The UK Government has recently announced a plan to tackle obesity. The plan includes new laws which require large restaurants, cafes and takeaways to add calorie labels to the food they sell. Many have already highlighted how dangerous the introduction of calories on menus will be for those with eating disorders. As someone who has previously suffered with anorexia, restaurants were an extremely distressing place for me to be at, but if I could have seen the calories of every meal, it would have made the experience even harder.
Spotting eating disorders
BEAT, the UK’s leading eating disorder charity have responded to the government’s plans . They argue that the new approach: ‘oversimplifies obesity […] ignoring the many complex factors involved, which may include eating disorders’. It is important, now more than ever, that we remember that eating disorders aren’t reduced to just one ‘look’. In a way, I was privileged when I had anorexia. I ‘aligned’ with people’s perception that someone with anorexia is underweight, white, and a young girl. The media often portrays anorexia this way and reinforces harmful beliefs about who does and doesn’t have an eating disorder.
But in fact, you cannot always tell if someone has an eating disorder based on their looks. A 2020 study for Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine found that, ‘patients who are overweight or obese are as likely to experience disordered eating as their normal-weight peers’. If we continue to assess the validity of someone’s eating disorder based off of their appearance, we will cause a great deal of damage to a great many people. BEAT states that people with anorexia may, ‘remain at a weight considered “normal” for their age, sex, and expected development’ but these people can still have anorexia. Depending on the exact symptoms, someone might be diagnosed with atypical anorexia. Nevertheless they are still ill. Their experiences aren’t any less valid than someone who fits the widely accepted ‘image’ of someone with an eating disorder.
Many think that eating disorders are about food and physical appearance. However, eating disorders are mental illnesses with harmful physical ramifications, not the other way around. As BEAT puts it, ‘they are mental illnesses, and treatment should address the underlying thoughts and feelings that cause the behaviour’. Of course anorexia isn’t the only eating disorder. There are others, the two most common being binge eating disorder (BED) and bulimia. BED is when people experience a loss of control and eat large quantities of food on a regular basis. Often, they will experience feelings of guilt and disgust and possibly restrict themselves after a binge eating episode. People with bulimia are caught in a cycle of eating large amounts of food and attempting to compensate for that by vomiting, taking laxatives, fasting or exercising excessively. Again, just as with anorexia, you don’t have to look a certain way to have these disorders. They are both extremely dangerous and require immediate attention.
A short-sighted plan?
Johnson’s new plan is harmful for anyone with eating disorders and those susceptible to falling into disordered eating. However, it’s even more damaging to those who are overweight or a ‘normal’ weight because there is already enough stigma around who ‘can’ and ‘cannot’ have an eating disorder. Elizabeth Henges wrote about her experience of being overweight and having anorexia. She sums it up perfectly:
‘eating disorders as a whole are relatively misunderstood, and the misunderstandings become even worse if you don’t ‘look’ the part’.
Henges also sums up the experience for so many who are overweight or battling with anorexia. Frequently, there is a lack of concern, but most worryingly there is even praise for the svelte-figured sufferer. She recalls how: ‘no one batted an eye when I lost 40 pounds in three months or so. Instead, everyone told me how good I looked and that they were jealous of my weight loss. […] It also reinforced in my mind that maybe becoming anorexic wasn’t a bad thing’.
Henges isn’t the only one. Danielle Gavin wrote for NEDA about her experience. Gavin has been overweight since childhood, and because of this no on believed she could have an eating disorder, despite the fact that she was very sick. She says she wasn’t taken seriously by anyone: ‘even though I had a very dangerous eating disorder and mental illness issues, I was turned away from help and / or not believed due to my weight time and time again’.
Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, yet many aren’t getting any help because they don’t necessarily fit the stereotype of a person with an eating disorder. Even I was praised for my weight loss for a long time before people started to get concerned that I was losing too much.
Similarly to Henges and Gavin, Zachary Haines’ dramatic weight loss was also dismissed because he was previously obese. The article, written by the American Psychological Association, stresses: ‘because Haines was once considered obese and never dropped to what the body mass index charts indicate as “underweight”, his dramatic weight loss was overlooked, even applauded’. Haines’ mother says she had ‘pleaded’ with ‘a primary-care physician, two endocrinologists, a liver specialist and nutrition experts to address Haines’ exercise and eating patterns’. Yet all they would say was how ‘wonderful it was that he had lost 100 pounds’. It wasn’t until Haines was hospitalised that a doctor told his mum that ‘he could have died at any moment’.
I hope that the government addresses their plans when it comes to dealing with obesity. Something that we can do in the meantime is educate ourselves on the complex nature of eating disorders, and hopefully shed our misinformed bias.
Anyone can have an eating disorder. You do not have to be a certain age, weight, race or gender. Eating disorders do not discriminate. So we shouldn’t either.