Find peace with food and overcome disordered eating.
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Overcome disordered eating and find peace with food
by Victoria Stockwell on October 11th, 2020


In the BBC One documentary ‘Living with Bulimia,’ former England Cricket Captain Andrew ‘Freddie’ Flintoff speaks openly for the first time about his 20 year struggle with the eating disorder bulimia nervosa. In the programme, he gives an honest account of his experiences with body dysmorphia, self-induced vomiting and compulsive exercise, which began during his cricketing career when his weight came under scrutiny from the British media.

Today 1.5million people in the UK are reported to have bulimia, 25% of which are men. The actual number of male sufferers, however, is likely to be much higher: a 2007 study suggests that it is closer to 40%.[1]

 The reason why this condition often goes unreported is owing to sex-related stigma. Eating disorders are often considered to be female illnesses, meaning that only 10% of men pursue treatment. Flintoff himself was prevented from disclosing his bulimia owing to his dietician’s discriminatory attitude towards men and eating disorders.

 Until being interviewed for this documentary, Flintoff kept his eating disorder secret for 2 decades. Ashamed of his condition, he still finds it difficult to even say the word, ‘bulimia.’ Instead, he refers to it as ‘being sick’.

 The secrecy and shame associated with bulimia gave him the sense of having a duel identity. Publicly, Freddie Flintoff is a famous TV presenter and international sportsperson; but privately, he suffers from such low self-esteem that he is compelled to vomit after every meal.

 When he began his sporting career age 16, Flintoff had what he describes as a ‘skinny’ physique.[2] At this time he became aware of the difference between his own teenage body and those of his teammates, who, in comparison, were more muscular.

 Over the next few years, Flintoff consequently attempted to increase his size in order to have ‘more presence’.[3] Yet, he was not fully aware of how much weight he had gained until his appearance caught the attention of the British press who christened him ‘The Fat Cricketer.’ It was this weight shaming that was the trigger for his 20 year long struggle with bulimia.

 By shaming Flintoff for his weight gain, the media reinforced the idea that a professional sportsperson should have a certain type of body, i.e. lean and athletic. Because he did not accord with their aesthetic ideal, Flintoff was publicly humiliated.

 This type of discrimination has been documented as posing a significant threat to psychological and physical health; and is also a risk factor for depression, low self-esteem, and body dissatisfaction.[4]

 As in Flintoff’s case, it is often weight stigma that causes eating disorders. It was only after the press commented on his appearance that he became concerned about his size. Constantly under the scrutiny of the public eye and known as ‘Fat Flintoff’, Freddie consequently began engaging in destructive behaviours in order to lose weight, making himself sick after every meal.

 This behaviour was reinforced by a subsequent improvement in his cricket performance and positive attention from the previously critical British media. This, therefore, confirmed his idea that a trimmer physique was his ticket to increased sporting performance and social approval.
 
Flintoff also admits that he derived a ‘perverse’ enjoyment from the act of purging itself. He describes it as being addictive, a descriptor commonly used by patients with bulimia since purging activates the opioid (or addictive) part of the brain.[5] For many individuals, being sick often provides feelings of comfort, euphoria or instant relief, which makes it difficult to stop.[6] 

 Although Flintoff states that he currently has his vomiting under control, he still purges via excessive exercise by carrying out an hour of fasted cardio every morning, becoming anxious if he is unable to train.

 Amongst male athletes like Flintoff, purging can lead to serious outcomes that may affect their particular sport. These include ‘increased susceptibility to injury, inconsistent performance, problematic recovery [and] muscle deficiencies.’[7] 

 Although his eating disorder is now functional, in addition to carrying out compulsive exercise, he still experiences guilt and an urge to make himself sick after eating.

 Despite these symptoms, however, Flintoff questions whether he is in need of treatment. His claims that he is in control of his eating disorder and can stop whenever he wants, however, are inconsistent with his previous comments that he feels out of control and isn’t able to stop.

 Despite bulimia’s medical diagnosis, Flintoff continues to perceive the condition, not as an illness, but part of who he is. It is perhaps owing to his strong identification with his eating disorder that he has not yet made a full recovery. Believing that it is an inherent aspect of his personality means that he will not be open to change.

 Flintoff’s reluctance to seek help also seems to be driven by the fear of renouncing his purging behaviours since, as he states, ‘gaining weight would be [his] worst nightmare’.[8] Yet, this help can be vital, since ‘almost half of all people with bulimia will not recover without treatment’.[9]
 
 The importance of Freddie Flintoff sharing his story is that not only is it a stepping stone towards his own recovery; but it will also help to break the stigma surrounding gender stereotypes and eating disorders, and encourage more men to seek the help that they need.

