Ever since I entered the coaching realm 6 years ago and now being in the health and fitness industry, I’ve had and continue to have a responsibility to use appropriate language and communication when discussing the bodies and body functions of adolescent athletes and women who are still growing in their self-love and acceptance journeys. When working with athletes, it is completely improper to talk about their bodies in a way that isn’t biological or physiological; anything that strays away from this turns into vain statements about aesthetics that has no place in sports. However, when coaching clients, many weight loss and/or health goals stem from a place of vanity. To preface, I think it is completely okay to want your body to look a specific way, there is absolutely no shame in that. Although, with disordered eating habits currently affecting approximately thirty million citizens of the United States, with eating disorders killing one person every sixty-two minutes, also noting that a study found that 91% of NCAA athletic trainers reported working with an athlete who had an eating disorder, we need to be fully aware of the common triggers for those who are susceptible to developing an eating disorder and how we can talk about health and wellness tactics on a safe spectrum for all.
Above I’ve attached a graphic classifying the three most common eating disorders. With the rise of influencers promoting clean eating and ‘self-care’ by exercising three times a day on social media, orthorexia has also become a heavy topic within the fitness and nutrition world. Orthorexia is described as a condition that includes symptoms of obsessive behavior in pursuit of a healthy diet. In a podcast interview with Dr. Mark Hyman, Dave Asprey mentions the recent chatter about orthorexia, stating that there is no question that our bodies would become scared of ingesting toxic, processed foods. He suggests that the response that people may be feeling is completely normal when switching from an average American diet, of which cause many people to feel run down and get sick with diseases, to a lifestyle that is much more “clean” and progressive for our bodies. I believe that the answer to whether or not someone may be orthorexic lies between the spaces of physiological response, behavioral response, and mental response to food and the obsessions and rules surrounding eating created by said person. Diagnosing orthorexia is dependent on many different factors and is a completely subjective matter, however, if you’re feeling that you’re experiencing symptoms of any of the disorders stated above, I highly suggest that you seek out help immediately through your family, local eating disorder clinic or specialized therapist, or you can call the toll-free & confidential helpline at 1-800-931-2237.
So how do we talk about fasting without triggering the entire population of the U.S, impressionable youth, and those who currently suffer from mental illnesses and may be prone to developing life-long damaging restrictive behaviors? We talk about it. All of it. The doors of communication need to be opened in all aspects that play important parts in the conversations around eating disorders, fasting, health, body acceptance, aesthetics, and overall wellness.
Obviously, it would be easy to simply say “lets desensitize eating disorders and the stigmas surrounding them!”, but, how? Take a look to only six years ago when it was still awkward to talk about depression out loud. In order for us to move forward in having open conversation about E.Ds, there would have to be a sociological systemic shift, that probably won’t take place for another ten years. However, the issues among talking so openly about E.Ds in the first place is that it is difficult to do so without also writing the handbook on how to successfully have one, and the attractiveness of weight loss alone can outweigh all of the side effects and negative aspects of having an E.D to people who are desperate for a feeling of control and change. Think about how if someone committed suicide, you’d be sad, and you wouldn’t want the disorder they had that brought them to that place of darkness. In comparison, when most people see someone lose weight, initially the response is that of positivity and “you look incredible, keep it up!” comments. The idea of weight loss alone is put on such a high pedestal that the mental instability that may have caused it isn’t even considered because a “healthy” body is seen as the best representation of a healthy and happy life. It is common to sacrifice the wellbeing of your body to smoke and drink alcohol in order to relax and have a good time with friends, so why not use laxatives, throw up your meals, and starve yourself in order to be skinny, right? The difference here is that one of these events promotes social health, and the other promotes death before the age of thirty.
With all variables considered, I’ve created a list of rules for you to consider when discussing fasting:
1. Never speak about fasting for weight loss in the presence of children, pre-teens, teenagers, or even young adults. With the pressure of social media to be more concerned with vanity than longevity or mental wellbeing, these age groups are much too high-risk. Of course, it is your personal decision as to whether or not you want to talk to your children about fasting for spiritual purposes, but please be as responsible as possible and be hyper-aware of your children’s behaviors surrounding food and eating.
2. Be specific in the context that you speak about fasting in and have educated answers to questions from others who do not understand why you’re “starving yourself”. A few fasting contexts to consider for yourself and for the sake of conversation:
+ Fasting for longevity
+ Fasting for disease prevention
+ Fasting for mental/spiritual clarity
+ Fasting for symptom reduction/elimination
+ Fasting for sleep regulation
+ Fasting for metabolic rate improvement
+ Fasting for aid in binge eating and food addiction cure
+ Fasting to understand your hunger and increased food mindfulness
3. Stop talking about health in general in comparison to how you look. Use more vocabulary centered around the way that you feel on the inside, the way your body moves differently, your improved sleep, the ways in which your immune or digestive system has regulated, etc. Health isn’t completely defined by how we look, and is much more determined by the way we get to live our lives to full capacity.
4. Be open to talking about any obstacles you faced along the way. Never glamorize a journey that wasn’t pretty. If you’ve had issues while fasting, talk about them! The more information you spread, the good and the bad, the better.
5. This rule is more for doctors, coaches, fitness professionals, nutritionists and dietitians- if you’re going to mention fasting in an interview, article, or in conversation, you have an obligation to pay recognition to the role it may play in triggering eating disorders and allocate enough information about eating disorder symptoms and resources in order to properly inform your audience/patients of behaviors they may adopt as an emotional defense or coping mechanism without even knowing it.
I don’t expect these insights to have a monumental effect on the way fasting is presented in the health and wellness industry. However, I do hope that you consider the language advice I provided and are feeling a little more educated on eating disorders, the current state of social behavior surrounding them, and I urge you to continually find ways to understand all perspectives of all sides of the issues you care about. Understanding and preventative measures used in communication can truly help to bring clarity to many aspects of mental health stigmas that so many are working diligently to erase.
With Love + Grace,