Healthy body, healthy mind? We're not so sure

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In time for Eating Disorders Awareness Week (26th February - 4th March), Deputy Food Editor Holly Penhale and Online Wellbeing Editor Leila Mitwally offer two different perspectives on the modern issues surrounding the complex relationship between diet and body image.

What does it mean to have a ‘healthy relationship with food?’

Holly: Having a healthy relationship with food is not about eating kale and getting your five-a-day. Whilst it is important that our diets are varied and balanced, it is equally – if not more – important that what we eat does not become a source of distress, angst or something we avoid for fear of the emotional repercussions.

eat what makes you happy, be kind to your mind and taste buds too.

There is an incomprehensible amount of advice about how much of each food group we should be putting into our bodies each day, which fats we should be eating, which we should be avoiding and which vitamins we need for our bodies to function, but getting hung up on these figures can take the enjoyment out of eating and make it seem like a daily test in which we score ourselves for hitting the targets.

It truth, it needn’t be this arduous. In my opinion we should take a more common-sense approach to eating. Avoid eating too much of the things you know are bad for you but also eat what makes you happy, be kind to your mind and taste buds too.

Leila: In all honesty, a ‘healthy relationship with food’ varies from person to person. From a mental health perspective, as a general rule of thumb a ‘healthy relationship with food’ is one that you really don’t think too hard about.

Food should never be a dominating factor in your life – as ridiculous as it sounds, it’s just something that you need to live. If you’re too stressed to cook yourself a proper meal which includes all the food groups (which are, of course: carbohydrate A, carbohydrate B, something that is green and The Frozen Item™) it really doesn’t matter.

As long as you are getting enough food - as in you are eating when you are hungry until you aren’t hungry anymore – you’ll be fine until you have more time on your hands.That’s not to say you should eat toast for every meal for an extended period of time just because you can - just that rustling up three balanced meals a day isn’t something you need to add to your never-ending to-do list.

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Epigram / Holly Penhale

Though I should say: the only exception to this is if you actually have a history of disordered eating – in which case eating enough (not to be confused with eating healthy foods) should be a priority until you’re in a better place.

What is food guilt and how do we avoid it?

Holly: The internet is teeming with ‘guilt free’ recipes, from beetroot brownies to cauliflower rice and don’t get me wrong, I think healthy alternatives are great, they help us to maintain a balanced diet whilst still feeling like we’re treating ourselves.

However, I don’t agree with the idea that eating should ever be a source of ‘guilt’. When we indulge we do it for the enjoyment. If the experience leaves us feeling guilty then it’s been entirely counterproductive! Eating ‘unhealthy’ food or over-indulging is something everyone does and it shouldn’t be something you beat yourself up about.

If you find yourself feeling guilty, try and remember that one extra slice of cheesecake is not going to change the course of your life and if today’s been unhealthy there’s no reason why tomorrow can’t be healthy.

Leila: “Food guilt” is part of an issue that goes quite a bit deeper: which is false attachment of emotions to food. Again, though it’s different for everyone, the whole practice of labelling foods as “good” and “bad”, harbors a really unhealthy relationship with food and our bodies.

However hard the media might try to tell us otherwise, it is not healthy to feel guilty after eating conventionally “unhealthy” foods, and the idea that we need to “make up” for this either through subsequent dieting or increased exercise is bizarre.

Have you ever thought about the fact that 50% of the diet related adverts we’re shown encourage us to purchase and enjoy calorific food and the other 50% are about the meal plans/group weight loss schemes/meal replacement drinks we should be considering as a result of the unbearable guilt so that we can one day fit into that red dress like that woman who only eats Special K? It’s almost like someone’s making money on this!

What is considered restrictive eating? How is this damaging to us emotionally and physically?

Holly: Cutting out entire food groups without medical requirement or limiting your calorie intake to a level which has you sustaining weight loss with no end goal is a restrictive eating pattern and if done over a long period of time can be damaging to both your physical and mental health.

Eating less calories than you are burning can lead to you feeling drained, faint and run-down. What’s more, cutting out food groups can lead to deficiencies which cause further medical complications. For example, if you cut out or severely restrict carbohydrates you may not be getting enough dietary fibre for smooth digestion.

Leila: Again, to come at this question from a mental perspective, restrictive eating is any form of intentional dietary restriction with unhealthy intentions. It’s a tricky area – which, you guessed it, differs from person to person.

For example, if you follow a vegetarian diet for ethical reasons: you’re fine, but if you do have a history of disordered eating, then any form of restriction can be dangerous. Those who are in recovery should be wary of dietary restrictions in any form (except for allergies, obviously) as they can’t be sure that these are coming from the “right” place, so to speak.

sometimes a diet high in conventionally “unhealthy” foods can be the best thing for your mind

Restrictive eating that doesn’t account for our natural dietary requirements is obviously physically damaging, but for some people psychologically it can be the trigger for incredibly serious and dangerous eating disorders.

Can diets which are healthy for your body be unhealthy for your mental wellbeing?

Holly: Sometimes diets which are technically healthy for your body can be very damaging for your mind. You may be getting exactly the right amounts of each food group according to the recommendations and functioning at an optimum level physically but if doing so has become an obsession or something you feel you need to do in order to be in control then your mental health may be suffering at the expense of your physical health.

It is important not to prioritise your bodily health over your mental wellbeing. If adhering to the guidelines is making you unhappy or if deviating from them makes you feel guilty, remember than your worth is not defined by what you eat or how you look.

Leila: Absolutely, and vice versa – sometimes a diet high in conventionally “unhealthy” foods can be the best thing for your mind, especially if you’re trying to improve on an unhealthy relationship with food in general.

