Exercise and regular movement does an abundance of good for your mental and physical health. It can help decrease anxiety and depression, build confidence and aid the development of positive body image. But when addressing the role exercise has in the recovery from an eating disorders it’s a tricky one.
Exercise is unlikely to benefit health when it’s fuelled by fear and stress rather than fun. For eating disorder sufferers this is largely the case. Exercise can become a maintaining factor in the illness, a way to punish your body for food you’ve eaten, or “earn” the right to eat.
Unfortunately this has now become a “socially acceptable” form of self-harm, promoted on social media and fuelled by many other “fat-phobic’’ messages in society.
So, Should You Exercise in Recovery?
There is not real ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer per say. Recovery is hugely individual, what triggers one person may not influence another.
There are times when exercise is dangerous on the body, like at very low body weights and when you have not eaten enough. Risk of injury, fainting, even fatalities are all common to those over-exercising with eating disorders. When I was ill I exercised to fulfil my eating disorders demands.
I didn’t enjoy what I did, it was ritualistic, obsessive, and I often found myself in the gym purely based on the demands of my eating disorder; lethargic and under-nourished.
So when I was in recovery, I stopped exercising altogether, for about a year, and then gradually added it in (with some slip ups) as I got physically and mentally stronger I wont sugar coat it, it caused a mass amounts of anxiety and fear to begin with. But I was determined that I would build balance into my lifestyle and enjoyment into my movement.
Taking time off was not going to be forever, just for now, just to challenge the feeling of spontaneously combusting if I didn’t ritualistically work out.
It is through trial and error that we learn to balance our bodies needs in recovery.
We have to test out and challenge our anxious thoughts, and see just what happens when we do what the eating disorder tells us not do to do.
Exercising should NEVER come from a place fuelled by fear, obligation or anxiety.
Rather it should be for fun, from a place of self-compassion and desire to see what your body is capable of.
This can take a while to achieve if you’ve been stuck in this cycle of destructive exercise for a while. Rest assured you can break free, and I whole heartedly believe with the right support you will.
Read my TOP 5 TIPS FOR BALANCING EXERCISE IN RECOVERY
It’s now November [what the ..?! How’d that happen…] and in my family that’s a cue for premature Christmas songs and getting busy in the kitchen making lots of Christmas goodies!
Christmas has always been my favourite time of year, and let’s face it what’s Christmas without the amazing array of food.
The warm comforting smells sum up Winter, and spark nostalgic memories; Christmas evenings filled with games, music and laughter.
This hasn’t always been the case for me though.
The years spent battling anorexia turned Christmas joys into Christmas fears.
Christmases spent anxious in tears.
Christmases on meal plans, worried and concerned about every spoonful to come, every meal out, and dreading every party.
For those suffering with an eating disorder Christmas can be a serious time for struggles and set backs.
Coming into my fifth year of recovery it is lovely to be able to once again embrace the season’s festivities. Over the years I have learnt to hold a more realistic and educated perspective by continuously, and immediately, challenging faulty thoughts, behaviours and communicating anxieties.
This is my wish for all of you this season.
So, without further ado, let’s kick start the festive period with a seasonal “sod off” to your eating disorder.
Here are my Top Tips for Surviving Christmas Time
(ft. mistletoe, and glass upon glassful of wine…)
1. Don’t restrict/skip meals.
Compensating and restricting your eating in the weeks leading up to Christmas parties, meals out is more likely to increase anxiety as it puts your body under huge amounts of stress.
Restrictive eating has been found to be associated with overeating later on in the day, that may spark binges for those susceptible.
Keep to a routine, and if you’re nervous about an upcoming event or meal out simply find out what will be on offer beforehand and pick a couple of options you think you’ll be able to manage, that way you can feel more chilled in advance and focus on the social side of season!
2. Movement should be optional and not obligatory.
You do not have to “work for” or “work off” your food. You deserve to eat food and enjoy yourself just like everyone else, regardless of what you have or have not done.
This is where diet-culture often wins us over, because in the next few weeks we will be inundated with advert after advert for workout DVDs, all this rubbish about detoxes, cleanses, and loads more dieting messages reminding us to hit the gym hard before we have any festive foods.
Remind yourself that these are marketing gimmicks; existing to make sales, and caring about their profits and not your health.
Instead of believing you have to run yourself into the ground, be gentle, do things you enjoy; go on wintery walks, do gentle stretching like yoga.
Move because you want to move, and in the ways you love to move.
3. Be Aware of Faulty Thinking Traps:
Christmas can be a playground for eating disorders, freely swinging guilt and shame around so that you end up perpetually swung into the control of your eating disorder. Thoughts and feelings can feel extreme, self-punishing, all encompassing.
But remind yourself they are lies. What you eat is not to be internalised as a reflection of who you are as a person; you are not bad, nor are you guilty, or greedy, or shameful for nourishing your body.
