Eating and body concerns refer to problems with controlling eating – eating too little or too much – and worries about how one looks, or weight, shape, or size. Unhealthy attempts to control or change body weight, shape, or size are also part of eating and body concerns. These concerns affect all types of people. These include males and females and other gender, and people who are young, middle-aged, and older. People who are of different shapes and sizes can also be affected, including people who live in very large bodies or very small bodies, and people from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds.
The types of eating and body concerns that people have vary and the reasons these problems happen are complex and different for different people. What doesn’t vary is that eating and body concerns cause serious harm and distress.
Sometimes, harmful and distressing behaviours, like severe dieting and eating restriction, sudden weight loss, and compulsive exercise, are praised or admired by other people. All the while the person doing these things is suffering on the inside. This can be confusing. It makes it difficult to tell which behaviours are problematic, which behaviours are about trying to be healthy, and whether help should be sought for them. Even if the people around you do not understand that eating and body concerns are harmful and distressing, health professionals do and are available to help.
PEOPLE WITH EATING AND BODY CONCERNS MAY LOOK HEALTHY, BUT ARE ACTUALLY UNWELL AND IN GREAT DISTRESS
Problems with eating can mean different things for different people. They may be about eating too much, eating too little, or moving away from conventional eating and using supplements or meal replacements. People also commonly report worries about eating. These are things like feeling guilty about eating or worrying a lot about needing to be in control of eating.
You may receive mixed messages about eating. On the one hand, watching what you eat and being on a diet may be seen as healthy, or even the ‘right’ thing to do. You may get compliments for how well you can “resist” eating while others may not notice how much distress your attempts to control your eating causes. But we know that dieting often, and continually, to try to control or change weight can become a big problem.
People who go on diets that have strict rules and no flexibility with their eating are more likely to go on and develop eating problems. Strict rules and extreme behaviours, like skipping meals or fasting, increase focus on food and can create anxiety about food and eating. It may come to feel as though food and eating controls their life. Dieting often leads people to feel guilty, as though they have “failed” for not being able to stick to impossibly strict diet rules. Diets may also lead to people missing out on important nutrients.
Dieting for weight loss is ineffective. Although people lose some weight from dieting, most or all of the weight lost is regained over time.
When people try to control their eating it can lead to overeating or binge eating (eating an unusually large amount of food in a short period of time and feeling out of control). This can cause a great deal of distress, and often also embarrassment or shame. People can find themselves stuck in a pattern of moving back and forth between trying to control eating and binge eating.
Overeating or binge eating can also happen when people feel anxious, sad, or upset. Although eating can bring some relief from distressing feelings, it is almost always short-lived and people often end up feeling worse afterwards.
Binge eating is the most common eating problem. Five per cent of Australians report that they binge eat. But, it is sometimes dismissed as just being about lack of willpower and is not taken as seriously as it should be. This is not appropriate. Binge eating is a serious health problem that needs professional treatment. Effective treatment options are available. Health professionals are much better equipped to help with binge eating than they were before.
People also notice problems with eating when they move away from regular eating patterns. This includes using meal replacements or supplements instead of eating regular meals. People can become reliant on meal replacements and supplements and may feel anxious or guilty about eating regular meals. They often miss out on key nutrients. Worries about not being able to use meal replacements or supplements on social occasions can also interfere with getting together with friends and family.
Eating and body concerns only affect young girls and women.
Body image refers to how people think and feel about their body, including their weight, shape and size. Body image can be positive, like feeling happy or confident about one’s body. Body image can also be negative or neutral. People may have a mixture of positive and negative feelings about their body.
Negative body image may be a low level of discontent with appearance or it may be more severe. Some people describe loathing their body or feeling ashamed about weight, shape or size. Body dissatisfaction is expressed in different ways. Some people feel distraught about being too big; others about being too small. Some people feel really distressed or embarrassed about specific features of their appearance, like the shape of their nose, the size of their muscles, or the size and shape of different body parts.
Even if other people say that you look terrific and have nothing to worry about, it doesn’t make your experiences of body dissatisfaction any less real. What matters is how you feel, not what others say about you look.
Body dissatisfaction is not about vanity. It is a genuine problem that causes intense distress and fear about not being able to control one’s weight or shape. This is especially the case when people find that their self-worth is strongly influenced by how they feel about their body weight, shape, or size. Sometimes people worry that if they reveal their true body image concerns that others might react badly and judge them for being vain. Although this is unlikely to happen, if it did, it would reflect a lack of understanding.
When people have eating and body concerns they sometimes use extreme behaviours to try and control their eating, their weight or how they look. These behaviours include making oneself sick (vomiting), taking laxatives or diuretics, diet pills or supplements for weight gain or weight loss, steroid use, and compulsive exercise. Some of these behaviours are clearly cause for worry, but others might be seen as normal or okay to do. It is important to recognise that they can all cause serious health problems. If you have noticed that you are feeling anxious about the need to control your eating or control your body and you are using any of these extreme behaviours to help feel more in control, or less anxious, it is a sign that you probably need some extra support for your eating and body concerns.
It can also be difficult to get the exercise balance just right. Exercise is of course known to be good for health. However, when people have eating and body concerns, the way they exercise can become unhealthy. This occurs when the focus for exercise is entirely on changing or controlling weight, shape or size, when feelings of guilt for missing exercise are present, or when people keep exercising even when they are ill or injured. If this is the case for you, seek some help so that exercise can find a more balanced place in your life.