You can listen to Victoria's podcast HERE
 
     
   [1] https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/blog/males-dont-present-females-eating-disorders
   [2] Freddie Flintoff: Living With Bulimia, BBC Television, 28 Sep 2020
   [3] Freddie Flintoff: Living With Bulimia, BBC Television, 28 Sep 2020
   [4] Andreyeva, T., Puhl, R. M. and Brownell, K. D. (2008), Changes in Perceived Weight Discrimination Among Americans, 1995–1996 Through 2004–2006. Obesity, 16: 1129–1134. doi:10.1038/oby.2008.35
   [5] https://eating-disorders.org.uk/information/bulimia-nervosa-a-contemporary-analysis/
   [6] https://mirror-mirror.org/eating-disorders-2-2/bulimia-nervosa
   [7] https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1941738120928991
   [8] Freddie Flintoff: Living With Bulimia, BBC Television, 28 Sep 2020
   [9] https://eating-disorders.org.uk/information/bulimia-nervosa-a-contemporary-analysis/


by Harriet Frew on September 29th, 2020

Read article at the Counselling Directory.

by Harriet Frew on September 29th, 2020

Read article at the Counselling Directory.

by Emma on August 17th, 2020

By Emma 
We hear a lot about how controlling weight and eating can be motivated by the desire to appease a general sense of not being good enough, to meet an ideal standard or to find a way of feeling in control. There is still a stereotypical image of the person with anorexia as white, middle class, intelligent and female. What we still don’t talk about much in any meaningful way, is the link between eating disorders and trauma.

At around the time I developed anorexia I was living in an environment of unpredictable threat, frequently finding myself in a hypervigilant, anxious state. I had no frame of reference from which to make sense of my experiences, didn’t trust my own perceptions and had no one who was able to consistently reflect my feelings back to me. Despite this, I had some protective relationships, my sister and I were able to validate one another, I did well at school and was able to use this to find a way through.

When we do not feel safe, it is quite natural to find ways of creating a sense of safety. Often these ways of coping can be creative, necessary and useful at the time they develop. This is important, as we often see eating disordered behaviours as only undesirable, not understanding the function they may serve for someone. Personally, the strategies I developed worked quite well in the original environment I found myself in. They included striving as hard as possible to get things ‘right’, trying not to bother anyone (‘I don’t need anything’) and exerting as much control over my body as possible in the form of weight loss. These strategies allowed me to feel a sense of mastery in at least one area.

Within a CFT model this can be seen as the ‘drive’ and achieving system being overdeveloped and being used as a way to try to regulate the ‘threat’ system. I definitely found the ‘easy win’ of restriction self reinforcing, but I also think it became a way of desperately communicating that I was ‘not ok’ without having to actually say words. It wasn’t very effective, but it was all I had at the time. I don’t think people develop eating disorders deliberately and I definitely think that once that mindset has a grip it can feel extremely difficult to untangle yourself without help. I didn’t have help and so I became quite stuck, and my eating disorder became the ‘problem’ that was visible. In some ways anorexia began to silence me, just as  the situation I found myself in did.

Thanks to a number of protective relationships, I also functioned highly in a range of ways (I worked, developed friendships and romantic relationships). This was obviously helpful but it also meant that when I did become aware of the existence of eating disorder services I didn’t realise that help was available for people like me, who ‘functioned’ but underneath really struggled, and therefore my anorexia kept a grip to varying degrees for quite a long time.

One of the themes that drove my eating disorder was being quite cut off from the awareness of my own needs. At a relatively young age I had needed to become quite self sufficient, and cope alone. Consequently I felt guilty for desiring normal amounts of attention, frequently felt ‘too much’, and felt bad for wanting help or enjoying the feeling of someone being kind. Underneath my emotional experience had become quite constricted and I probably seemed quite shut down to people who knew me. It is difficult to acknowledge that (even with the best of intentions) you have been left to face unmanageable things and so it can be easier to decide that you don’t need anything at all. If we have experienced trauma that involves bodily violation (whether through violence or other forms of abuse) we can also develop intense discomfort in our body, and restricting or other eating disordered behaviours can be a way of managing this.

In hindsight my commitment to weight loss felt like a furious rejection of a whole range of needs and a desperate attempt to be ok on my own. Of course this doesn’t work very well because we exist in relationship to others and the need to feel seen and connected to people who care about us and are able to tolerate all the different parts of us is one of the most fundamental aspects of being a human.

