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Why we need to broaden our idea of who lives with eating disorders
Why we need to broaden our idea of who lives with eating disorders

Why we need to broaden our idea of who lives with eating disorders

Note: This article contains descriptions of thoughts, emotions, and behaviour exhibited while experiencing the eating disorder orthorexia, which some may find distressing.
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Patrice Cammarano on eating disorders.

Growing up, I struggled with my weight. Although it didn’t really bother me when I was a kid, I always felt different from my friends; that I couldn’t run as fast or as far as them and that I wasn’t performing as well as I could. The feeling of not being at my best because of my weight stayed with me over the years. And so in 2017, I made the first New Year’s resolution of my life—my goal was to lose weight.

I spent the next six months exercising regularly and eating healthily, and I started to feel stronger and more energized. But the thought that my weight was stopping me from realizing my potential still persisted. At that point, my attitude towards what I ate became obsessive; I cut out entire food groups from my diet, and would meticulously check the ingredient list and nutritional labels of the food I would eat. Anything that wasn’t perfectly “healthy” was avoided at all costs. Even though I looked healthy, the way I was making choices about what I ate was incredibly harmful.

I know now that I was dealing with orthorexia—an eating disorder where a person becomes so fixated with eating healthy that it harms their wellbeing. But at the time, treating my body so strictly seemed like the right choice. After all, when I looked at social media, I saw posts that were filled with actors, models, and athletes being celebrated for following extreme diets. On top of that, as a track athlete, there were rewards for being perceived to be taking care of my physical health. The environment around me made it easy to normalize what I was going through.

I eventually came to the realization that I needed to talk to my doctor. Although orthorexia is not yet formally recognized as an eating disorder, we were able to work together on a treatment plan to stabilize my diet and weight. It took a lot of effort and patience, but, in time, I was able to come to a place where I was authentically healthy and happy. It’s important that we all realize that eating disorders can be treated successfully. But first, they need to be recognized for the serious illnesses they are.

What we need now is more awareness and understanding about who can experience eating disorders and what symptoms to look out for. Eating disorders can affect absolutely anyone—just because they are a man, or look healthy doesn’t mean they should be discounted. Deciding to cut food groups from a diet, showing a high level of distress when ‘safe’ or ‘healthy’ foods are not available, compulsively checking lists of ingredients and nutritional labels, and the inability to eat anything but specific foods that are deemed “healthy” are all signs that someone may be experiencing orthorexia. There are plenty of resources available online to help you understand the symptoms and the warning signs of every eating disorder (you can find an extensive list here).

Use this knowledge to look out for the people around you. If you notice any signs of an eating disorder, reach out and talk to the person. Having someone check in could be the reason they recognize what they’re going through and get the support they need. More broadly, we can create a better environment for those who live with eating disorders and a negative body image by embracing people for their personalities, not their looks. Our value comes from who we are as people, not what we look like—we would all benefit from hearing that message more often.