Summer. What a beautiful time of year! The time to wear lighter clothing, get some fresh air and enjoy the sunshine. It’s also the time to get ready for weddings, wear swimsuits, stress about going back to school – all of which unfortunately triggers many people to try to shed some pounds.
Hating our bodies has become the new norm – and that’s scary. People of all ages have learned to criticize their bodies more than they complain about the weather.
Statistics show this desire to ‘fix’ a core and natural part of ourselves starts very young. One study shows 43% of girls in grades 1 to 3 want to be thinner. At least one in four boys and girls aged 10 to 14 are dieting, even though they are in a healthy weight range. As a result, eating disorders (EDs) are now being diagnosed in young children.
A study by Dr. Leora Pinhas from the Hospital for Sick Children shows that kids aged five to 12 have a two to four times greater likelihood of having an eating disorder than they are Type II diabetes up to age 18. “In Canada,” she says, “obesity is found in 9% of kids; EDs are found in 18% of kids.”
Which begs the question, why are we so worried about obesity? Those who study the body know the efforts people make to lose weight lead to a higher body weight in the end. Studies show kids who diet have a 324% greater risk of being obese than those who do not. Teens who diet are also 3.3 times more likely to binge eat and 5.7 times more likely to purge their food.
It all starts with body image, which is based on a subjective or personal perspective that could be very different from reality and what others see. The most beautiful bride or the sexiest man could be the most inwardly tormented by their self-image. As the Tri Delta foundation states in an ‘End the Fat Talk’ campaign, 80% of women would rather be hit by a truck than be fat!
Body dissatisfaction stems from a myriad of issues, including living in a society that encourages us to look a certain way (whether realistically possible or not), an anxious or perfectionist temperament, distress about unrelated things in life, and comments or bullying about one’s appearance. Body dissatisfaction also leads people to engage in a host of unhealthy eating and exercise behaviours.
Dieting and disordered eating behaviours have reached pandemic levels. They are so common that people fail to see the damage they do. Every day we are encouraged by the media and diet companies to eat less to weigh less.
For most people, however, dieting only creates a vicious cycle, with restricting one’s food intake leading to lower metabolism, cravings, and/or binge eating. This cycle most often raises one’s natural body weight range and leads to more dangerous health consequences than if we just learned to lead a healthy lifestyle without focusing on that number on the scale. We know people can be healthy and fit at any size.
Unfortunately, a growing number of males and females (the ratio is now 1:3) are diagnosed with an ED. The National Initiative for Eating Disorders (NIED) is working hard to educate people about EDs and the dangers of dieting. NIED has been offering free symposia on a monthly basis, open to anyone, as well as support groups for those suffering from an ED and their families. On April 25th, they went to Parliament Hill to lobby for a national strategy for dealing with eating disorders in Canada. As it stands, the system is not fit to handle the prevalence and morbidity of the illness.
Wendy Preskow, founder of NIED and mother of a 27-year-old who has chronic anorexia nervosa, says: “If my daughter asked for help today, she would have nowhere to go for immediate treatment.” This young woman has sat on wait lists for months, only to lose the motivation to get better by the time she was seen.
Eating disorders are complex illnesses that only specifically trained health care professionals can treat effectively. People with EDs suffer from brain changes that often make it difficult to get past the fear of eating again. The preoccupation with body and food goes beyond having ‘bad body days’ and persistently impacts negatively on one’s emotions, relationships and occupational functioning.
According to Dr. Gail McVey, Director of the Ontario Coalition for the Prevention of Eating Disorders (OCOPED), the Canadian ED treatment system is likely reaching only about 30% of people suffering from EDs. It is likely the other 70% who do not get treatment are either in denial about their illness or have not yet been identified by their primary health care physicians.
EDs are 12 times more likely to kill youths aged 15 to 24 than any other illness. That’s why NIED is so passionate about making a difference. More people ‘NIED’ to know about EDs. EDs cut across all ages, genders, cultures and SES groups. If we can catch sufferers early and get them into treatment more quickly, therapy is shown to have a very high – about 80% – success rate.
Hopefully, with NIED and the government’s support, we will reach more people with EDs and their families, get them talking about their distress, and help them get better faster.
We can all play a role in changing the conversations we have about our bodies. Choose to talk about something other than how much you hate your body and which diet you are on. Find uniqueness and strength beyond your body. Work to stop hating the body you were meant to have so you can live a healthier, happier life. Then you can start feeling good about springtime again!
*National Institute for Eating Disorders.