Wednesday 20 March 2019

Niamh Horan: When 'clean eating' habits become an eating disorder

Harriet Parsons of the Irish Eating Disorder Association, Bodywhys. Photo: David Conachy
Harriet Parsons of the Irish Eating Disorder Association, Bodywhys. Photo: David Conachy
Niamh Horan

Niamh Horan

'Clean eating' has become the go-to diet in the age of perfection, driven by models and bloggers on social media.

But at what point does healthy eating cross into the realm of an eating disorder?

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As Eating Disorder Awareness Week begins across Ireland from tomorrow, the Irish Eating Disorder Association, Bodywhys, has pinpointed the warning sign that signals if a diet has transgressed into something more sinister.

Speaking to the Sunday Independent, Harriet Parsons, a psychotherapist and training manager for Bodywhys, explained: "It can help to think of disordered eating on a spectrum. At one end of the spectrum, you have 'normal disordered eating'. We call this 'normal disordered eating' because we can all relate to this. We all have disordered eating in that how we feel and our mood always effects how we feed ourselves. Nobody eats the same every day.

"Then, on the other end of the spectrum, you have eating disorders. Where your behaviour around food crosses the line from one end to the other is where the compulsion comes in.

"So if a person feels they have no choice but to partake in a certain behaviour around food or else they won't cope, or will feel anxious, or out of control, or their day or life will be ruined, that's when you get into the territory of an eating disorder."

Describing clean eating as the "socially acceptable" face of eating disorders in some instances, Harriet says: "If it is something compulsive for the person - they feel they literally can't eat any other kind of food, whether it's processed or from a packet for example - then it's something that needs to be looked at.

"I always give the example of being stuck in an airport for 24 hours and the only option there is a vending machine. If someone would starve rather than eat from that vending machine, then there could be a problem."

Harriet was speaking ahead of the launch of a report of the evaluation of the Bodywhys Pilar family programme by UCD, funded by the HSE national clinical programme for eating disorders.

The association has been running the Pilar family programme to support families and friends of people with eating disorders since 2014. The four-week programme is free to attend and open to all, and enables people who know someone with an eating disorder to learn about the condition and gain skills for managing the challenges of supporting a person with an eating disorder.

Taking place in 23 locations around the country, including Galway, Sligo, Clonmel, Athlone, Cork, Tralee and Mayo, the ages of the person with the eating disorder was broken down as 2pc under the age of 10, 19pc aged between 11 and 15, 35pc aged 16-18, 26pc aged 18-25, 12pc aged between 25 and 35, and 6pc over the age of 35.

As Harriet explained: "One of the things people don't really get is how difficult it is for someone with an eating disorder to let go of it. The eating disorder side of a person's head is not going to want to listen to other people's concerns or comments and the person will resist attempts to help them.

"Remember, the way they eat is their way of coping, so resistance is to be expected. People find it difficult to understand the 'all or nothing' mentality of the person. They feel that, if they make one change, they'll have completely lost all control."

She added: "Everyone gets caught up in the food and what the person is eating but if the family could just take a step back for a moment and look at how the person is feeling, the situation can start to slowly improve".

Information about family programmes is on bodywhys.ie. Upcoming meetings will be held in Laois, Mullingar, Dublin and Limerick.

Sunday Independent

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