When we think about eating disorders, we tend to do so in very particular terms. We think about anorexia, or heavily restricting food intake due to intense fear of weight gain, and bulimia, episodes of uncontrolled overeating followed by purging. We think of these issues as extremes that are easy to identify in individuals (especially young women) based on how they look and how they act. Unfortunately, this perspective on eating disorders is both limited and limiting - not only is it just a small piece of the picture, but eating disorders often have very different presentations and manifestations and are at times invisible. And a lot of people don't think of the mental health challenges that are associated with binge eating, eating large amounts of food and emotional eating.
The reality is, a lot of people struggle with disordered eating patterns. These can include restrictive eating, compulsive eating, intense anxiety around eating habits, fasting, irregular or inflexible eating. These patterns can occur for a short time or a long time, they might be mild or severe, and they don’t necessarily indicate that a diagnosable eating disorder is present. With that said, many of us have experienced some sort of fixation on our eating habits or body image at one point or another, and that means that many of us may actually understand eating disorders better than we think.
Who experiences eating disorders and disordered eating?
Based on a global eating disorder prevalence of 7.8%, up to an estimated 2.7 million Canadians meet the diagnostic criteria for an eating disorder at any given time. The reality is, this is likely an underestimation of the true reach of the issue - and that others who may struggle with similar issues, may face stigma and added barriers to seeking diagnosis and treatment. These barriers include higher levels of social stigma around mental health, lower awareness of the signs and symptoms, and sometimes even different signs and symptoms (or different ways of talking about them).
Eating disorders have dramatically dramatically among young Canadians during COVID-19's first wave. The Research Leader, Dr. Gina Dimitropoulos, PhD for the Calgary Eating Disorder Program stated that there has been a rise in new onset eating disorders and the resurgence of disordered eating in people who were well. The research has shown that there is a link between the added stress in people's lives and the exacerbation of eating disorder symptoms. While the precise drivers have yet to be determined, it is theorised that increased exposure and time spent on social media and the isolation of individuals is a contributing factor.
People struggling with eating disorders or disordered eating can look a myriad of different ways - we might consider men, who might be more likely to try risky or extreme eating behaviours in attempts to gain weight and/or muscle. While this behaviour is certainly dangerous and potentially harmful, this kind of behaviour does not align with our stereotypes around eating disorders, which makes it harder to identify and treat them as such. To effectively address the complex issue of disordered eating, a critical piece of the puzzle is unlearning those stereotypes around eating disorders and understanding that a lot of diverse people may benefit from help and support.
What is binge eating? Not just a bad habit
Low awareness of the realities of eating disorders and disordered eating is actually a common barrier to treatment for everyone - consider binge eating. While anorexia and bulimia are serious eating disorders, the most common eating disorder among men and women in Canada is binge eating disorder. Binge eating disorder (BED) typically involves eating large amounts of food in a short period of time, often until uncomfortably full, in secret, or followed by feelings of shame and disgust. People with BED may or may not be overweight. Other thoughts and patterns that relate to binge eating disorder can be ruminating over your weight, an intense fear of gaining weight, excessive exercise, skipping meals, or avoidant and restrictive food intake.
Unfortunately, we don’t always recognize these behaviours as possible signs of an eating disorder - BED only became a formal eating disorder diagnosis as recently as 2013. As such, people often suffer in silence, struggle to ask for help or don’t even recognize that help is available for a problem like theirs.
Binge eating patterns can often be tied to stress, sadness, and external life pressures related to things like work, school, friends or extracurriculars. For example, eating disorders like BED are disturbingly common among young athletes in Canada - a trend that serves to suggest just how normalized these problems can be in certain circles, making it even harder for affected people to get the support and validation that they need.
If you identify your eating patterns as possibly disordered, what can you do?
Fortunately, with or without a diagnosis for binge eating disorder or any other kind of eating disorder, help is available. Doctors, dietitians, counsellors, support groups, and a host of other options exist for individuals interested in connecting with their recovery pathway - whether that is working with a professional on a formal diagnosis or exploring other treatment options. Recovery may look different for everyone - the most important thing is recognizing a need for help, and taking that first step to get it.
Think you might benefit from support with your eating habits and thoughts, behaviours and patterns around food and body image? Layla Care offers a trans-diagnostic Recovery Skills Group for individuals 18+ with eating disorders and disordered eating. The group setting aims to support individuals to build a better understanding and acceptance of themselves and their recovery pathway, no matter what point they’re at in the process. You can find more information about the group here.