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Finding our own meaning of health and happiness

Eating Disorders Awareness Week 2019 runs from 25 February to 3 March and aims to raise awareness of eating disorders and combat myths and misconceptions about them. We're pleased to share this passionate piece from our psychology assistant Alice Roberts, who has a background in eating disorder research.

Since Eating Disorder Awareness Week (EDAW) falls just as the diet industries’ ‘New-Year-New-You’ brigade begin to give us some respite, EDAW also gives me a good excuse to have a rant about how the messages enforced on us by this industry can be extremely damaging, not only for the 1.25 million individuals believed to be living with an eating disorder, but anyone who is subjected to them.

a busy street of people

These messages insidiously creep into our lives at the beginning of each year; into our social media feeds and onto our TV screens, into magazines and onto billboards. They are often intended to guilt us into embarking on a gruelling exercise and restrictive eating regimen with the aim of weight loss because these messages more often than not try to tell us, this will lead to us being happier and healthier.

We are told that weight loss should generally always be the aim, that exercise should be performed to manipulate our weight and shape, and that calories should be limited because, these evil little measures of energy (which, FYI, are essential for our survival), are inherently bad.

There are many reasons why such messages are inherently flawed (and I’ll give my opinion as to why a bit later on). Regardless of whether or not someone is experiencing an eating disorder, such messages can negatively impact someone’s self-esteem and cause a disturbed relationship with food, exercise and body image. At worst, they can add fuel to the fire of an eating disorder and directly contradict messages associated with recovery from one.

Mind and body

Central to most eating disorders is a preoccupation with eating, weight and shape and a disordered relationship with food. Arguably, these features of an eating disorder are also core features of a diet, and therefore are things that I’m sure many people who have gone on a diet can relate to. The point at which these features reach a clinically disordered level, however, is when they cause significant impairment on someone’s mental and/or physical health.

The preoccupations associated with an eating disorder can completely consume all aspects of an individual’s life, and the consequences of these can be disastrous.

In fact, the risk of dying from an eating disorder, whether from physical complications associated with disordered behaviours or from suicide, is higher than for any mental health disorder.

woman in coffee shop looking out of window

Now I’m not saying that eating disorders are directly caused by these messages – eating disorders are extremely complex mental disorders that first raised their ugly heads far before the diet industry. However, embarking on a diet is a massive risk factor for going on to develop an eating disorder and the messages that we are fed often reinforce many of the behaviours and thoughts that are characteristic of these disorders and interfere with recovery.

I am also not saying that all of the messages that the diet industry pushes are harmful. Messages genuinely promoting health and wellbeing can, of course, be extremely helpful. However, my issue is that these positive messages often get lost amongst the predominantly unhelpful messages that often assume that weight loss and restriction are always healthy.

One of my biggest issues is with the use of the word ‘health’ itself. Healthy is a subjective term, and therefore what is healthy for one person will not necessarily be the same as for someone else.

Although some may benefit from making lifestyle changes to help maintain a healthy weight through initial weight loss, others may require significant weight gain for their health.

Furthermore, all types of food can be consumed as part of a ‘healthy’ diet. Therefore, what is healthy or unhealthy is less about the nutritional content of food and more relevant when describing someone’s relationship with food and the quantities of such foods eaten.

hands cutting vegetables


Our relationship with food

Another of my bugbears about these messages is the use of moral terms to describe food. Food is ultimately there to fuel and nourish us. There is no reason why food should not be enjoyed and using words such as good/bad to describe food is completely unnecessary. Food is ultimately essential for survival.

We have an innate drive to eat in the same way that we do to sleep, form relationships and breathe – and no one ever told us that we should limit the amount of air we consume.

A further issue I have is with the assumption that losing weight will make people happier. Being thin will not make you happy, period. In fact, being significantly underweight or nutritionally deprived can have the exact opposite effect, since starving the body also means starving the mind and being consumed with thoughts about food, weight, and shape leave no room for happiness anyway. Happiness is about so much more than how you look or the number on the scales.

three woman in a yoga class

Furthermore, restrictive eating is one of the most reliable predictors of overeating. Approximately 95% of people who lose weight on a quick-fix diet will have gained the weight lost back, and quite often more, within a year. Quick-fix diets are probably therefore far more likely to result in an enduring difficult relationship with food than sustained weight loss.

Every year dieters pay billions into the weight loss industry, and this quick fix solution ensures that each year they continue to do so.

So, this Eating Disorders Awareness Week, as the messages from the diet industry begin to lessen for the time being – I eagerly await the pre-summer increase again when we are reminded that we need to get ‘beach body ready’ – regardless of whether you are experiencing an eating disorder or not, consider the potential harm that such misinformed messages can have and what health and happiness truly mean for you.



Alice Roberts

Alice is a Psychology Assistant with the National Centre of Mental Health.

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