Resolution Season

With New Year’s right around the corner many a resolution is being made, oftentimes centering on weight loss and fitness (Statista, 2017). The season of celebration that marks the end of one year is closely followed by the season of new beginnings and the harmful idea of redemption from holiday indulgences. While there is certainly nothing wrong with the idea of self-improvement and personal progress (although there is an interesting article published in the New Yorker in 2018 regarding how helpful the idea of improving ourselves to death is), it is also important to reflect on and deconstruct some of the stereotypes and cultural values that pervade our collective conversation at this time of year.

Empowerment and the idea of working towards positive change in our lives and ourselves seems great in healthy doses, but it’s important to keep in mind that we can begin again every moment of every day, not just once a year.

This idea that there can be new beginnings each moment we decide to begin anew is certainly easier said than done; unfortunately it is all too easy to fall into the trap of black-and-white thinking, especially for those with eating disorders and its common companion, perfectionism. Black-and-white thinking can often lead us into the all-or-nothing trap, wherein if I make a “mistake” then everything is ruined and I might as well go all out. It’s important to critically think about and deconstruct what we are classifying as a “mistake” and where those ideas come from, whether they are our own, our culture’s, and most importantly, whether they reflect things we actually value. In this example let’s go with the typical New Year’s resolution - weight loss, changing one’s body as a means to pursue success, happiness, etc. So when I make a “mistake” in this case I am seeing a mistake as “falling off the wagon” or essentially not restricting myself and my body. In this circumstance, all-or-nothing thinking kicks in to tell us that we must berate ourselves for “failing” and tells us that if we’re already “failing” we might as well go all out before we have to “get back on track.” This restrictive mindset leads people into a cycle of feast and famine which unsettles the body’s normal, intuitive rhythms.

This is where dieting can (in some cases) start to mimic and/or lead to an eating disorder. Eating disorders are much more complex than body image pressures, diet culture, and exposure to thinness as an ideal, but these things certainly contribute to eating disorders as well. In my discussion of behaviours here, I want to note that I am approaching the topic more from a diet culture perspective which includes, but doesn’t speak to the entirety and severity of an eating disorder. These are related issues, but again, eating disorders can also stem from much more complicated issues than diet culture by itself (although it does contribute).

At its core, the binge-restrict-(purge) cycle is fueled by shame and our collective idea that self-control is the marker of a virtuous character. The often-cited Stanford marshmallow studies conducted in the 1960s and 1970s by Walter Mischel and colleagues was first thought to show that children who could delay gratification (or demonstrate self-control) early on in life did better on SAT scores, educational attainment, and other life measures generally considered to indicate a better life outcome. Years later and the conclusion first drawn from this study has been shown to be inaccurate, but that is not what is generally remembered about this experiment. Later studies by Mischel found that simple re-framing of the situation for a child had a more significant impact on outcomes (more on the topic of re-framing and personality is explored in a really excellent episode of Invisibilia, the podcast).

The truth about the binge-restrict-(sometimes purge) cycle is that our bodies are very good at (and very determined to) protect us. If you restrict yourself, you will more than likely end up overeating or potentially bingeing. There is no inherent shame in that, no personal failure, or reflection of poor character, it’s just biology and the magnificent resilience of our bodies fighting to survive.

Bingeing of course (as an eating disorder behaviour) can serve an entirely different and much more complicated purpose than just being a reaction to deprivation. In itself it can be a coping mechanism that serves various purposes (whether comfort, causing physical distress the individual can focus on over their emotional distress, or alterations to appearance to cope with body image, sexuality, and trauma related issues, etc.)

Shame however is quite marketable for weight loss and fitness companies and they make good use of it. New Year’s is perhaps one of the most popular advertisement times for new fad diets, gyms, new workout routines, new weight loss supplements, and the like. There are even new regimes, diets, workouts, self-help, change-your-body-change-your-life content that criticizes the traditional regimes, diets, workouts, self-help-change-your-body-change-your-life content, promising to be more real than their previous versions. In reality, they are the same thing, just delivered in a slightly novel way.

