What Are We Doing to Prevent Eating Disorders?
There’s a fine line between “health” and too far.
Over the last year I’ve become interested in, among many other things, how we use and abuse “health.” How health oppresses. Health — and “health foods”, such as green smoothies and chia seed puddings — as status or currency. Health as the new wealth, so clearly articulated in the term “wellthy.”
I used to believe — and a large part of me still does — that access to nutritious food could change the world. I wanted to deepen my “nutrition practice,” consume all the vegetables, and generally work on myself in ways that seemed meaningful but actually felt superfluous. An improved version of myself was a self who readily eschewed ketchup chips for carrot sticks, who ditched “carbs” for an extra serving of vegetables, who worked out instead of sleeping in.
But when the comments on my body came, when I was congratulated for my discipline and my “super healthy” diet, I realized I had not really improved. I was still on the same hamster wheel I’d been on since I was fourteen. Was I searching for health or worth? Was I searching for improvement or value? When I consider how far we’ve come from promoting what I’d consider a “balanced diet”, things appear to take the shape of religion more than they do scientific fact.
While we’ve crossed oceans in defence of “health”, I’d argue the same can’t be said for eating disorders. As a professional working exclusively with disordered eating and eating disorders, I’ll admit I don’t know everything — who does? — but most of the efforts I’ve seen in this area focus on preventing “obesity” rather than eating disorders (even though these are sometimes one in the same, a fact rarely considered or acknowledged.)
We live in a time when Orthorexic food recommendations have become the norm. Dairy-free, gluten-free, sugar-free…that’s what health is, right? But it’s not. We’ve weaponized these groups. We’ve become so hyper-focused on what is wrong that we’ve created a war at the table (and furthered the distance between the haves and the have-nots.) Restriction and weight loss have become so woven into our culture that we can’t even see when our behaviours and attitudes are problematic.
We also rarely consider the ways health has nothing to do with diet or exercise. What about historical trauma? What about marginalization? What about food insecurity and its long-term effects? What about lack of education, cooking skills, or basic electricity? Why do we say healthy eating is so easy when the world has shown up, time and time again, to tell us otherwise? Why do we assume health is a matter of choice and not a matter of circumstance?
We’ve exchanged the thin ideal for a ripped, lean one, complete with the degrading #bodygoals tag. An ideal few can achieve without heroic (or genetic) effort. Without restriction. A goal that suggests the body is a project, not a vessel, one more important than being kind or hard-working or charitable.
If an individual diagnosed with, let’s say, Anorexia Nervosa, decided to participate in Beachbody, we’d see this as a problem (I should hope.) So then why is it okay for someone who is not diagnosed with an eating disorder to do the same?
Why do we promote such disordered attitudes and behaviours toward food? Is this health?
I walked into a Greek restaurant the other day. It’s a chain, so calorie counts were littered all over the menu. I was so triggered by the numbers I couldn’t order and walked out. We would never think to hand someone recovering from lung cancer a cigarette, but apparently it’s quite alright to list numbers all over the goddamned city — including sandwich boards — for those in recovery to see.
For anyone who barks how we shouldn’t make exceptions for those with eating disorders because “obesity is a bigger issue”, I want you think about all the efforts we’ve made in the name of physical health — and all the ways mental health is never considered.
To have a mental illness in this country is to have a second class illness.
But hey, being thin is so much more important, right?