Over the last year the number of clients I am seeing with eating disorders has greatly increased. Some have been officially diagnosed with a disorder, while others I am putting in the same bracket because from looking at their diet and chatting to them about their beliefs and feelings around food and their body, they fit the bill.

Often their symptoms are much better than they used to be and they have ‘recovered’ in a sense. But while they may not experience the severity of years gone by, their disordered eating and thinking is still impacting on their health and happiness.

According to the Mayo clinic some indicators that you may have an eating disorder are:

– Skipping meals
– Making excuses for not eating
– Eating only a few certain ‘safe’ foods – Adopting rigid meal and eating rituals – Cooking elaborate meals for others, but refusing to eat them yourself
– Collecting recipes
-Withdrawing from normal social activities
– Persistent worry or complaining about being fat
– A distorted body image, such as complaining about being fat despite being underweight
– Not wanting to eat in public
– Frequent checking in the mirror for perceived flaws
– Wearing baggy or layered clothing
– Repeated eating high amounts of sweet or high-fat foods
– Use of syrup of ipecac, laxatives, or other over-the-counter drugs that cause fluid loss, such as menstrual symptom relief medications

– Use of dietary supplements or herbal supplements for weight loss
– Food hoarding
– Leaving meals to use the toilet
– Eating in secret

While men and women are both affected, the vast majority of clients I am seeing with these issues are women. Most are in there 20’s and early 30’s but some are much older. I always believed that as people headed towards the end of their 20’s they became much more confident, self-assured and comfortable in their own skin. I know from my own experience this was the case and from speaking to lots of people they feel the same. It is therefore sad to see that this is not happening for everyone and that some are even bucking the trend completely; becoming less confident as they are getting older.

Rather than being taught to embrace their bodies, girls learn from a young age to enslave them to the pursuit of thinness at all costs. To highlight this I want to share an exert from a recent blog by Scott Abel with some statistics on diet mentality.

A study by Mellin et al showed that 31% of middle school girls between the ages of 9-10 were afraid of being fat, and this percentage vaulted to a whopping 81% in 10 year olds – just a one year difference to internalise the cultural beauty doctrine. Furthermore, 51% of 9 and 10 year old girls reported feeling better about themselves if they were on a diet. And of that number almost 10% were already reporting purging behaviour or attempted purging behaviour. The main point here is that the Mellin study was done in 1986 – these young girls are therefore likely mothers themselves now. Did they solve these issues and free the next generation from such ridiculousness? – Obviously not. These numbers are even scarier today than ever. Another study by Johnson et al 1989, showed that of 1268 adolescent girls – 52% reported they began dieting before the age of 14. And just quick research into the sociological studies of girls and dieting illustrates this has not changed much since the 1980s.

When thinking about body image it is important to note that it is only in the last 50 or 60 years that thin has become desirable. Historically female depictions of beauty were always voluptuous. Doctors advocated more flesh as heavier bodies fought disease better. In the early 1900’s women were sold pills, creams and potions to get them fatter. There is a great series of ads that I have stumbled across from this time and the ads are like a time warp and include titles like: – Men wouldn’t look at me when I was skinny but since I gained 10 pounds I have all the dates I want
– Why be skinny? Come on enjoy life, put weight on.
– If you want to be popular you can’t afford to be skinny
– Girls with naturally skinny figures amazed at this entirely new way to add 5 pounds of solid flesh in one week…or no cost.

Think about how different this is to today. Most women would break down in a panic at the thought of putting on 5 pounds in week and yet this was a product that was being sold to make this happen. During the 1940’s fashion magazines were running articles and on how not to be thin and larger models were popular. It is only from the 1950’s that the shift started and the war on fat began. The era of the ‘waif’ was really created in the 1960’s with a model named “Twiggy.” Twiggy was the nickname given to Lesley Lawson probably the world’s first Supermodel – a model who looked more like a 12 yr old androgynous boy/girl with breasts. This marked the start of huge paradigm shift where the female body goal changed from “average” to “the impossible” and women have been chasing it in its many forms ever since.

The great irony of this is Twiggy herself felt very self-conscious of her own body due to being so skinny. To quote Scott Abel “This became one of the cultural paradoxes that have remained ever since. The ideal feminine body now belonged to someone who was uncomfortable in her own skin”.

What is attractive is not so much an inbuilt desire but one that is influenced by cultural standards. In certain parts of the world beauty means having face scars, an elongate neck created by stacked rings, or tiny feet that have been broken and bound. None of these are healthy, but they’re a lot better then the self-starvation that many women (and men) put themselves through. Today our symbolism of beauty is a woman who are so thin that she can’t menstruate, has hair falling out, has a horrible body image despite having the ‘perfect’ body and goes into melt down at the thought of eating or putting on weight.Personally, I think it is time for a change. Writer’s note: Being thin is not all it is cracked up to be. From a health perspective there is plenty of evidence to show that you are better off being overweight or obese instead of being thin. But that is a topic for another article. Chris Sandel is our resident nutritionist and runs the company 7 Health. For daily health tips and articles you can follow his Facebook page. If you have any questions or comments about the blog piece or want to get in contact about setting up a consult you can email him on chris@seven-health.com.