VICTORIA WHITE: Shared family meals are crucial in tackling scourge of eating disorders

Eating disorders are not about food, of course. They are misguided attempts to control a frightening and chaotic world, writes Victoria White.

WHENEVER I hear of a young person with an eating disorder I feel a protective rage. I suppose I’m still trying to protect myself as a kid because I was anorexic between the ages of 16 and 18.

I was stick-thin and my hands and feet were often blue. My nails were frail, my skin was bad and I was a chronic insomniac. Every last symptom has gone, friends. Eighty percent of anorexics — 77% of bulimics — recover from their illness, and I am one of the lucky ones.

I recovered spontaneously, with no medical input, as will be the case with a percentage of milder anorexics. This was just as well as no-one noticed that I was barely eating and to get into hospital I would have had to collapse and be brought to A&E.

That would have been virtually pointless, as people suffering from chronic eating disorders require urgent, specialist medical and psychological intervention.

This week, which is Eating Disorders Awareness Week, the spotlight has shone on the shocking lack of resources going to eating disorder sufferers, with a wait of six months to a year for admission to hospital for some sufferers.

There is no time to lose while these mostly young people starve their beautiful bodies of the nourishment they need and deserve. I’ve highlighted the 80% who recover from anorexia. That leaves 20% who don’t. The mortality rate from chronic eating disorders is among the highest for any psychiatric illness. Eating disorders are not about food, of course. They are misguided attempts to control a frightening and chaotic world.

Food is merely the weapon the sufferer takes up against a terrifying and confusing existence.

Beating these illnesses in the kids who have them is going to require a completely new level of resourcing from our health services. But beating down the incidence of these illnesses in our society is really the big issue.

No one talks about this because it requires changing the culture of competition, individualism and perfectionism in which young people are schooled.

That would be nothing short of a revolution. Meanwhile we must campaign to de-commission food as a defence for young people against the forces which threaten them.

This is not to imply that the families struck down by this awful illness have not done this. Eating disorders are the work of an entire society. While our best efforts might not spare our own children, they might spare someone else’s.

When I had kids it was my strong instinct to insist on social eating and shared eating.

Whenever my late mother came to tea she’d start this “One for Mummy” bit, seemingly unable to see that she was teaching my kids to over-ride their natural appetites.

Things got hot and heavy. She had, in my opinion, lived her life in the shadow of an eating disorder which she had passed on to me. “What weight are you?” she used to ask me. I remember the calm triumph I felt the day I responded that I didn’t know what weight I was, but I did know I loved my food, I loved my life and I looked great.

I was determined to break the cycle, but the danger still lurks now my kids are teens.

Shared family meals are crucial in tackling scourge of eating disorders

I still insist on social eating and shared food.

I don’t do food as “protein” or “carbs” or “calories”. I certainly don’t do “clean” food because there is no food that is “unclean”. I don’t even do teen vegetarianism. This is controversial because a diet without meat can be very healthy and is definitely best for the environment.

But I believe it is bad for the psychological health of a young person not to share the food of the family.

Research reported in Time magazine has in fact shown that teen vegetarianism is very often a food disorder disguised as a healthy choice: the most common reason American teens gave for being vegetarians was to lose weight.

There were four times as many binge eaters among teen veggies than among their meat-eating peers. More than double the number of teen veggies used extreme methods to lose weight, such as taking diet pills and laxatives, than did their meat-eating peers.

Vegetarianism was probably not the food choice of these young people’s families which meant they risked being isolated at the family table. That’s a very big issue.

Sharing food is so important to human culture that it’s central to most major religions.

Refusing the food of the house is a gross insult in most traditional cultures — cultures in which food disorders are far less common. It’s just bad manners not to eat what you are offered unless on genuine health grounds.

I have seen adult vegetarians I respect, who have profound moral grounds for their food choices, eat meat when it is the only choice offered to them in company.

Together we must fight the marketing which turns food into an individual choice and a badge of identity. It must be shared to be healthy. There are no “super foods”. There are no dangerous foods, either. I would not even give sugar that satisfaction, despite the blandishments of some TV nutritionists. Food is just food.

It’s interesting that Bodywhys, which works with the victims of eating disorders, runs a programme which aims to re-establish a young person’s healthy weight within the context of family meals. Blame is not part of the game. Individual families can make excellent food choices for their kids and still face the gut-wrenching horror of watching their kid starve herself.

They are fighting billions of euro worth of marketing which portrays food as an individual choice, not a community choice. We need to demand the return of our kids’ food to the family table. Extensive research in the US has shown kids who eat family meals have fewer mental health issues and do better at school.

Mammies and Daddies need time to shop for food and prepare it. Kids need to learn to cook and eat communally in school from earliest childhood.

I

N THE 1970s the primary school day in Ireland was squashed to facilitate teachers and it virtually eliminated lunch-time. This is a national disgrace.

GIY’s “Eat Together” programme at schools in Waterford, which has primary kids sitting down to a two-course lunch once a week for six weeks, is blazing
a trail. But how pathetic is it that the State was not there before them?

I hate to sound like a zealot, but remember, I’m a recovered addict. I think we must fight for our kids against the market which would break the communal table and send each teen to his or her room with a “super food”.

This is behaviour which could end up killing them. The market won’t cry but we will.

Phone Bodywhys on 1890 200444 for advice on eating disorders. The charity is running free workshops for parents and families of sufferers in Limerick and Tipperary on March 8, email alex@bodywhys.ie

For information on GIY’s Eat
Together programme for schools
contact ursula@giy.ie

Eating disorders are not about food, of course. They are misguided attempts to control a frightening and chaotic world


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