As we slowly get out of lockdown mode and move back to whatever normal may look like, there is one big elephant in the room that will be hard too ignore; weight gain and ultimately, eating disorders. A lot of people started off strong with at home workouts. Some even started new eating plans and everything under the sun that would guarantee a healthy lifestyle. I was one of those people for a good while and then I got COVID-19. Writing this may seem like a justification for the lazy lifestyle I adopted. However, having been an exercise addict for close to 10 years who was extremely afraid of becoming what society calls fat, I guarantee you that the change of pace was far from laziness related.
Obviously, when one stops exercising but continues to eat the same amounts if food, they will gain weight, there’s no science to it, just common sense. The less energy you expend, the less fuel you need to ingest… simple right? The thing is, it isn’t. Logically it makes sense, but for someone addicted to food on top of other addictions, your brain won’t accept the change for what it is. So you will eat and eat, then eat some more because you felt guilty for eating in the first place. It’s a rather vicious cycle but I’ll try to break it down in the simplest way.
I know I’m not the only one who has struggled with lockdown weight gain because this time has been extremely stressful in several different ways for all of us. The thing we need to realise though is that for those with preexisting or dormant eating disorders, how you approach the next few months will either make or break them. It’s a serious topic that not many would want to address, but need to do so. I will be the voice of those you know and love but are too afraid to make their secret known. Although there are already so many articles out there that give in-depth descriptions of eating disorders, their causes and possible solutions, I would like you to hear this one more time from someone who has suffered (mostly unnoticed) for about fifteen years so that you get a different perspective.
Disclaimer: I will share very personal information with the intention to provide insight, not guidance. The numbers I discuss are only relevant to me and my personal story. This should not be used as indications of what healthy looks like.
For context, I am 5’3″ (162cm) and currently weigh anywhere between 58kg and 62kg depending on my fitness schedule. I tend to weigh more when I exercise more intensely (heavy muscle mass from CrossFit) and weigh less when I do more slow and steady cardio. At the peak of my eating struggles, I weighed 48 kg and was still trying to lose more. At the time I was living in Japan so my size looked normal, it blended in… but my body naturally reverts to 58kg with no interference and no strict eating regime. My highest was 72kg a year after my mom passed away because food was the only constant in my life. Unsurprisingly, I don’t have any photos from my bigger days, but here are some of when I was smaller and unhealthy.
What are eating disorders?
There are so many types of eating disorders; anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, pica, etc. all with different characteristics and severity levels. It’s a bit overwhelming so if you want into read more about it in detail, you can do so here. From a medical standpoint, there have to be distinguishing factors so that the correct treatments can be implemented. Despite what the internet says, my view on eating disorders is very simple and straightforward: if you don’t have a healthy relationship with food, you have an eating disorder. Some people believe you have to look sick or act sick to be sick, but that’s not the case at all. You don’t have to look a certain way to be a certain anything.
What causes eating disorders?
Again, a popular question I have to answer with an unpopular answer; it’s all in your head. It sounds harsh but it’s the truth which is a good and bad thing at the same time, because all you have to do is change your mindset to overcome the disorder… but at the same time you have to change your mindset to overcome it. Perspective. My husband tells me every single day without fail that I am gorgeous, that he loves my body. He even makes sure to act like a smitten teenage boy to boost my self esteem, but you can’t undo decades worth of beliefs in a short amount of time.
There are many people out there who have been raised to believe that a certain body type is ideal. They’ve been told that “you shouldn’t eat too much candy or you’ll get fat”, that bigger isn’t better. I tell my friends all the time to watch how they speak about themselves in front of their kids because that will set the foundation for their relationship with food. For others, being in an environment where everyone looks a certain way could be the thing that sets them off. Especially if they are not confident in their own skin.
Who is at risk of developing an eating disorder?
I’d be lying if I didn’t say everyone, but I would definitely be stretching the truth far beyond its reach. Everyone handles stress and anxiety differently. However, those most likely to show signs of eating disorders either have a history in the family or with peers. I mentioned that EDs are a mental thing and we’ve just had a pandemic. Lives have been turned upside down, people have either stress eaten themselves to a new dress size or gone down a few. It’s times like these that can potentially trigger seemingly happy people to go down the slippery slop. Be very careful how you tackle the subject of weight gain/loss when you see your loved ones after so long. You could end up being the reason they develop an eating disorder!
How can you tell if someone has an eating disorder?
This is another hard question that I will try to simplify as much as possible. Just remember that there is no right or wrong answer here. The thing about eating disorders is that they tend to go a while under the radar because those suffering from them will do everything possible to make sure no one else knows. It takes knowing someone really well to identify their triggers and patterns, but even then it can still go undetected.
Things that are hard to mask are the silent signs that we ourselves don’t pay too much attention to. By this I’m referring to how a person speaks about themselves. The way they look at themselves when their reflection pops up on a store’s window. Their reactions when you give them a compliment or let your gaze linger when you look at their physique. The frequency with which they speak about food and the language used in relation to food.
There can also be obvious signs like refusing food or only eating very little even though they are very hungry. As women, something as simple heading to the bathroom immediately after a meal but seeming uncomfortable if your friend wants to tag along is also a red flag because who doesn’t like to hold hands when they pee, right?
What can I do about a friend with an eating disorder
Anything and everything! They will lash out, push you away, throw tantrums etc, but you cannot give up. The thing about these disorders is that they eat away at you from the inside out but the person suffering will be too stubborn to do anything about it. When I was actively purging, I didn’t care what it did to my teeth. It didn’t matter that I had to get an endoscope and was diagnosed with ulcers at twenty-three. It didn’t matter that my hair and nails were more brittle or that my brain was foggy. I didn’t even care that I was mostly drained and lightheaded.
All that mattered was that I wasn’t ‘fat’ anymore. The funny thing is that I could look at someone who was physically bigger than I was now and fall in love with their body, but on me it was the end of the world. In all honesty because of the comments I got from FAMILY and friends!
The only person that was successful in getting me to stop was my husband. But it took quite a lot… Hiding the scales, meal prepping, setting up and coaching me through my exercise plan. He also forced rest days and sent me to see a psychiatrist and for weekly therapy sessions. My husband did not stop at all and is still monitoring my every move three years later. I need it, it doesn’t ever fully go away.
So in relation to the loved one you suspect has an ED, I would say to keep trying, keep pushing, keep loving then rinse and repeat because at some point you might just break through. The worst thing you can do is let it go or give them the ‘privacy’ to do their own thing because that in itself can trigger a “no one loves me” snowball effect. Whatever you do, do it with love and respect, please.