale.
To be clear, I'm not saying everyone who uses fitness trackers and food logging apps will end up dieting or go on to develop disordered eating. There are many people who use these tools to check that they're eating enough, or use MyFitnessPal as a digital food diary with no calorie deficit enabled in order to build an awareness of what they're eating and what their nutritional profile looks like (like I started out doing with sodium and sugar in order to reverse pre-diabetes). What I am saying is that we always need to be checking in with ourselves and asking if these tools are making us feel bad about ourselves. Are they encouraging us to overexercise? Over-analyze? Are they making you obsessive about your food and exercise and do you feel guilty when you look at your calories and macros? That's when these tools become dieting tools.
2. Cheat days followed by calorie controlled dieting echo disordered eating patterns.
Cheat days became a thing when I became calorie conscious. If you've never heard of these, it's basically the idea that you'll stick to a calorie controlled diet all week and then relax for one day or meal a week and eat whatever you want. Sounds great at first, right?
I've since realized that this was just a much more controlled version of my teenage binge/starve cycling behaviour in that I would overeat on one day a week and then restrict my calories (all be it, only by a relatively small amount) for the rest of the days.
I have also been known to 'burn to earn' foods whenever I had already reached my calorie goal for the day. I now recognize that this was also disordered eating and thinking. Nobody needs to 'earn' food, it isn't a reward and exercise shouldn't be seen as a chore to do in order to get a 'treat'. If you're still hungry, eat. If it's a friends birthday and you want cake but you're already over in calories, just have a piece anyway, because telling yourself you can't have it is restriction (i.e. dieting), which as we know, makes certain food items even more desirable and increases the likelihood of a binge or "coming off plan" further down the line.
3. It makes more sense to eat intuitively.
At first, this sounds simple, but to implement this when you've had a history of disordered eating or dieting, takes a lot of inner work - largely because you have to learn to listen to your body and tune out from the noise of diet culture. I'll be covering Intuitive Eating in a lot more detail in a future post, but the basic idea is that I eat when I'm hungry (whatever time of day that might be) and stop when I'm full (even if there's still food on my plate). I eat what I want and as much as I want. There's no such thing as 'bad' or 'good' food or any food rules. Food is just food and nothing is off limits. Mindfulness plays a big part in intuitive eating too.
4. It's important to exercise for the right reasons.
Exercise is to be enjoyed and used to reduce stress and improve your overall health, beyond the number on the scale. It is not about punishing your body, blasting, shredding and burning parts of it. These are weirdly aggressive terms for doing something that's good for you. Don't make exercise into self-punishment!
I've recently decided to pull out of some group exercise classes because certain classes were filled with talk of burning calories, slimming down, toning this, melting that. I don't want to hear it while I'm in recovery. I'm not at a place yet where I can just roll my eyes and carry on. Instead, I've been focusing on swimming, yoga, dance and walking. These activities remind me of being a kid again, where I moved because I was playing happily with friends, or having a rave in my bedroom before going out.
I love weight lifting because it makes me feel strong and empowered, but at this stage in my recovery, there's a little voice in my head that's telling me it's all about building muscle to burn fat - which is stopping me from enjoying the activity for what it is. I have #fitspo to thank for this distortion in my mind. Messages like #StrongNotSkinny may sound great on the surface ("who doesn't want to be strong?") but under the surface, it's just diet culture with added abs - focused on weight and body shape.
I've since immersed myself in the Health At Every Size movement (look up Linda Bacon's brilliant book of the same name)- a movement which promotes health and fitness completely independent of weight loss. More on this in future blog posts too!
5. Mental health is just as important as physical - sometimes more so
Worrying about exercise and eating well is completely pointless when your mental health is in the gutter, mental health CANNOT be ignored!
I have found myself really struggling with emotional eating whenever I was going through an especially stressful time in my life. Food has long been a source of comfort for me, stemming from my secret binge eating as a teen. While there's nothing intrinsically wrong with food being comforting, there is a cause of concern if it's being used to numb uncomfortable emotions. I thought at first that I needed to focus on my food and exercise more, but actually, I needed to address my mental health issues.
