For some people, even the thought of consuming food can trigger anxiety.
As I sit at my computer to write this column, it is Valentine’s Day, and across this country, people will be sitting down to romantic dinners and stuffing themselves with chocolates and other sweets.
As with many celebrations held in our society, food and eating have become a major part of how we recognize these occasions and there seems to be a tacit encouragement to overindulge at these times. While most of us can do this and then return to normal eating afterwards, many in our society live with various forms of disordered eating and these times of celebration can become, for them, periods of intense anxiety and suffering.
While we have begun to recognize the impact of eating disorders, there is still a lot of misunderstanding and judgment around this issue and new areas of study are emerging as we start to get a better grasp of the scope of this concern.
At the end of January, a group of clinical psychologists at Memorial University announced that they are conducting a new study on binge eating here in this province. Associate professor Dr. Jacqueline Carter-Major is overseeing this treatment study, which will investigate a self-help program for people with the disorder. While anorexia and bulimia have become recognized as problems, binge eating is a largely unrecognized mental health disorder and there are no publicly funded specific programs targeted to address it.
Unlike overindulgence, binge eating is an uncontrolled behaviour in which people eat huge amounts of food in a short period of time, which is followed by significant distress, guilt and impairment. Anyone who would like to participate in the treatment study or who would like more information about it can email email@example.com or call the lab at (709) 864-7974.
Unless you or someone you know has experienced an eating disorder, it is very difficult for most people to understand just how damaging and insidious it can be and how it impacts on all areas of one’s life. Many wonder how it can be considered a mental disorder because eating is something we all do naturally in order to survive.
What distinguishes disordered eating from eating to survive is the intense stress and anxiety surrounding the act of eating and what is being eaten, and there are a number of behaviours associated with the act of eating, including avoiding eating in front of other people and intense planning around when eating occurs. While you or I might regret it if we overeat, a person with an eating disorder experiences intense guilt and anxiety over every bite they take, and these emotions impact on other life areas, including work, relationships and social life.
While many treatment programs have been developed, eating disorders are extremely difficult to treat. If someone is dealing with an addiction to alcohol or drugs, it is possible to avoid having these substances around you when you are in the process of recovery and you have a chance to develop strategies to cope for when you are in situations where such things are present.
This is not the case when it comes to food because eating is essential to survival and it is impossible to avoid. Consider how often the topic of food arises in a normal day in your life; the meals you eat with family and coworkers, the advertisements you see on television, the number of restaurants you pass on your way to work, and many other references to food and eating in our world. Then consider what it would be like if every time any of these stimuli arise, you have an intense emotional reaction that leads to negative thoughts about yourself — then you will have some inkling about how powerful and damaging an eating disorder can be.
Holidays and celebrations, such as Valentine’s Day, become especially stressful because eating is considered part of the celebration and we expect everyone to indulge.
So enjoy your chocolates, but try to be aware that not everyone can share, and don’t push eating on someone if they refuse.
Brian Hodder is an LGBTQ activist and works in the field of mental health and addictions. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org