What I now see is that anorexia creates a very fragile veneer of order, control, predictability. It keeps a person in a state of being tightly constricted. If this continues for long enough you probably don’t even realise you are in this state. It becomes normal. The problem with this strategy over the long term is that it can leave us very disconnected and cut off from both our emotions and our body, and so increasingly unaware of what we actually need. And so restriction, denial and a sense of not being allowed a whole range of normal things can become a relentless, self perpetuating cycle. It stops us from seeing in colour and it prevents us from processing. Recovery can involve getting back in touch with feelings we shut down early on in the development of our eating disorder and this can be difficult as it can feel like our worst fears about weight restoration are really happening.

Recovery for me has involved working not only on the behavioural aspects of regulating eating, interrupting compulsive exercise habits, restoring weight, it has also involved working on the emotional and relational aspects of my experiences. This can take time (years ago I struggled to verbally name feelings even though I was able to identify them). It has also involved a process of ‘opening up’ within my personal relationships as well as within therapy. Some relationships have been hugely significant in my recovery not only from anorexia but also from all the other difficult stuff that became reactivated through the process of restoring weight. There is something very powerful about receiving kindness, being listened to, validated, given time and space and understanding. I think it is important to say that opening up to the right people at the right time is also important, and sometimes this is tricky to gauge, especially at first. You do not owe everyone your story.

If anorexia involves keeping things very structured and controlled, it can be the case that we want to recover in a neat, tidy, linear way, too, but I have never seen a true recovery that looks like that. Recovery, at least for me, required beginning to engage with things that felt very messy, and finding ways to begin to navigate what I discovered as skillfully as possible. I used to say that I felt ‘reckless’ with food when I allowed myself something different or less ‘safe’. But when you are very stuck in a restricted place, being ‘a bit reckless’ can simply meant moving closer towards the middle, towards an appropriate amount of ‘allowing’ and ‘indulgence’. I think we can apply this to emotions too. To get unstuck sometimes we need to do things that feel utterly unfamiliar or reckless, or approach experiences that feel quite terrifying. We do not have to do to ourselves what was done to us. If you have been very squashed down or dismissed, moving towards a place of allowing yourself things or using your voice can feel like a big risk. It can also feel unnerving to suddenly become aware of feeling ‘needy’ or wanting closeness to others if this is not your usual state. This is another reason that it is difficult to navigate recovery alone.

We need the right people around us, who can help us to weigh up what ‘recklessness’ really looks like and who can tolerate the process alongside us. So reconnecting to the parts of ourselves we have lost touch with or become disconnected from can be challenging. I have found compassionate mind training helpful in beginning to reconnect with my ‘compassionate self’ and use this part of me to encourage myself to gently approach difficult feelings rather than avoid them.

So recovery isn’t always about fixing what is wrong with us. Sometimes it is also about exploring what happened to us. It can involve beginning to allow yourself to use the voice you already have but have become quite disconnected from. This may not always be comfortable. Social structures can silence us as well as internal beliefs and fears. It requires genuine courage to get in touch with the parts of ourselves that have been silent for too long. So developing trust with someone, ideally a number of people is important. Sitting with painful things with someone who can tolerate all the different aspects of you is important. Words and naming things can feel important.

We can use art, writing, or political action or whatever works. Responding to our needs can also involve setting our own boundaries, both internally and externally. Developing a sense of social responsibility and connection can feel important. Trauma can of course be collective as well as individual and understanding how our individual experiences fit within a wider social narrative can be a turning point. So the work of recovery is not only about food and weight, it is also often about imperfectly, messily finding a way towards a warmer, kinder, more nurturing relationship with ourselves and others.

by Victoria Stockwell on August 7th, 2020

By Victoria Stockwell - The Hungry Girl Podcast

In October 2014, I achieved the award that marked the pinnacle of my fitness competition career: the coveted Bikini Model Pro Card. Onstage, smiling for the winner’s photographs, I appeared the epitome of health and fitness. But, in reality, I was suffering from serious physical and mental damage.

I have had a disordered relationship with food since the age of 11 when I developed anorexia. Over the years, I have also suffered from bulimia, body dysmorphia and binge eating. When I was in my late 20s, entering the world of physique competitions triggered a major relapse into these destructive patterns of eating.
 
Fitness competitions are a misnomer. The irony of these events lies in the very title itself: fitness is not necessarily synonymous with health. I was a fitness model, yet I was far from fit. I ignored my body’s appeals for food and rest, instead rigidly adhering to a punishing diet and training regime that I hoped would make me muscular and lean.