I have struggled with depression and anxiety on and off ever since my teens. My lowest point in my life was postnatal depression. I suffered from PND for just over a year after my son was born. In one of my darkest moments of PND, I remember thinking I could just put my foot further down on the accelerator in my car and drive head-on into a concrete wall of a bridge, just so I could stop the pain inside me. The only thing that stopped me was the image of my baby son's face flashing through my mind. Regretfully I never told anyone about my PND, the intrusive thoughts or the fleeting thoughts of suicide and I so suffered for a very long time in silence. This was despite having been a qualified social worker who had extensively researched PND for a masters degree dissertation - even experts ignore their own advice!
After exploring my issues with pregnancy and birth trauma and later getting help with childcare, my postnatal depression eventually completely subsided and I'm generally in a pretty good place mentally right now. As for my anxiety which still pops up in the form of panic attacks occasionally, I find meditation, journaling, breathing exercises and mindful exercise (like swimming, walking or yoga) to be really helpful for this.
For others, medication may be vital for recovery and even life-saving. Please, please, please don't suffer in silence like I did. It's incredibly dangerous to not talk about mental health or reach for help. You may even be putting your life at risk. (I've included helpline numbers at the end of this post).
6. Sleep, rest & self-care are just as vital as eating well and exercising
That said if it comes down to getting in a workout or getting extra sleep, choose sleep!
Rest is very important for health, both physical and mental.
I wish I could sit myself down weeks after the birth of my son, grab myself by the shoulders, look into my own eyes and say:
"Fuck what anyone says about your weight, you've just given birth to a beautiful human after a horrendous pregnancy and birth experience. Sod the gym or trying to prove something to yourself or others, you're not mentally well, you desperately need help. But ask someone to hold your baby while you take a goddamn nap first, woman."
Unfortunately, I thought I was doing the right thing at the time by going back to the gym once I had the all clear to do so at 6 weeks. I think I wanted to go to take my mind away from my mental health and prove to everyone that I was 'back to my normal self' after being chronically ill all through pregnancy I wanted to numb my emotions and block out my thoughts.
I now recognize that this wasn't the right reason to exercise, despite the fact we're always told that 'exercise helps mental health'. You know what? That's only the case if it's a part of a wider treatment plan - it really isn't a substitute for treatment! I have since learned (the hard way, again) that sleep, eating, showering, meditation, gentle exercise and not going to the gym or working when I don't feel like it, are crucial to my wellbeing.
7. Health and fitness is a mindset, not a number on the scale and it starts with body positivity.
Health is about putting your well-being first, both mental and physical. Sod what the scale says, fuck the media headlines, definitely fuck what your mother-in-law says about your weight after you've given birth, throw them shitty women's health magazines in the bin and block the trolls on Instagram who pretend to be oh-so-concerned about your health if you're above a size 12.
I recommend checking out the Health at Every Size Movement, looking up Intuitive Eating and following Body Positivity social media accounts to drown out the diet culture.
8. Asking for help is crucial for recovery.
This is something I wish I had done at many stages of my life to stop my mental health and eating patterns deteriorating further. Please don't suffer in silence. Please don't think that you're not worthy of help or that you're not "ill enough" or even that you're "too broken to fix". Below are the numbers of UK charities who can provide help and point you in the right direction of further support. Make use of supportive facebook groups and self-help books and workbooks on the topic of mental health and eating disorders too. I'll post a reading list of the books I've found helpful for my own recovery soon.
Support for Eating Disorders
Beat - a charity specializing in eating disorders, including anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, emotional overeating, eating disorders not otherwise specified (ENDNOS) and other disordered eating/problems.
The Beat Adult Helpline is open to anyone over 18. Parents, teachers or any concerned adults should call the adult helpline.
Helpline: 0808 801 0677 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Support for Mental health
Call: 116 123 (UK) Email: email@example.com
Call: 0300 123 3393 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Text: 86463