Every year various public figures get in front of the camera to vouch for different companies (Jenny Craig, Weight Watchers, etc.) Every year we see people like Oprah proclaiming she has struggled with her weight, but finally found the solution. Despite every other success in her life, she is still measuring herself in pounds instead of personal achievements, experiences, family, and friends, contributions to society. That is a powerful message that we are bombarded with to an extreme at this time of year and it becomes the norm for us, but that doesn’t mean it has to be.

A couple years old, but check out this commentary by Melissa Perry RE: Oprah’s New Weight Loss Ad.

People often misinterpret an anti-diet stance as promoting obesity and everything we connect to it (i.e. laziness, poor moral character, unhealthiness, etc.) whether or not these things are truly correlated to weight . Rather, Health At Every Size is a weight-inclusive approach to healthcare, with a focus on behaviour change rather than body change. If the behaviour change results in weight change, that is beside the point. Weight never determines a person’s worth and the thing is, diets don’t work, that is what the research tells us. In fact, diet culture and weight stigma can even be harmful to people’s health, a topic explored in depth in Christy Harrison’s FoodPsych podcast. If a doctor prescribed a costly and potentially harmful medication that didn’t work, it would be an ethical violation. If a store sold a costly and potentially harmful product to customers in any other circumstance, it would be an ethical violation. Why is the recommendation of dieting any different?

This viewpoint may represent an extreme that is uncomfortable for many people and that’s okay, it’s simply something to think about, to remember that there are alternate ways of thinking and being and that just because something is the norm in our society does not mean it has to be (or that it’s necessarily for the best).

There are so many more important things to focus on in life besides weight and if you’re going to set a resolution for the new year, why not set a different kind of goal for this year? One that reflects your own values, not the ones you are told you are supposed to have by our culture. Why not measure ourselves, this year that’s just passed, and this year ahead of us in different ways? What are other aspects of “health” and life that matter to us?

Whether New Year’s is an important celebration for you or just another day. I wish you the best as we head into 2019.

-S. Ritchey


Navigating the Holidays

This blog post, written by one of our members, was originally featured on Beating Eating Disorders in 2016. Check out the original post and the Beating Eating Disorders website here.

The holiday season presents a challenging time of year for those struggling with eating disorders. It is an occasion that highlights the isolation that goes hand-in-hand with eating disorders as social occasions tend to revolve around food. For anyone struggling this brings up stress that cannot easily be imagined by those who have not had the experience of living with an eating disorder. It is not just a question of food, but how to be with people in a way that feels safe for you (the person that is struggling) as well as the people in your life you are trying to engage with who do not always know how best to help. Family and friends and history and conflict bring about stresses of their own. Fear of judgement, concern, questions, and attention make the holiday season a stressful time even if some of these things are well-intentioned.

Navigating such times depends on where you are at in your recovery and what you are willing to challenge yourself with. That said, it is important to try your best to remember what your values are because sometimes we can get lost in our eating disorder’s values. In a year, or five years, or ten years’ time will you remember what you ate or did not eat on this day at that time? Probably not. What you will remember is whether you were alone yet again, un-engaged, punishing yourself for yet another year. How many Thanksgivings, Christmases, and New Years’ do we get in a lifetime if we are lucky? How much time do we get with the people we love? Are you willing to give that time with your loved ones up for your eating disorder? Because it will take that time, those opportunities, and more away from you. It is relentless in that sense and will take whatever you allow. The first question you should ask yourself every holiday season is whether you want to avoid or engage. Neither one is right or wrong and you are not less of a person for choosing one option or another, it may just be where you are at right. That said, each option has consequences and these are what you need to consider fully.

If you do want to participate, you get to decide to what degree. Choose what you can handle at this time in your recovery. Strive to challenge yourself, but not to overwhelm yourself either. The most important thing about the holidays is spending time with the people you love, gathering together, and sharing in the experience. Food is a part of this, but it is not everything and hopefully we can all reach a place where it does not keep us from enjoying the rest of what the holiday season has to offer. You can shape a plan for yourself to make things easier in order to make it through this stressful time:

  • Talk about the holidays with your therapist, psychiatrist, dietitian, and other members of your treatment team if you have access to one. Talk about it with your family and friends and people you may see over the holidays. Use an online chat room, attend a support group, or connect with help lines to discuss the stress of the holidays.