This strict plan means that most competitors become disconnected from their bodies and what they truly need. Unsurprisingly, therefore, in the fitness world disordered eating is extremely common. Female athletes have the same risk factors as women in the general population, supplemented by the additional risk factor of reducing their body fat to dangerously low levels.

Body fat is decreased during the final stage of competition preparation, which is masochistically known as ‘cutting’. This typically begins eight to twelve weeks prior to a show, depending on the amount of fat that must be lost in order to create a winning physique.

This process increases the female competitor’s susceptibility to three inter-related disorders, known as the Female Athlete Triad. The components of the triad are osteoporosis, amenorrhea and disordered eating.

Osteoporosis occurs because limiting calorie intake leads to a decreased production of the hormone oestrogen. Since oestrogen plays a crucial role in calcium resorption and bone growth, reduced levels can lead to brittle bones. Even though I was following an extremely restrictive diet, I naively thought that any damage would be offset by my strength training which typically increases bone density. After competing, however, I was sent for a DEXA scan, which revealed my bone density to be borderline abnormal.

Not only does a low level of oestrogen lead to weak bones, it also causes menstrual dysfunction where the cycle can be delayed, or can stop altogether (amenorrhea). Owing to my restrictive eating habit, I have lost my period on numerous occasions over the years. When I experienced amenorrhea during competition preparation, however, this was the last occasion before I learned that I was infertile. Three very costly and emotionally traumatic IVF cycles later, and I am still waiting for my miracle baby.

While osteoporosis and amenorrhea are widely experienced by female athletes, the most common aspect of the triad is disordered eating. This includes extreme calorie restriction, binge eating, and purging via excessive exercise or self-induced vomiting. These abnormal patterns of behaviour are caused by the competitor’s strict diet.
 
My own insubstantial food plan exacerbated my pre-existing patterns of disorderly eating. I was so hungry that I couldn’t keep any ‘forbidden’ food items in the house since I had moments of ‘weakness’, where I would ‘give in’ and binge. A teaspoon of peanut butter could easily become a whole jar.

I unsuccessfully attempted to alleviate my troublesome appetite by drinking litres cherry Pepsi max and chewing sugar free gum. The Pepsi, however, gave me headaches and heart palpitations; and I chewed so much gum that I eventually wore away my teeth and had to have the bottom ones filled.

Hunger increases during the final weeks of preparation, when carbohydrates are drastically decreased in order to boost fat loss. Reducing carbohydrates to less than 20g per day releases ketones which the body can then use as fuel. This process produces various side effects, however, including nausea, headaches and fatigue.

In order to avoid these undesirable symptoms, competitors typically cycle carbohydrates. This involves enduring several consecutive low carbohydrate days, followed by a high carbohydrate ‘refeed’ day to aid metabolism and ensure continual fat loss. I didn’t know at the time, but this established a pattern of eating which would later turn into a vicious cycle of binging and restriction.

In the end, all my hard work paid off. I won. And I got my pro card. But was it worth it? On show day, the audience admire and applaud your physique. But they don’t see behind the curtain. They don’t see what it takes to be that woman holding the trophy. And they don’t see what happens afterwards.

Stepping off stage was the beginning of a relapse into my most serious and dangerous anorexic phase to date.

I was so terrified of losing my stage physique that I continued to restrict my calorie intake over the next couple of years. I lost body fat, and I also lost the muscle that I worked so hard to gain. My body literally ate itself. My glutes, the prize aspect of every bikini competitor, became saggy and deflated. My coccyx was so bony that I had to sit on a cushion. I was constantly cold from the inside out and handfuls of my hair fell out in the shower. I couldn’t go to the gym; I couldn’t even walk 10 minutes to the shop without feeling faint.

Eventually, my internal organs began to shut down and my hormones stopped functioning. I developed bradycardia because the muscles in my heart had shrunk.

I lost over 2 stone before I was admitted into an eating disorders hospital, where I spent 18 months as an outpatient. I was emaciated and mentally broken, a shadow of the woman who triumphantly raised the winning trophy.

In my experience, having your dream body does not make your life better. For me, it did exactly the opposite.

Whether you are preparing for a fitness competition, or just trying to manipulate your body through diet and exercise, I hope this has brought attention to the physical and emotional damage that can be caused by valuing aesthetics over your mental health.

I am now working towards food freedom and body acceptance. I still have my competition bikini as a memento, but its time in the spotlight is over and it is resolutely HUNG UP.





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