Food for thought: How we deal with eating disorders
Eating disorders prey on vulnerable people, who are, in turn, particularly susceptible to the social media messages around diet and exercise they are being bombarded with in this Instagram age.
“Many eating disorders start as a healthy eating regime. Nobody goes on a diet when they are feeling good about themselves, and eating disorders prey on vulnerable people who feel overwhelmed. Control over food and eating gives them an illusion of control when the rest of their life is out of control,” explains Dr Colman Noctor, child and adolescent psychoanalyst at St Patrick’s Mental Health Services (SPMHS) and assistant professor at Trinity College Dublin.
“Young people today have an endless tyranny of choice with the Instagrammation of culture. Through their online searches, they provide technology companies with information about their vulnerabilities which allows these companies to target them with constant posts and notifications about diets, weight-loss products, etc. This tends to be ‘lose-weight-fast’ fads and promises of quick fixes, not sound advice based around exercise and healthy eating.”
However, Dr Noctor is keen to stress that an eating disorder is a really treatable disease and when caught early, there is every chance a person can recover with the right treatment and support.
Dr Noctor will be speaking at the SPMHS annual Founder’s Day Conference on Friday. Entitled Eating Disorders in a Modern Society, the conference, in collaboration with Bodywhys (Eating Disorders Association of Ireland), will bring together top practitioners with a focus on research, online and societal factors, diet and treatments.
Noctor points out that before the advent of the internet, people with eating disorders had limited access to information on diet and weight-loss. “Companies like Facebook, Google and YouTube are not concerned if you are a 14-year-old watching videos back to back. There is nobody on the internet to say you are too young or have watched enough. This feeds into the obsessionality, desire and anxiety of people with eating disorders. The more vulnerable or anxious you are, the more you search. The more you search and the more you reveal, the more you can be targeted.”
Even more sinister, notes Dr Noctor, is the large number of pro-anorexia (pro-ana) sites promoting maladaptive and dangerous methods of weight-loss. He points out that trying to prevent young people from visiting these sites is almost impossible, and a real challenge to those working in the area of recovery.
Eleanor Sutton, a dietician at SPMHS, sees first-hand how the online world drives eating disorder behaviour. “I work with patients in anorexia and bulimia groups who are very easily swayed by what they see and hear on social media. They are bombarded with messages about diets of every kind – ketogenic, low-carb, shake diets – all promising a ‘get-skinny-quick’ fix.”
“If they see an Instagram photo of somebody thin and attractive eating salad, they can become obsessed about eating salad because they think life would be perfect if they were thin. They might be obsessed with nut butter one month and the next month it might be kale or some other ‘super food’ that’s in. There is such an obsession with food and fitness online.”
Sutton points to the growth of the relatively new diagnosis, avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID), which may be underlined by factors such as avoidance due to the sensory characteristics of food, a lack of interest in eating or food, or worries about the consequences of eating.
“There’s no need to be nut-free, milk-free or dairy-free to have a healthy diet. It’s okay to stir-fry carrots or have a glass of milk. There is lots of strong evidence behind normal everyday foods containing protein, carbs, dairy and essential fats,” says Sutton.
She points to the availability of food and the relentless advertising around junk food,
They are bombarded with messages about diets of every kind – ketogenic, low-carb, shake diets – all promising a ‘get-skinnyquick’ fix