What Do People With Anorexia Eat?

Over a year ago I wrote a post about how people with eating disorders were misrepresented in the media via their use of skeletal pictures when interviewing or discussing someone with the disorders, yet lately I have noticed there is another stereotypical image being promoted that drives me equally round the bend, that being the idea that people with anorexia do not eat anything at all, and it is this myth I really want to tackle in this post as it is simply not true and is unhelpful to everyone.

You see when you come across articles in the paper interviewing someone with an eating disorder, they always make it sound as if the person has gone years without ever letting a morsel of food pass their lips. 

I am often reading pieces stating that someone lived on half a cornflake for three years or something ridiculous, a statement that is physically impossible and that must be taken with a pinch of salt as everyone knows journalists will often exaggerate or make things sound worse by picking and choosing details from an interview to make a good story. If an article makes it sounds like someone interviewed supposedly hasn’t eaten more than half a cornflake for three years, it is most definitely false and cannot be taken as a fact in general or by which other sufferers can be measured. 

Admittedly, people with anorexia frequently do not eat enough, it is after all one of the symptoms, the classic restricting of calories to lose or prevent weight gain. Indeed people with anorexia often eat very little, nowhere near as much as they need to keep themselves alive, but that still doesn’t mean they don’t eat anything at all and spend years living on air. In addition to those in relapse  who still eat at least something (regardless as to whether it be enough or not), when people are in recovery and on a weight gain meal plan they may actually eat more than some “normal” people. I know I have certainly followed meal plans that exceed the “government guidelines” irrelevant calorie limit, which have been prescribed to me both in and out of hospital. People in relapse and recovery are still considered as having “anorexia” if their mental state dictates that diagnosis, no matter how much they eat, and they should all be counted and taken seriously as a voice for people with eating disorders without being discriminated against for (brace yourselves)…having breakfast. What about the people who have severe anorexia but eat to keep their families off their back or to maintain a job? The ones who eat purely to stay out of hospital or the ones who are trying their best to eat to get better yet are still in as much mental pain as anyone else and hating every second? The ones who want to scream and shout every time they eat but force themselves on anyway because they don’t want their kids to see them worrying about food in fear that they may also pick up on the anxiety? That image, of people with anorexia eating, is never represented in the media, as equally valid or not it isn’t a dramatic image that would sell a story in a magazine. After all, headlines of “anorexic eats an appropriate number of calories, not because they are better but because they don’t want to scare the children” are never going to sell or create as much drama as “anorexic eats nothing and only licks a blade of grass once a month for 10 years”.

I am pretty sure that every member of my family is aware that I have anorexia and in a way I find this helpful. With them knowing, it means I don’t have to lie all the time, if I disappear for a few months to go into hospital it isn’t a big secret and I don’t have to pretend I have been off travelling, climbing Kilimanjaro or building schools for orphaned penguins in the Arctic, but in a way it actually makes things harder because I feel there is an expectation of the way I should behave at family gatherings. I am currently unable to eat outside of my house or with family anyway, but even if I were able to I would find attempting it incredibly intimidating as I imagine if I were to eat anything, people would be confused. If a person without an eating disorder goes out for a meal and eats, nobody raises an eyebrow, but if someone who is known to have an eating disorder goes out for a meal, when they eat people start to question whether there is anything actually wrong with that person in the first place. If you hear someone has to go into hospital for a new leg and then you see them prior to admission dancing the tango pretty happily using their old one, you might wonder why on earth the new leg is needed as clearly there is no problem. The issue is of course that though someone may appear to be eating happily on the surface, they could still be going through mental torture inside and may be just trying not to make a fuss and embarrass themselves or draw attention.

