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

Why it is physically impossible to “look anorexic”.

A few weeks ago, the woman whose womb I once inhabited for 9 months (otherwise known as my mother), was chatting to a fellow human, and during the conversation my mother mentioned the fact that her offspring, aka me, has anorexia. The first response to be uttered (after the obligatory “Oh dear that is sad”), was the question “what size is she?”.

Has a more irrelevant question ever been asked? The answer is no. It is a question equivalent to asking someone with a broken leg “what colour is your cast?”, as if that will tell you about whatever funny business the bones are doing inside. Honestly I do not know what size I was before I heard of this incident, but right now I can assure you I am well and truly FURIOUS sized (like fun size chocolate bars only less fun, more rage.)
Unfortunately, this ridiculousness is a common response or question when someone hears that another person has an eating disorder, so I want to clarify one vital piece of information that everyone needs to know:

The weight or size of a person will never tell you how ill or how well someone is with an eating disorder.

Eating disorders (though obviously having implications in the “real world” in terms of behaviour around food/affect on physical composition of the body), are mental illnesses, the severity of which will never be judged by a number on the scales or a size on a pair of jeans. People with eating disorders can be underweight, a healthy weight or they can be overweight, but no matter what size, you will not be able to tell from their appearance what is going on inside their heads. Not only can you not tell the mental strain from appearance, you cannot tell the physical strain and the effect the illness is having on the body either. People with eating disorders die with bones popping out all over the place at a BMI of 2, but they also die whilst looking healthy or overweight because the physical complications caused by these illnesses are so much deeper and more complex than “weight loss”. Heart attacks caused by the body eating heart muscle for energy, electrolyte imbalances caused by purging and insufficient nutrition, and multiple organ failure caused by the general strain of eating disorders on the body are but three of the many ways people lose their lives in the fight and all of these things are invisible on surface level.

It isn’t even as if this misconception that eating disorders can be seen benefits anyone, as it is a dangerous belief for all involved. Sufferers may feel they aren’t really ill because they don’t look like the stereotypical skeletal pictures of people with eating disorders in the media, parents may not take their child’s issues to food seriously because they “look alright”, and medical professionals might deny input or treatment because the weight of the patient isn’t “too low” so they “can’t be that bad”. It is also an idea that even damages people who are trying to recover from an eating disorder, as sometimes help is withdrawn once weight is no longer “low” which is exactly the time that people need to be supported most.

Many people have even been refused treatment at all until the number on the scales is seen as corresponding to being “anorexic”, and until May 2013, there was actually a BMI criteria that had to be met in order to officially be diagnosed. Thankfully, the new DSM (basically a massive book that gives the lists of symptoms one needs to be diagnosed with any mental disorder) has revised this issue and anorexia can now be diagnosed in people of any weight, but despite this, the misconception still remains. It isn’t exactly unusual to hear the word “anorexic” used as an adjective to describe someone’s frail appearance, a casual turn of phase that further perpetuates the issue. Unless you have insanely magical x-ray vision and can see the thoughts and fears someone is harbouring about food (and if you do have such vision please go to a doctor as you are a medical marvel and could potentially help a lot of people with unseen medical conditions…or find buried treasure…but more importantly help people), you will never see a person “looking anorexic”.

The myth that eating disorders can be seen or measured is a dangerous, stigma inducing and potentially fatal story that needs to stop being told. If you really like myths, maybe give Theseus and the minotaur a go (it’s actually rather good, there is a maze with string, monsters and everything), but whatever you do please don’t believe the one I have attempted to debunk in this post.

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