Food, the Holidays & the Truth about Eating Disorders
Think about your favorite holiday food. Maybe pecan pie, maybe roast beef, maybe stuffing, maybe sugar cookies. Let’s say you are hungry. Think about eating that food right now. Do you feel excitement? Pleasure? Anxiety? Internal conflict? Guilt? Are you thinking about the calories? The grams of fat? Carbs? Whether you exercised enough today and are allowed to eat it?
If you ate this food, how long would your feelings about it last? Would you feel guilt all day? Would the anxiety about eating it linger and affect your mood? Would you feel fat or uncomfortable in your own skin?
Think about your friends or family members. Do they seem calm and at ease when they eat? Are they flexible and able to be spontaneous about food? Do you feel a vibe of anxiety when you are eating together?
If you can identify pervasive tension and anxieties around food and eating, there is likely an eating disorder at play. People with eating disorders are highly anxious about food and eating. This is because their brain is telling them that food is a threat to their survival. This brain pattern is largely genetic and gets activated the first time the person goes on any type of diet. From that point on, they have a ramped-up fear of food.
The fear of food is a phobia much like a phobia of spiders. Unlike spiders, however, food is an ever-present and essential substance that cannot be fully avoided. And, unlike many other phobias, the fear of food is almost never a conscious fear.
In an attempt to manage their fear of food, people with eating disorders create rules and regulations around eating in an attempt to feel safer. The rules include using exercise to ‘earn’ the right to eat, measuring and counting micronutrients, eliminating or restricting certain food ingredients like sugar or gluten (even though they do not have celiac disease), eating only what they call ‘clean’ foods, or eating in ritualized ways at only certain times of day. They feel calm and at ease when they follow these rules and anxious, guilty, insecure and upset when they are not able to follow their self-imposed restricted diet.
It makes sense, due to the unconscious nature of the food fear, that those with eating disorders might not be able to self-identify or to see that the core of their issue is a fear of food. It is truly unfortunate, however, that this basic truth about eating disorders is seldom understood by mainstream media or health professionals.
Many of those with food and eating issues are therefore in the dark about their own disorder. They often do not get properly diagnosed because they are assessed by body size instead of being asked about whether they feel anxiety around food and eating. (In fact, most people with eating disorders have never been underweight and can be overweight or obese.) Even if they are diagnosed with an eating disorder, they can spend a lot of time and money on counterproductive and ineffective treatment approaches that are not based in accurate and up-to-date information.