The dangers of this misconception that “anorexics don’t eat” are very similar to the ones created by the idea that people with anorexia are underweight. Again, family members or professionals may not be concerned about someone they suspected may have an eating disorder because the person often sits down for a family meal. Sufferers also might find themselves in situations where they don’t eat, not because of their disorder in particular, but because they feel they can’t incase people suspect that they are faking the whole thing. Much like images of skeletal bodies, people hearing the myth that people with anorexia don’t eat can cause people to think that they are not “that bad”, “not ill enough to warrant help” or even worse it can trigger them to restrict their intake further because they think there is some “anorexic standard” they have to live up to. You cannot compare the severity of a person’s illness with that of someone else’s just by looking at what they look like or how much they eat without having any idea of what is going on inside their heads. 

Overall I guess the message of this post is that when it comes to the portrayal of people with eating disorders in the media, take all the pictures and interviews as pieces of journalism to sell a paper with the nuggets of truth inside partially skewed or not representative of eating disorder patients as a whole. Making judgements based on accounts that are for the purpose of selling papers rather than truly giving a voice to people with no ulterior motive is never going to provide an unbiased piece that one can make conclusions from. Basically what I want to say is do not trust the media at all, instead you should trust strangers on the internet like me…actually don’t trust strangers on the internet…that isn’t the message I want to promote at all…. just don’t think that people with anorexia don’t eat. 

Take care everyone x

Sandwich

The Mystery Of Hunger When You Have An Eating Disorder

Whenever I play Cluedo, (or Clue to any American readers out there), I am confused as to why anyone would ever choose to commit a murder in a library with a candlestick. You are supposed to be quiet in a library, not create a racket bashing someone’s head in, and how are people expected to read if they are being plunged into darkness because someone was foolish enough to break all the candles?
Whenever I play Monopoly, I am also confused. I do not understand why I am repeatedly being thrown into jail when I have done NOTHING wrong, especially when, ten minutes prior to my unfortunate detainment, I was allowed to roam freely around the planet with no consequences, even after the discovery that I had beaten Professor Plum over the head with a piece of lead piping in the Billiard room (where I was courteous enough not to disturb anyone. Nobody was playing Billiards. They were all trying to read in the library and I allowed them to continue in peace because I am a good person).
When it comes to games however, there are none I find more confusing than that classic joy of “Hungry hippos.” Are these hippos actually hungry, and if they are hungry, what exactly does that mean?

Multiple times during my life with an Eating Disorder, I have had people offer me bits of advice that they think will be the key to my recovery. One of the more common pieces of advice is that I should just “stop listening to the anorexia and eat when I am hungry”.
On paper, I suppose this is fairly sound advice. Eating disorders want to kill you whereas your natural body impulses are there to keep you alive, so it makes sense to listen to them. The problem is, when you have had an eating disorder you spend your life trying not to listen to them, and eventually the mutual understanding and connection you had with your body is diminished. Indeed, your disorder actually spends every day purposely trying to suppress all natural instincts that were built up during the cave man days so that it can be in charge of what food is consumed, how much and when. You don’t “eat when you’re hungry” as you are supposed to, rather you eat when, or if, you are allowed.

Obviously I know what it is like for the body to go without food. I am familiar with the light headed tingliness, head aches, dizziness, chills, fainting spells and the pains in ones’ abdomen that occur when your stomach hasn’t seen any tasty morsels for a while, but I am unsure as to at what point all of these feelings constitute “hunger”. Does hunger start from the moment your tummy utters its first inquisitive growl or is that just being “peckish?” Is hunger what you feel when you see a chocolate doughnut with rainbow sprinkles or is that just curiosity…or being peckish? What even is peckish? When does hunger become starving? Is ravenous worse than starving? WHAT DO ALL OF THESE WORDS MEAN?

I know some people will probably say that you can’t think of hunger in such rigid terms and it is more of a sliding scale, but I am just so confused as to how people know when to eat if it is a sliding scale and not a case of two opposites. If we all had little signs on our heads that flipped from “not hungry” to “hungry” when it was time to eat it wouldn’t be a problem, yet people seem to just understand their bodies in a way that is completely baffling to me. All of my meal times are rigidly planned out, I know it is time to eat by my eating disorder giving me a time and then I simply watch the clock. Is it time to eat? I don’t know, lets see if the little hand is on the right number and if it isn’t we will give it a few more hours.

