Rebuilding a healthy relationship with food

In today’s world, where the influence of social media and ever-changing dietary trends can be all-consuming, developing and maintaining a healthy relationship with food can be incredibly difficult. For those who are in eating disorder recovery, these challenges can be even more acute, with conditions like anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder deeply impacting emotional well-being and self-perception. However, it is not only those with diagnosed eating disorders who can be affected by negative societal pressures; many people struggle with body image, self-esteem and confidence and have never sought help.

By addressing the unique challenges posed by eating disorders and unrealistic societal expectations, this blog will explore effective ways to foster a nourishing, balanced and positive approach to eating and well-being.

Understanding eating disorders

Before we can embark on the path to healing, it is crucial to understand the nature of the challenges faced. Eating disorders are a range of complex mental health conditions that manifest most noticeably in harmful eating behaviours. They can deeply affect a person’s physical health, emotional well-being and overall quality of life and can feel like an inescapable prison for sufferers and their loved ones. The three most common eating disorders in the UK are:

Anorexia nervosa

Anorexia manifests as an intense fear of gaining weight and a distorted body image, which leads sufferers to restrict their food intake severely. Anorexia nervosa symptoms include drastic weight loss and an obsession with calories and dieting. The consequences of anorexia are serious, encompassing everything from heart conditions to bone loss and infertility.

Bulimia nervosa

Bulimia nervosa involves a cycle of binge eating followed by purging to prevent weight gain. Sufferers may consume large amounts of food in a short period, feeling a loss of control, then resort to vomiting, laxatives or excessive exercise to “reverse” the binge. Bulimia can cause significant gastrointestinal issues, electrolyte imbalances, dental problems due to frequent vomiting and more serious problems like malnutrition.

Binge eating disorder

Binge eating disorder is marked by recurrent episodes of eating large quantities of food, often rapidly and to the point of discomfort, but without the subsequent purging seen in bulimia. It is now the most common eating disorder in the UK and often leads to shame, distress or guilt after bingeing. Health implications can be fatal and include obesity, cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.

The road to eating disorder recovery

Eating disorder recovery is a deeply personal and often challenging journey, marked by ups and downs. It is a path that requires courage, commitment and the right professional support. Eating disorder treatment plans are tailored to individual needs and take into account the type of condition and its symptoms.

For example, anorexia nervosa treatment involves a comprehensive approach that addresses both the psychological aspects of the disorder and the physical health issues resulting from severe weight loss and malnutrition. A multidisciplinary team including psychologists, psychiatrists, dietitians and physicians often work together to create a personalised treatment plan which may include therapy to address distorted body image, nutritional counselling to restore weight and health and medical monitoring to manage any complications.

Treatment for bulimia also requires a tailored approach that focuses on interrupting the binge-purge cycle and healing the body and mind. Therapy types like CBT are commonly employed in bulimia treatment to help individuals understand and change their bingeing and purging behaviours, while medications such as antidepressants may also be prescribed to help manage symptoms.

Binge eating disorder treatment focuses on breaking the cycle of binge eating. This involves therapy to address the emotional triggers of binge episodes so that healthier coping mechanisms can be developed. In some cases, medications may be used alongside psychotherapy to help reduce the urge to binge.

Navigating the world post-treatment

While professional eating disorder treatment can be highly effective, it is only the first step in the life-long recovery process. If you have recently completed treatment or you are struggling with your relationship with food, it is important to be mindful of the influences and negative messaging that surrounds you.

Television, movies and social media play a significant role in shaping our perceptions of food, health and body image. While these platforms can offer support and inspiration to those in eating disorder recovery, they can also contribute to unhealthy comparisons and unrealistic expectations, particularly when it comes to how we look. Here are some strategies to help manage these impacts:

Set boundaries around media consumption

It’s easy to get caught up in endless scrolling, but too much exposure to certain types of content can be harmful. If you struggle, setting boundaries and sticking to them can help minimise negative impacts. These boundaries can include:

  • Limiting the amount of time you spend on social media each day.
  • Taking breaks from social media, especially if you notice it’s affecting your mood or self-esteem.
  • Engaging with the media mindfully, asking yourself how certain content makes you feel and why.

Practise critical thinking

Not everything we see on social media or in the media is an accurate reflection of reality. Practising critical thinking can help you distinguish between helpful content and potentially harmful messages. Make sure you:

  • Question the intentions behind a post or article. They may just be trying to sell something rather than offering genuine support or information.
  • Consider whether the information is coming from a reputable and knowledgeable individual or organisation.
  • Remember that photos can be edited, and what you’re seeing may not be a genuine representation of real life.

Seek out positive communities

Despite its downsides, the internet can also offer opportunities to connect with supportive communities that can positively influence your relationship with food and your body. Some ways to engage with these communities include:

  • Joining online forums or social media groups focused on recovery, body positivity and healthy eating.
  • Participating in discussions and sharing your experiences. You will likely find that many others share your feelings and struggles, and you may even end up helping someone who is struggling.
  • Sharing and creating content that reflects your journey and insights, contributing to a more positive and supportive online environment.

Maintaining long-term wellness

Whether you are in eating disorder recovery or looking to improve your relationship with food and yourself, setbacks can be disheartening. However, they are also a testament to the strength and courage it takes to confront and overcome challenges and by recognising setbacks as part of the process, they can become useful learning opportunities.

Some effective ways to overcome setbacks and use them as fuel for your goals include:

Seeking professional support

Professional therapy and counselling can provide critical support for both those in recovery and anyone else who needs a little help. Even as you gain confidence in your relationship with food, mental health professionals can offer continued guidance and accountability, helping you navigate any new challenges.

Developing a self-care routine

Incorporating activities into your routine that promote physical, emotional and mental well-being can help distract your attention from food and eating. Whether it’s exercise you enjoy, mindfulness practices or simply fun hobbies, these activities can all support your overall health and happiness.

Staying mindful of triggers

Awareness of potential triggers is critically important for preventing relapse. If you have been through eating disorder treatment, continue to practise the coping strategies you have developed to manage stress, emotional discomfort or situations that previously would have led to unhealthy eating behaviours.

Celebrating your progress

Remember to acknowledge and celebrate your progress, no matter how small. Recognising your achievements reinforces positive behaviour changes and boosts your motivation and self-esteem.

Leaning on your support networks

Surrounding yourself with people who understand your journey and offer unconditional support can make a significant difference in eating disorder recovery and fostering a healthier relationship with food. This could include family, friends, support groups or others who have been through similar struggles. Their encouragement, insights and shared experiences can provide comfort, reduce feelings of isolation and remind you that you’re not alone in your challenges.

Embracing setbacks

First and foremost, it’s important to acknowledge that setbacks do not equate to failure. Eating disorder recovery is rarely a straight line, and everyone experiences their ups and downs. Sometimes, a relapse indicates that certain strategies or aspects of your treatment plan may need adjustment. Make sure you remain open and honest with your healthcare providers to review and revise your plan and ensure it aligns with your current needs and goals.

Final thoughts

Rebuilding a healthy relationship with food is a journey filled with challenges, learning and growth. By seeking professional help, being mindful of media and how you react to it and focusing on long-term wellness, you can create a balanced and fulfilling relationship with food and with yourself. Remember, eating disorder recovery is possible, and with patience, support and dedication, you can achieve lasting health and happiness.

If you are struggling with an eating disorder or looking to foster a healthier relationship with food, contact UKAT today. Our team of experts can help you get the treatment you need and provide critical ongoing support for lifelong recovery.

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