  • It is always okay to say “no.” If you have the choice, attend events that are most important to you and you feel most comfortable with. Hopefully there are people there who understand a bit of what you are going through. Open communication with those people when it is possible makes things more comfortable for you and them because you learn and can plan how be with each other. Communication means being open and honest about your experiences, thoughts, and feelings, but also listening attentively to other’s experiences, thoughts, and feelings.

  • If you are going to attend an event, create a plan for yourself about what that looks like. Reflect on why you want to participate and how you might help yourself get through it. There are practical things to consider: what clothing is comfortable for me to wear? To what degree will I participate in meals? Am I at a place and is it appropriate to bring my own food or make adjustments so that I can participate most comfortably? If I am going to eat with everybody else, can I create a meal plan (ideally with support)? Do I want to challenge myself and if so, what do I want to challenge myself to? Is this something I hope to be able to do in the future, because if it is, it is important to do these things in the here and now so that this future becomes realizable.

  • Expect discomfort and prepare yourself to cope with it. Remind yourself that this is stressful, but here is why you are doing it. Remember that all feelings pass. These ones will too.

  • As best you can, be proud of yourself because this is brave. Is it ideal? Maybe not yet, but you are getting there, you are fighting back, and you trying to show up in your life.

  • Do what you can to not compensate before or after. The day after a holiday is sometimes harder than the day of because you are left in a wake of guilt. Again, it will pass.

  • It is completely normal to eat more at times as it is to eat less at times. That is normal, intuitive eating. You might not be at that place in your recovery just yet and that is okay, you can work towards that. People tend to eat more during the holidays: they eat for pleasure, they eat a variety of things (none of which are inherently good or bad foods despite what society might say.) Whatever your relationship with food looks like – If you struggle to eat enough, or you struggle with sometimes eating too much – whatever way your eating disorder and your issues with food show up in your life, you deserve to enjoy the holidays in a way that is safe for you.

  • People who may not understand your perspective sometimes make unhelpful comments, if possible communicate with them about how such comments make you feel. It is also important to forgive them for what they may not know. Generally, people have good intentions, but they may understand that something well-intentioned can still be hurtful.

  • Most importantly be kind to yourself; practice self-compassion. You may slip up, things may not go as planned or be ideal because that is life. It does not mean you have failed, it means you tried and it is a struggle. There is no perfect way to do these things, there is just doing them or not doing them and facing the consequences that come with those choices. You are doing just fine.

-S. Ritchey

Supporting The Supporters (The Loved Ones of Those With Eating Disorders)

An eating disorder is an illness that affects every aspect of a person’s life: their physical, mental, social, and spiritual well-being. Beyond the individual, eating disorders are illnesses that impact those around the sufferer; they are a burden carried by the family, friends, and supporters as well.

Going through the experience of struggling with an eating disorder is a hell I would not wish on my worst enemy. Perhaps the only thing worse than that hell is watching someone you love go through it and having to learn the painful lesson that we cannot fix people; we can only love them.

My eating disorder, while unpleasant, served a useful function for me: it is a coping mechanism that gave me something (short term benefit over long term costs). For my family, there was nothing it offered them except, years later, the meaning they chose to take from it and the lessons we learned as a family on loving each other through ups and downs and all our faults. My family and friends were and continue to be my advocates, my nurses, my therapists, and my supporters in a system that did not offer much to patients (and still needs improvement); it has even less to offer families. The following suggestions for supporting the loved ones of those with eating disorders come from the lived experience of my parents. These are their suggestions.

-S. Ritchey

Having a loved one with an eating disorder, especially if you are the main caregiver or supporter, can be an isolating experience. Isolation occurs for many reasons, such as lack of time but also occurs because often people do not know how to help. My husband and I would like to share three ideas of how to help the family, friends, and caregivers of those with eating disorders.