Write down these faulty thoughts on note cards along with some counteractive comebacks, have them handy so you can remind yourself that actually everything is ok.
Instead of allowing the season to hold you back, use it as a chance to push you forward!
I have often dealt with people who say it’s easier to avoid certain situations, or eating certain foods, so as not to evoke negative and uncomfortable thoughts/feelings. But this doesn’t help you challenge your irrational food fears, and by remaining captive to your eating disorder you are preventing little steps forward in your recovery.
Make a little list of foods you tend to avoid or feel anxious about, and then work them into your meals and snacks. Have a trusted friend that can support you trying these foods out and help you handle anxiety around this.
You may wish to journal how you felt before, during, and after eating them. I promise you will survive to see that nothing bad happens.
The more you practice this task the more you break down barriers and increase the variety of foods into your diet.
5. Try Something New!
There is so much more to Christmas than food!
Get festive with crafts, movies, winter walks, visiting German Markets, seeing the lights, games. These and many more are all great distractions away from negative thinking and ruminating thoughts.
6. Make Self-Care A Priority
Give yourself space and time to calm your thoughts and feelings; breathing exercises or having something soothing (I used aromatherapy candles and music) can help if you are susceptible to panic attacks or extreme anxiety.
This will also help aid digestion, and may help reduce any pain, discomfort or bloating caused by tension and stress around food often confused as GI dysfunctions such as IBS or coeliac – no self diagnosis please.
6. Take One Day At A Time.
For many the social occasions are more than just the day itself and many have extended Christmas and New Years plans. This amount of socialising and foody events may feel very overwhelming when you think about it all at once, so don’t get ahead of yourself. It may be helpful to take time to sit and plan, with a clinician or any trusted other, ways to manage the upcoming season so that your health remains stable.
Knowing where you will be for events, looking at menus in advance, or having some pre-made snacks are all ways you can make sure you feel comfortable socialising this season.
Remember that the season is more than just food, so what else can you get up too with friend and family?!
7. Ditch The Diet and Body Talk:
I used to dread coming back from my treatment at Christmas just because it meant hearing the words “you’re looking so much better” repeatedly said to me.
Now, to many this may seem bizzare, because surely that’s a lovely compliment to hear?!
And true, it is….now!
But, when ill with an eating disorder, such comments are likely interpreted as “looking bigger/fatter”. This it then associated with many other hugely complex underlying beliefs and labels: being bad/unworthy/unloveable/not deserving treatment/care…feeling out of control.
A complex can of worms you just didn’t wanna open…
It’s worth telling friends, family members in advance not to comment on your appearance, and abstain from topics of conversation regarding body image and food talk.
None of this talk on “good or bad foods”, or “such and such will go straight to my hips…”…tell them toleave that diet-trash talk out of the picture for their sake as well as yours.
Personal reflection; it definitely helped me to challenge this warped interpretation by remembering they hadn’t seen me since I went into hospital, really they were just thrilled to see me back at home for Christmas, and actually what they were referring to was my bubblier, brighter side that was shining through now I was becoming “me” again.
When I was more motivated in recovery I would challenge these thoughts and ask myself why was I interpreting comments in this way, and why I felt the need to look “ill” – what was this function playing for me? what was I actually trying to vocalise through restrictive eating and self-starvation?
Deep stuff I know…but just points to ponder.
8. Communication is Key:
Believe it or not but people do care about you.
Talk to whoever’s cooking for you, and be honest about how you’re feeling to your friends and family, the more they understand how you’re coping with things the more they can support you at meals and in states of high anxiety.
Whether it’s going for a coffee with a mate, or having a hug from your parents, if you need it, ask for it.
You Got This!
Christmas is a hard time for those with eating disorders, so don’t be hard on yourself, and don’t expect every day to go perfectly. Take small steps to challenge your thinking and your eating.
It’s only one month. You will survive to see that nothing bad has happened!!!
You do not need to work for, or work off, what you eat.
Your eating disorder has no authority to restrict or rule your life.
Above all else, remember that you deserve to enjoy Christmas, just like everyone else.
Dear parents and carers… My thoughts and prayers are with you and your family. Remember to not neglect your own needs. For more info please check out the blog written by guest writer on my site, and one strong mummy, Janet Richards, sharing her top tips.
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Bulking, Cutting, Clean Eating, Cheat Days…
This post is dishes up the dirt on Diet Culture and the destructive subtexts hidden in the language used around food and exercise, that makes disordered eating seem socially acceptable, encourages yo-yo dieting and ultimately leads to an unhealthy relationship with food and body image.
No labels or diets should ever make you feel inferior or bad about being in your own skin, nor should any diet mean you are not allowed to enjoy the foods and drinks you love.
