Eating Disorders vs. Disordered Eating – Labour Article
Trigger Warning: Eating disorders
Help for eating disorders has never been more broadly accessible and – although far from perfect – support services are still increasing. This growing awareness has meant that most people can come up with a respectable definition of an eating disorder. What is often neglected, however, is disordered eating.
It actually proved very difficult to find an exact definition online when researching for this article. It is outstandingly obvious that there are nowhere near enough resources or information on this very complex issue.
So what is the difference between the two; eating disorders and disordered eating? An eating disorder is an illness in which “people experience severe disturbances in their eating behaviours and related thoughts and emotions”; becoming preoccupied with food, weight and body image. Most people associate this largely with anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa. However, eating disorders are of course not restricted to these two.
Disordered eating, in contrast, can loosely be defined by behaviours that reflect similar symptoms of eating disorders, but are in fact a lot more normalised by society. Such behaviours encompass diet culture, comfort eating, and using exercise as a justification and food as a reward.
Both are undoubtedly incredibly important issues that need urgent addressing. It is estimated that between “1.25 and 3.4 million people in the UK are affected by an eating disorder”. I wonder how many more are affected by disordered eating but don’t realise it simply because it is so normalised. This normalisation unveils a dire issue, and it needs to stop.
Diet culture is a huge part of disordered eating. And it’s incredibly dangerous. It is harmful to people of all sizes; normalising and exacerbating eating habits that are not healthy but will seemingly help reach a certain goal. These habits are disguised in the name of health, but in reality centre around weight and body image. These habits and obsessions have become ‘normal’ parts of life, because “weight stigma is so firmly entrenched in our culture”.
However, diet culture is not the only thing that contributes to disordered eating. Dr Paula Levine highlighted another problem: people form different eating patterns and styles based on what day it is. Similar to ‘cheat days’, “a scheduled break in a diet”, one may actively force themselves to eat healthily through the week so they can ‘allow’ themselves an extra snack with their Saturday night TV, for example. This very concept of ‘reward eating’ is dangerous. As a self-confessed chocoholic, I don’t see anything wrong with a bit of chocolate here and there. But, the dangerous behaviour comes in when you split your week like this, rather than eating a healthy balanced diet most of the time.
This isn’t dissimilar to the idea that exercising is a tool to earn food. A healthy balance is great, but you do not need to push yourself past your fitness capability to justify a dessert after your Sunday roast. Guilty feelings surrounding food, weight, body image, and exercise contribute to disordered eating behaviours. We need to work on promoting everything in balance, rather than the promotion of calorie counting and the subsequent guilt.
Now, it is almost impossible to say that these behaviours have not been exacerbated by social media. In many ways, I do think social media has been great for the body positivity movement. But, there is a lot of promotion of disordered eating behaviours that we can no longer ignore.
From obviously harmful examples such as the TikTok ‘Earphone Waist Challenge’ to less directly harmful examples of ‘What I eat in a day’ YouTube videos; everything has an impact. The TikTok challenge was horrific and was so incredibly disheartening for people who didn’t ‘succeed’ at it. While the YouTube videos aren’t as obviously harmful, these influencers are role models. The dangerous assumption that “if I eat like you, I’ll look like you” will sneak into vulnerable minds.
Not only is this dangerous, but it’s wrong. We have to remember that we could all eat exactly the same food, all stick to the same exercise regimes, and we would still all look different.
I’ve clearly identified that there’s a huge problem to be addressed here – I am sure that we can all agree. But what can we do to essentially overcome this issue? How can we move away from the toxic normalisation of disordered eating behaviours?
First and foremost, both the government and society need to recognise disordered eating as an issue separate from eating disorders. Yes, there are similarities. But it is not one problem. Far too often this government has grouped multiple mental health issues together and has subsequently failed in dealing with one or the other. This needs to change. I also hope to see an improvement in mental health services, perhaps through more funding. These services need to recognise people as human beings, and not ignore them.
Ultimately it also comes back to education. We must educate people about healthy, balanced lifestyles at a young age, and move away from the promotion of restricting eating habits and calorie counting that prove to be devastatingly unhealthy. It is also time for increased monitoring of influencer culture on social media. While these people often have completely innocent intentions, they are essentially role models to many and what they eat and do is incredibly influential to all generations.
We can no longer ignore disordered eating. While both are incredibly important, eating disorders and disordered eating are very different issues – I hope I’ve convinced you of this.
Written by Co-Chief Labour Writer, Abi Clargo
Point of Information
An under-represented social issue and an inevitably complex policy one – A Conservative Response
Here Abi highlights a distinction of eating disorders that I, myself was previously ignorant to. A fact that proves greatly ironic, as this only serves to reinforce her point about their lack of awareness.
I would imagine this is the case for most people, despite there being a high chance that they have experienced disordered eating within their lifetime. With our happiness directly linked with our appetite and approach to food (at least for many), it’s inevitable that such a phenomenon occurs.
The current diet culture that perpetuates disordered eating is so extensive that it will take generations to dismiss. We are always looking to change, to go to the gym, to go on a new diet – a lifestyle approach that has been normalised despite its dangerous tipping points.
There is evidently no simple solution. Suggesting a policy approach of early education to encourage habit inculcation is a little too optimistic in my eyes. My generation has had this same education throughout our schooling yet, in October 2019, the NHS reinforced an article from The Guardian reporting that the number of children with anorexia is on the rise.
Our government faces a great challenge, at a crossroad between a rise in obesity or disordered eating. In designing their public policy, they must tiptoe around the fine line between promoting a healthy, balanced diet and stimulating more pressure on those who are already sensitive to changes in their eating habits. By idolising this ‘perfect balanced diet’, the public would feel more guilt when they begin to stray away from it – provoking a downwards spiral.
In conjunction with dietary education, I would advocate for the expansion of support systems across schools, workplaces and general society. The more comfortable and ‘less judged’ people feel about their eating habits, the more we can hope they’ll be open to discuss any unhealthy issues.
Written by Junior Conservative Writer, Emily Taylor
Expanding mental health education is crucial – A Liberal Response
Abi once again proves a fantastic journalist when it comes to writing about mental health. She rightly brings attention to eating disorders and disordered eating. I personally didn’t even know the difference until this article, so I applaud her for highlighting this issue.
However, I do want to add a couple of things. I think firstly people need to be aware of why they act the way they do. For example, how their past has caused potential mental health problems. Most mental health issues start before the age of 25; knowing what caused such issues can be beneficial. For example, bullying or not feeling well-liked can be an easy start for eating disorders and disordered eating. Knowing how your past has impacted you and talking through it with professionals can help a huge amount, and I think needs to be encouraged.
I also think Abi makes a good point showing we are very much unaware about multiple mental health issues, and the internet is not always available to explain this to us. Whilst we do have mental health awareness week, more is needed. Possibly even an individual week for each issue so we can learn.
I worry that people are too often self-diagnosing themselves. This can have an impact on how people see mental health, such as anxiety, and have it misinterpreted. Anxiety itself takes so many forms. Even if people rightly self-diagnose themselves, it can cause even more harm if not understood properly.
Effectively, more education is needed. But through this, we cannot then think of ourselves as experts as well. We need to seek specialist help when it comes to mental health; it is the only way we, as a young online generation in particular, can be happy.
Written by Senior Liberal Writer, Max Anderson