The first suggestion we would like to mention is listening. Real listening to our problems was supportive. Many people were helpful in this regard but some were not. Colleagues were especially helpful because they asked questions and listened without judgement, whereas sometimes closer friends and family gave unsolicited advice. Though we knew people were trying to be helpful when giving advice, unsolicited advice was not needed. We were already feeling guilty and comments such as “I would just make her eat” made us feel even worse. An alternate comment might be something like: “I know this is hard but you will get through this. If there is anything I can do to help, please ask.” This not only acknowledges what we were going through but encourages efforts to continue supporting the person and provides hope for a future. Saying “I’ll give you a call in a week to check in” and doing so would also be helpful.

The second suggestion is about nurturing hope. Caring for someone with an eating disorder is exhausting and it is easy to lose hope. Words can give or take away hope and we only received words that took away hope. No one ever said she would get better except for one health professional. Friends, family, and coworkers all said that she would have this disorder for the rest of her life. While we realize that is a possibility, it is also a possibility that she will get better. It is especially hard to remain hopeful for a loved one’s future when you see them struggling for years and years. However, we personally need to feel hopeful in order to have the strength to continue to support our daughter. We wish others could have nurtured that hope. We wanted to hear “She’ll become a stronger person because of it” or “Your daughter will get through this”. It did not have to be true; it just needed to be something that kept us hopeful. It is darn depressing without hope and we did not need to be depressed.

The third suggestion is about relationships, especially with friends. We became very isolated from friends and family because:

  • Our daughter did not want others to know about her condition nor be discussed with others

  • Time was at a premium because there were many extra appointments

  • Meal support was time consuming, and

  • The anxiety that fueled her eating disorder was worse when we had friends over so we stopped having people over (probably not what we should have done but one learns from mistakes plus we didn’t know then that anxiety was a precursor to the disorder)

While we understand how hard it is to maintain relationships that are one sided during this time, we encourage you to try to maintain relationships with caregivers and supporters. It might be different than what you are used to but sending a quick text or email, calling up for a few minutes to chat, or asking them out for coffee would have been things we would have loved. Maintaining relationships is so important on so many levels but is particularly important for persons who are supporting those with eating disorders. Those relationships nourish the soul; allowing caregivers to maintain perspective and clarity of purpose.

Though hope, listening, and maintenance of relationships were importance to us, everyone will need different things. Ask your friend or family member what they need. They might be able to tell you but if not, we hope these suggestions give you a place to start.  

-D. & J. Ritchey

Why Should You Care About Eating Disorders?

Why should you care about eating disorders? If you haven’t struggled with an eating disorder, don’t know know anyone who has, or don’t work with them, the conversation around advocacy and awareness may seem far removed from you. However, while eating disorders may not affect you in the same way if you are not as close to the issue, there is still a place in this conversation for you, reasons you might want to care, and a role to play. This is because the seemingly specific issue of eating disorders are part of much broader conversations we need to be having in our society around issues like mental health, reflection on our collective cultural values, and how hard life can be sometimes.

Mental Health for all

Mental health is something that affects us all. We may not all suffer from mental illness to be sure, but we ALL have mental health that needs taking care of. This seems like a straightforward sentiment, but a few simple comparisons between how we prioritize physical vs. mental health can quickly demonstrate how far we still have to go for the idea of mental health to be normalized.

Think of an annual physical check-up, this is a fairly expected thing (in an ideal healthcare system with a sufficient general practitioner to patient ratio…) The idea of a mental health check-up on the other hand sounds strange to us, but why should it?


What is “health” anyway? How do we define it? The World Health Organization has been defining it as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity” since 1946. This is a broad definition, but it highlights the fact that there has been some understanding for some time that health is a broad and relative concept. Still, while this definition may be generally accepted and has been added to over the years, it is much harder to see this ideal of health and wellness being upheld in the current reality of many public and private healthcare systems. We are still struggling to provide holistic healthcare to people in our current system and there are negative consequences on patient and societal outcomes because of this.

Here’s John Green to tell you all about it.