No labels or associations should ever make you feel inferior or bad about being in your own skin, nor should any diet mean you are not allowed to enjoy the foods and drinks you love…if diet culture hasn’t lead you to forget what these truly are
Whilst this post may seem like a bit of a rant, it comes from a place of genuine worry and concern about the obsessive diet-culture, and aesthetically driven, society we are creating, not just for ourselves, but for the younger generations growing up.
Only recently I was having a chat with a friend about the baking I had done on one of my days off. His response made my blood boil; “You on the winter bulk then?” 😡 To which I replied.. “No. I’m just on this thing called life”
Diet-culture terminology seems to be never ending, and ever growing, and it is SO WRONG. It is certainlynot helped of course by the increased access to images, articles and youtube videos (if I see another “what I eat in a day” post I swear I’ll loose my mind….!!) and more. All of this fuels the myths, rules and associations regarding the “right” types and quantities of food we should (or rather, should not..) eat, not to mention the excessive exercise we should be doing…constantly.
The labels and associations we attach to what we think we believe to be “good” or “bad” foods is destructive to our physical and mental states, and together influences the disordered relationship with food and body image by reinforcing some very damaging messages in its sub-text.
Clean-eating Cue the undeserved feelings of guilt because you’ve eaten another slice of birthday cake, or a pizza that wasn’t made out of cauliflower…
Foods that aren’t seen as “clean” are then “bad” or “off limits” this has lead to an increase in orthorexia: The obsession with eating “pure foods”…whatever that means?! Problem being, there is no agreeable definition on what determines a food being “clean”, most foods you buy are to some extent processed and manufactured somewhere, somehow, so does that mean these are all “unclean” or “bad” for you? Those words in themselves should never be used in association with your food, they cause so much judgement and guilt when you then project them onto a reflection of yourself and your body
“Cheat Days” ...where to begin. There is so much wrong with this. Not only does it reinforce the binge-restrict, yo-yo dieting, that has time and time again been proven to end in more weight gain in the long term, but in reality these “cheat” days you probably eat normally, but because diet culture has become so normalised we have created a day dedicated to normalising our diet. Or, alternatively for many, a day you choose to eat all the foods you’ve limited from your diet to remain sane and curb cravings, so you binge/overeat, and then justify it with the weekly restriction and over exercising. Does this sound healthy to you…?
Winter Bulk/Summer Cut …A winter bulk, or sometimes referred to as”off season”, when you allow yourself to eat more foods that have been off limit during the summer period, because you care less about looking lean. These foods are categorised then as foods that will make you gain weight, and are off limits or “bad” for cutting, when you restrict the diet and over exercise to get lean for summer.Again, constant yo-yo dieting, and justifying what you eat and when you eat based on aesthetic goals. Bulking foods are seen as high calorie and to be avoided otherwise, and so associated with weight gain, however many of these include foods that are also very nutritious, such as nut butters, avocados, rye breads.Many may programme these foods around workouts as pre/post workout meals, which I do understand if you are an athlete, training for an event or following a particular programme that may have a performance, or medically advised weight loss/gain, outcome. But for the majority who are not performance based athletes, this can be damaging and stressful, creating the association with exercise equating to being able to eat certain foods or not.If you want porridge in the morning but don’t want to work out that is fine! If you want to eat a meal with less protein in it after you workout, or have a pizza in the evening (not made with cauliflower..) this does not have to be a post-workout meal, you can just eat for the sake of enjoying food, socialising, and keep fit for the same reasons too! No rights or wrongs, no good or bad.
Elimination diets, and classing everything high protein and low carb as “healthier” … no medical justification to cut out gluten and/or dairy are the common ones that spring to mind. Are you sure you understand the function of gluten in food? Protein does not magically make it a healthier option, and carbs don’t make you fat. Consistently eating in a calorie surplus, carbs or no carbs, will lead to excess weight being stored. Like most things, it’s individual preference, but if you are eliminating foods based on false education and rumour then maybe you should begin asking questions and properly educating yourself by reading research and literature that is not just one-sided, or scare mongering, but factual and relevant. Listen to your body and begin to get real about why you feel the need to restrictor eliminate food groups. It is worth pointing out that saying “oh but I bloat after eating x,y,z…” bloating is normal. Everyone bloats and gets gassy from time to time, another normal (ok, pretty disgusting) human function, it may not be coeliac disease or IBS so always go to the Dr instead of self-diagnosing.
These are just a few, there are many other labels, rules and restriction-based diets you’ve probably come across (cleanes/detoxes…all that crap) that create beliefs about what is right and wrong to eat.
Let’s get one thing straight, there is no right or wrong, no good or bad, no guilt, shame, or weakness, for feeding your body the food it wants and needs; this includes cake and pizza as well as kale and quinoa.