My parents, aka people without eating disorders, do not have strict rules on dinner time and they are two of those mysterious people who I often observe knowing when to eat by knowing when they are hungry. It makes no sense. Sometimes my mum’s stomach will growl and she will say something like “I don’t know why it’s making that noise, I am not even hungry.” What? I thought a growling abdomen was the universal sign for hungry? Does it only mean that sometimes? At other times does it growl to test its abilities in lion impersonations? How do you know which is which? Some evenings my mum will ask my Dad if she should put on the dinner and he will say something like “in a bit, I’m not hungry yet”. I will then spend the next however many minutes watching him, and at some point, with no signal from any outside force and no noise from his stomach he will announce, “Ok, might as well put the tea on, I’m hungry now”. HOW DID HE KNOW THAT? When did the switch flip? When did “not quite hungry” become full on hungry in a way that needs to be satisfied? I was watching him closely the whole time and I saw nothing! Not a single rhino burst into the room wearing a sign declaring “Now is the time for food”, there were no fog horns, smoke signals and no morse code (I was watching him and listening very very closely).

Even in hospital settings, it is an alien concept to listen to your body and adhere to hunger cues. In every hospital I have ever been in, you know it is breakfast or lunch time because the clock tells you it is so. The nurses don’t rally up the patients, ask who is and who isn’t hungry and stagger the meal accordingly, it is just time to eat so you do. More than that, the clock tells you when to stop eating rather than you deciding that you are “no longer hungry”, and portions are equally dictated by how many ladles of pasta bake is on the nutrition guidelines rather than “how much you fancy”. You can’t even forget the “eat when you are hungry” bit and skip to the “stop when you are full”, because again in hospital, what your body feels has nothing to do with what you eat. When at home you may stop mid meal because you are no longer hungry, but in hospital your allocated portion has to be eaten, so you often have to keep eating rather than stop when you are full because the dietician and meal plan has stated that is so. Full of cottage pie and not “hungry” for apple crumble? Tough, nutritionists have stated that your body needs apple crumble for medical medicinal reasons so you are going to eat it anyway, and you simply listen to their hunger cues and portion sizes instead of your Eating Disorder’s or your body’s. Natural impulses and intuition have nothing to do with it.
I honestly cannot remember a time when I just ate a meal because I knew I was hungry or stopped because I was full, for years I have simply followed the instructions prescribed much as someone else might follow the instructions on the back of a packet of custard (sidenote: Isn’t custard awesome?!)

It is even the same for me when it comes to using the bathroom. Not to overwhelm you with “too much information”, but as much as I do not understand people knowing when to eat, I do not comprehend how they know when they need the bathroom. They say “when you need to go you go”, but when is need? Is it at the first sign that your bladder is a little on the full side or do you wait until you are so desperate that you are hopping from foot to foot like Michael Flatly performing the River Dance? Somewhere in between these two points? Cool…BUT WHERE? WHEN? Again my natural impulses haven’t been in control of that kind of thing for over a decade as it is my OCD/eating disorder that tells me when I am allowed to pee even if I may not feel the need. When it comes to following my body’s impulses then, I find it impossible not just because I have an eating disorder or OCD screaming in my head, but because I have lost sight of what those impulses are by forcing myself to ignore them for so long.

Perhaps I have just waffled on in an incomprehensible meandering mess in this blog and once again none of you have any idea what I am on about. In writing it I have definitely learnt how hard it is to explain something you cannot get your head round, much like it is trying to ask someone to explain something invisible like air or untouchable like a rainbow.
Still I hope I have at least explained in some sense yet another reason as to why recovery or living with an eating disorder is so hard, and not something you can get over by “just eating” like everyone else. Sometimes, even with the best of intentions you can want to “just eat” as other people do, deciding it is lunch time based on an intuitive flicker of the gut or portioning your roast potatoes out based on how many you think you can manage rather than how many are on your meal plan. Nevertheless, intentions or not, to me it still remains an unfathomable mystery of just how in the hell all these people do it.

Take care everyone x

Hippo