A diet which consumes your thoughts and influences your mood – for example, through feeling accomplished when you’re strictly controlling your diet and avoiding unhealthy food or feeling low when you break this strict diet – is mentally damaging and should be addressed as soon as possible.

treating yourself is not a sin, it’s something we all do and something we all deserve, enjoy it for what it is

Even if you’re eating enough quantity-wise, or are not losing weight, but you’re strictly controlling your diet in one way or another, you should evaluate your relationship with food and your actual motives for eating healthily.

Do you think it is possible to watch what you eat without being restrictive?

Holly: Yes, as cliché as it sounds it really is all about balance. As Deputy Food Editor, I try to promote a fairly healthy diet but also a healthy attitude towards food.

Being healthy doesn’t mean you have to count calories or cut out any particular food groups but listen to your body, my advice would be to eat when you’re hungry and try and eat the right things as often as you can. Treating yourself is not a sin, it’s something we all do and something we all deserve, enjoy it for what it is.

'On average, 149 weeks pass before those experiencing eating disorder symptoms seek help. That’s almost three years, 37 months or 1,043 days. On top of this, more than 1 in 3 adults in the UK could not name any signs or symptoms of eating disorders.' . This week is national eating disorder awareness week and I'm supporting Beats #whywait campaign, to help raise awareness of the signs and symptoms of an eating disorder and encourage and empower people to take action now. The sooner someone has access to treatment, the better their chance of fully recovering! 🌻 To find out more visit www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk . . . . . . . . . #edaw #edaw2018 #mentalhealth #mentalhealthawareness #eatingdisorderawareness #mentalillness #anxiety #important #endthestigma #breakthestigma #neda #instagood #healing #staystrong #itsokaynottobeokay #dontgiveup #edrecovery #psychology #quote #quotes #instaquote #mentalhealthmatters #mentalwellness #recoveryquotes #mentalhealthquotes #selfcare

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Leila: For some, yes – though given the warped sense of what’s “healthy” promoted by the media it can be difficult, and as usual it’s a very fine line.

However, if you are in recovery, or are recovered from an eating disorder, the answer is a straight up no. No supposed health benefits are worth putting your life in danger, and as dramatic as it sounds, to someone who has a history of eating disorders an innocent ‘I’m going to start watching what I eat’ can open up a whole can of very scary worms. It’s not worth the worms. Keep the worms enclosed.

With so many people promoting ‘clean eating’ and other regimented dietary requirements, how can we avoid feeling that our own diets are inadequate?

Holly: Recently the internet has been overrun by clean eating, health food Instagrams, blogs and recipe sites.

For a lot of people this is great, it means free access to healthy recipes and tons of meal inspiration, but for others it can damaging because we don’t always get a complete picture of their diets and begin to feel like everything the person running the account eats is perfectly balanced. This is unlikely and attempting to replicate such diets is a fairly unrealistic goal which could lead to us feeling like a failure.

Try to remember that the images on these accounts are often just a small sample of the food that person eats, and more often than not it is the most aesthetically pleasing, nutritionally balanced and colourful portion of their diet. People seldom post images of their 4am kebab. It doesn’t mean they aren’t eating them.

Leila: Honestly, it all comes down to educating yourself about what it is you’re actually seeing. Platforms like Instagram allow influencers to manipulate exactly what you see of their life to make it look as though that’s the full picture, when in reality they’ve probably spent half an hour lining up that photo of their avocado toast, or shifting around to get the best angle in their gym gear.

I think it’s also helpful to think about what your life would look like if you actually followed a lifestyle like those you see on social media. For starters, I would personally find it pretty difficult (read: impossible) to go to the gym every day and follow a strict diet and get done everything I need to do as a student, while also finding time to socialize and relax.

take control, unfollow them, post that picture of your slightly-shabby stir fry and be proud of it

Also, so much of what we enjoy as students that is “unhealthy” seems far more important in the grand scheme of things! In ten years time: would you rather remember the late nights you spent up with friends, drunken nights followed by hungover takeaways and full house roast dinners or the countless routinely days you ate the correct number of calories and squeezed in two gym sessions? I know which I would rather.

How can we deal with social media influences when they become damaging to our relationship with food and/or body image?

Holly: Don’t look. It seems like an obvious answer but many of us are guilty of the self-punishing ritual of scrolling through images of people we deem fitter, healthier and more attractive than ourselves and feeling deflated and unsatisfied with our own lives as a result.

Whilst it’s fine to have role models, setting unrealistic expectations for your body and diet is setting yourself up to be let down. If you find yourself comparing your progress to that of a fitness blogger, or your Buddha bowl to a renowned TV chef’s then you’re setting yourself up to be let down.

Take control, unfollow them, post that picture of your slightly-shabby stir fry and be proud of it. Don’t be slighted by your admiration for other people, chances are, there is something they feel insecure about too.

Leila: Get rid of it. Whether you’ve a history of disordered eating or not, if social media is negatively influencing your relationship with food or your body you should take steps to protect yourself.

If you feel you can’t delete your accounts on these platforms altogether, you can now make choices about the kind of content you receive – for example, if you see something on your Facebook feed that you find upsetting or damaging, there is an option to “see fewer posts like this” which will hopefully prevent content of a similar nature appearing again.

Social media in general has promoted an unhealthy relationship with food and our bodies since, like, forever - so if you find it affecting you the safest thing to do is to remove yourself from the situation as quickly as possible.

If you find that you relate to the information in this article, don't hesitate to get in touch with Epigram Wellbeing for more information on who to contact, or call the Student Counselling Service on (0)117 394 0123.

Featured image: Epigram / Leila Mitwally


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