Following strict rules and restrictions as a way to control food intake, weight or shape is becoming the social norm. Not only this, but for those with a clinically diagnosed eating disorder it makes it a socially justifiable way to hide their disorder behind these labels.
You do not have to work for the food you eat; your body deserves food regardless of the exercise you have or have not done.
Pseudo-Dieting: The Diet-Mentality Trap
Overtime the more you adhere to these rules the more reinforced and habitual they become, to the point that even when you think you’re not following these beliefs they are still their dictating your choices; this is known as pseudo-dieting.
What is “Pseudo-Dieting”? Written about in Elyse Reich book “Intuitive Eating” , pseudo-dieting refers to the diet beliefs that we still hold on too, and that dictate your food choices, even when you don’t actively realise you’re dieting. It’s when what you say doesn’t add up to what you do. So you may believe you are not actively engrained in diet culture, but you actually are still allowing it to control you.
So this could be stuff like:
You only eat carbs on days you gym/are active
Still using calorie apps to count macros … can’t eat when hungry because an app that estimated your daily needs tells you so?!
Compensating for food eaten (e.g restricting, over exercising, laxatives)
Restricting food groups
Eating only “safe” foods
Following certain beliefs such as “carbs make you fat after 6pm” …news flash, your body doesn’t have some magic switch. It doesn’t know. It only knows that it’s hungry and needs nourishing.
Problems with this are:
❌ You to forget how to respond to normal physiological hunger, and cravings become a challenge you need to resist. This prevents you listening to your body, what it needs, and what it wants. Not honouring your hunger increases your chances of overeatinglater on in the evening, or at the weekends when your restriction and denial of food you want catches up with you; known as the “what the hell effect” – yes, those weekend binges are actually a well researched psychological phenomena, a normal physiological reaction to any diet that is restrictive or avoidant of certain foods or food groups.
❌ This then creates the experience of guilt when certain foods are eaten outside of these boundaries and beliefs. Stress and anxiety around food, or from eating certain foods, can cause bloating. Many people suddenly suffering from IBS and other gut related problems may just be a result of your body readjusting to your inconsistent feeding and stress about food messing with your usual digestion.
❌ Feeling bad and guilty about foods leads to body dissatisfaction, self blame and yo-yo dieting. Emotional eating as a result of this, or using food to increase your self-worth is disordered. There is an increase in disordered eating such as orthorexia, exercise-bulimia, or binge-purge anorexia as a result of many trying to control their emotions using food.
❌ It creates a viscous cycle; avoid/restrict, intense cravings and then over-eating causing you to further go back to restriction and avoidance. This reinforces your initial belief that you can’t control yourself around these foods. In hindsight if you just learnt to nourish your body properly you’d find you don’t always want to eat chocolate and when you do you don’t eat the whole bar because your body knows it will have it again sometime, that it’s not off limits.
So What’s The Solution?
Avoidance and restriction are commonly ways to gain control, avoid negative feelings associated with eating certain foods (promoted by diet culture) negative beliefs about your body. The fear of weight gain? Feeling out of control? Fear of over-eating?
What really needs to be addressed is the real reason behind the diet beliefs and behaviour.
It’s not simple.
These messages are everywhere. We are bombarded by diet culture wherever we look, sucked in by every penny the £2billiondiet industry throws at us.
Becoming more aware of the labels and associations we use around diet and body image is a step in the right direction to disconnecting from diet culture, and re-learning how to nourish your body, be healthy and embrace the skin you’re in!
It takes you practicing self-awarenessand reflection:
Where these beliefs come from?
What functionare they holding (control? self-esteem)?
What associations/beliefs are you still holding onto?
What foods don’t you allow yourself, that if you’re honest with yourself, you avoid?
Are there foods that you instantly feel guilty for when you eat?
Do you compensate for eating certain foods? (exercise more, use laxatives, restrict the next day…)
Are there foods you can only eat if you’ve exercised or tracked your calories/macros?
Ultimately, controlling food and weight is not the key to happiness.
You should never feel restricted by your diet, or need to use labels to justify your preferences.
Food should not be given the power to control how you feel toward yourself and your body, which is what diet terminology creates through its labels and subsequent associations.
You can be healthy, fit and happy at every size, and eating anything you want.
If this post resonates with you in any way, or you are interested in reading more about how to break free from diet culture, rebuilding your relationship with food and your body I recommend following up some of these links below:
Pixie Turner aka Plant Based Pixie. Nutritionist and food blogger. Informative, and says it like it is posts. Laura Thomas PhD Registered nutritionist with a fantastic podcast Evelyn Tribole: Intuitive Eating Link to her book on Amazon, outlining the principles of intuitive eating: building healthy body image and making peace with food Louise Jones Nutrition student and writer, recommend her post on Intuitive Eating and Why Flexible Dieting is a Fad Megan Jayne Crabbe aka BodyPosiPanda all centred around body positivity and non-diet approach