It’s ironic, but the word “healthy” can be life-threatening. Dominant beauty standards, diet culture, and even the field of medicine tend to fixate on food and weight—often equating thinness with health, beauty, and even morality.
While almost everyone in modern society is exposed to this harmful subtext, it can be particularly damaging for some. For those that are genetically predisposed to the spectrum of eating disorders (EDs), disordered eating, and body image challenges, what starts with the pressure to pursue health, thinness, or social acceptance can cause long term damage to the mind, body, and spirit.
Over 100,000 Canadians over the age of 15 are diagnosed with an ED annually. EDs are the third most common chronic illness among teens, usually manifesting between ages 14 and 19. Research also suggests that mortality is six times more likely in individuals with eating disorders compared to the general population, with suicide being five times more likely.
When it comes to EDs, however, we often think of full-fledged diagnoses such as anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder. The reality is that EDs don’t develop overnight—everyone struggles with food and body and food. Many people without any ED diagnoses deal with maladaptive coping mechanisms that can take up significant time and energy—and eventually lead to life-threatening consequences. Therefore, any sort of harmful obsessions and rituals around food and weight are deserving of attention and intervention.
The physical consequences
ED diagnosis or not, individuals struggling in their relationship with food and body image commonly engage in restrictive behaviours to prevent weight gain (limiting calorie intake), binging behaviours (compulsive food consumption), purging behaviours (compensatory actions such as vomiting and over-exercise). These behaviours can lead to nutrient deficiencies, gastrointestinal, cardiac, neurological, immunological, and hormonal issues, osteoporosis, and infertility.
Binging is characterized by consuming large amounts of food (and “large amounts” is subjective to each person) in a short period. Binging can lead to discomfort, bloating, and nausea. Over time, binging can lead to heart issues, high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, Type 2 Diabetes, and damage to the stomach.
Purging is characterized by attempts to erase the act of eating and their accompanying feelings of shame, such as by vomiting, using laxatives, and over-exercise. Purging can lead to electrolyte imbalances, tooth decay, gum disease, swollen salivary glands, and inflammation of the esophagus. Over time, this can also cause cardiac issues, dehydration, and damage to the digestive system.
Restriction is characterized by limiting one's caloric intake, cutting out certain categories of foods, or limiting the times allowed to eat. Many people in active restriction may eat “enough” but are still governed by severe rules and rituals that can take a toll. Restriction can lead to malnutrition, anemia, fatigue, constipation, and acid reflux. Over time, it can cause a host of physical health problems, such as a weakened immune system, low blood pressure, and serious gastrointestinal issues.
The mental health consequences
Overall, people who are suffering with EDs or cycles of binge, purge, and restriction may experience depression, anxiety, social isolation, impaired cognitive functioning, substance abuse, and suicidal thoughts.
For example, dieting, over-exercise, and erratic eating can prevent the body from getting the energy it needs—leading to all-consuming thoughts about food and difficulties concentrating, making decisions, and pursuing goals. Cycles of binge, purge, and/or restriction behaviours may cause individuals to feel ashamed and guilty about their behaviours, leading to low self-esteem and self-worth. They may also withdraw from social activities and feel isolated, which can exacerbate feelings of depression and anxiety.
A note from our team
There are many reasons EDs go unaddressed. Many people have a stereotypical conception of EDs as “a phase” or only know of specific diagnoses such as anorexia nervosa or binge eating disorder. People who look like they have a “normal BMI '' are often overlooked, misdiagnosed, and or even dismissed when exhibiting signs of struggle.
It’s critical to know that early intervention is an important factor for recovery and avoiding serious physical, psychological, and social consequences in the long term. If you or someone in your life is struggling with EDs, we invite you to reach out to us to ask questions, share part of your story, and determine if the Kyla Fox Centre is the right place for support.