Another example that illustrates the stark contrast we have between the attention we pay to physical health as compared to mental health can be seen in healthcare insurance and benefits coverage. Many workplace health insurance plans with extended coverage may cover things like podiatry, naturopathic medicine, and massage therapy, but are less likely to cover therapy or similar mental health treatment options. This is the case even in high stress jobs with high rates of burnout (e.g. nursing). Of course it comes back to legitimate questions of priorities and funding, etc. but it is something important to think about.

While we certainly have a ways to go there has been progress in our understanding of health and in the way we view and treat illnesses (physical or mental). In Canada alone there have been several influential reports developed through the years (such as the Lalonde report in the 1972, and the following Ottawa and Toronto Charters in the 1980s and early mid 2000s respectively.) In expanding our views of health we have begun to expand our views of healthcare and how we treat people in the healthcare system. Through the years we have shifted away from placing all emphasis on the biomedical model (which focuses on the physical processes of a disease, such as pathology, biochemistry, etc., but does not take into account the role of social factors or individual subjectivity.) Broader understandings of health (mental, psychological, social, and spiritual), the determinants of health beyond the individual (and thus the individual’s sole responsibility), ways of treating illness/disease, and the importance of health promotion have become more accepted and better utilized in healthcare. However, the biomedical model (and the subsequent focus on physical disease or infirmity) is still quite dominant in Western culture and medicine.

There are still steps for us to take and progress for us to make in our understanding of health: what constitutes health and how we best support people’s health in practice and policy. Mental health is still a conversation many of us are uncomfortable with. We think of it as weakness, we don’t accept emotional health as important, we imagine it is just a matter of willpower or simple choice to overcome depression, anxiety, or substance use. The truth of the matter is that it’s much more complicated and our mental health needs just as much tending to as any other aspect of our lives.

Cultural Values - Diet Culture, individualism, and gender roles

Not everyone struggles with an eating disorder, but I would argue that the majority of people will struggle with their relationship with food, exercise, health, and their body image in their lifetime. What is normalized in our culture is a disordered relationship with food and our bodies and because it’s normalized people don’t necessarily learn to question it.

The moralization of food (labeling foods as good or bad), struggles with body image, and the focus on thinness as the ideal (a mark of self-control, success, beauty, and happiness) - these are things that most people can relate to. It has become normal for people to spend their lives yo-yo dieting, hating themselves, and restricting their choices simply because they do not feel they can enjoy life until they are thin. This might currently be the norm, but it doesn’t have to be and people like Christy Harrison RD (FoodPsych podcast presenter) are putting their efforts into changing the current culture we have around food and our bodies.


Beyond our culture’s current obsession with thinness, Western society is a culture that highly values individualism and choice. There is nothing inherently wrong with valuing these things of course, there are just consequences we can observe in our society.

The focus on individualism and autonomy of choice lends itself to a society where we tend to lay blame on people for the limitations they encounter in life. It is a very right-wing political perspective, that we all start out equal and where we end up in life is a matter of the grit we possess as individuals. That’s a lovely idea, but it severely neglects social, political, and historical inequalities that we are not past (yet). We do not all start out on an equal playing field and the idea that any achievement is in our power is grossly inadequate. This is where we see things like poverty, substance use, and other mental health issues blamed on the individual and their choices, but it is not as simple as choice and we are not as free to make entirely uninfluenced choices as we might like to believe.

Another aspect of our current culture we can critically analyze and discover flaws within, is the way in which we view gender roles and the effect this has on people. In our society we have certain expectations of men and women and we tend to divide gender along these binary lines (i.e. we historically divide gender into the categories of male or female). We uphold certain expectations for these gender roles and expect members to appear and act in ways our culture has deemed appropriate; some of these expectations have led to things such as “toxic masculinity” which is what I would like to focus on in this entry as it lends itself to poor emotional intelligence, objectification of women, and other issues that may not (on the surface of things) seem relevant to the conversation of eating disorders in any way, but do have an important effect. It is important to note that toxic masculinity is not an insult to all that is masculine, it is merely an examination of certain fixed, stereotypical masculine features that are harmful to all genders (including men).

“In contemporary American and European culture, hegemonic [or “toxic”] masculinity serves as the standard upon which the "real man" is defined… Contemporary hegemonic masculinity is built on two legs, domination of women and a hierarchy of inter-male dominance. It is also shaped to a significant extent by the stigmatization of homosexuality. Hegemonic masculinity is the [stereotypical] notion of masculinity that shapes the socialization and aspirations of young males. Today’s hegemonic masculinity in the United States of America and Europe includes a high degree of ruthless competition, an inability to express emotions other than anger, an unwillingness to admit weakness or dependency, devaluation of women and all feminine attributes in men, homophobia, and so forth (Kupers, 2005).

How is any of this relevant to eating disorders? There are several important threads I want to pull out of this conversation:

1. The devaluation of women, the normalization of sexualized violence, and the objectification of women contributes to women’s lack of control over their own bodies and lives (whether directly experienced in terms of specific trauma or indirectly experienced through the constant objectification of women’s bodies as sexual objects). This idea of domination and stereotypical masculine representations also impacts male body image with men being expected to occupy physically domineering bodies. A lot of male eating disorder issues with body image, while similar in some ways to female issues, differ in terms of body image. There is much more focus on being “strong,” muscular, and being athletically inclined.

2. The disregard of the importance of emotions (especially for men). In Western society, emotional health and intelligence is not something we pay much attention to, especially for males. The idea is that we are supposed to be “in control” of our emotions and/or push them down when they surface. This lends itself to extremely poor insight, poor emotional health, and poor coping mechanisms when it comes to experiencing and processing our emotions. We can pretend they’re not there, but that does little to address the issues that emotions serve to signal us about. This is a common theme in eating disorders, this extreme discomfort in experiencing and appropriately dealing with emotions. The avoidance of emotions is a key reason people engage in eating disordered behaviours (and other behaviours aimed at escaping uncomfortable emotions). In our society is not seen as acceptable to talk about difficult emotions and this is especially true for men. The documentary “The Mask You Live In” is an excellent exploration of the harmful ways we expect boys and men to deal with their emotions, act in our culture, and how this influences poor mental health.

It is important to know there are different ways to think about things. Cultural values and norms are constantly in flux and we can see that in the way these have shifted over the centuries. It is within our power as consumers and citizens to continue to change the values and norms our culture holds.

About Food But Not About Food, About Weight But Not About Weight

People often confuse the idea that eating disorders are about food and about weight and these disorders are concerned with these things, but not solely. Food, weight, and an obsession with thinness is only part of a very complex picture. At their core, eating disorders are coping methods. People focus on food and weight and things they can control to deal with numerous other issues. These other issues may include co-morbid mental health issues (such as depression, anxiety disorders, personality disorders, etc.), histories of trauma, or other, more common life experiences (such as bullying, societal pressures, and day-to-day life stresses.)

The thing is, an eating disorder is an escape, it provides a means to avoid the responsibilities of the real world, an escape from the stresses we all experience in a capitalist society focused on production and consumption, the stresses of a day-to-day life and our lack of control over many aspects of it, as well as the existential dread that many experience wondering what our purpose is, what the meaning of life is, etc. Not everyone who experiences stress, a co-morbid mental health condition, trauma, or the pressure to be thin (that our society is currently obsessed with) will go on to develop an eating disorder. It takes the right combination or genetic and environmental influences to result in an eating disorder, but the point I want to emphasize here is that these conditions are not so unrelatable, they reflect the very human need for every single one of us to learn to cope with life and the hardship it can bring. Some of us learn healthy coping mechanisms, some of us learn to cope through other means such as substance use, workaholism, smoking, avoidance, gambling, etc. But the core of it is that everyone seeks relief and strives to cope in some way, the means are just different.

So while an eating disorder is a very specific experience, there are aspects of this issue that apply to us all. This conversation around eating disorders is also a conversation about the state of our world as it currently is, our collective cultural values, the importance of mental health, and the hardship that is life sometimes. It is a conversation about compassion that we are all a part of and that we all need to be having together.

- S. Ritchey