Friday, 14 August 2020

A Diet - It Was All Anorexia Needed

With permission, Lael shares her cousin's experience with anorexia as a student, the role that food restriction played in the onset of her eating disorder, and the role that lockdown played in bringing it all back again.
- Lael Groves 

For most people, changing their diet would have little impact on their mental health; for my cousin, it was devastating. A restricted calorie eating plan, begun as a fun challenge, led to six years of suffering with anorexia. Having been in recovery for the past year, she is concerned that lockdown gave her eating disorder just enough room to revive. As an A-level science student, hoping to study medicine, I understood that genetics can play a role in the development of anorexia, but I was surprised when my cousin said that a diet had triggered her eating disorder:
“Before experimenting with a diet, I was a content 14-year-old, unaware of my weight and happy with my body. My eating disorder started when I began Banting (a low-carb, high-fat diet) and lost a lot of weight in a very short time. I wasn’t overweight to start with, but I was soon quite underweight. The skinnier I got, the fatter I believed I was.” 
Her first exposure to a diet kick-started a restrictive cycle which seemed impossible to escape, eventually leading her to experience suicidal thoughts.


The social media obsession of exercise and diet


Several studies suggest that, in individuals who are genetically predisposed to a greater risk of anorexia, calorie restriction might trigger the onset of anorexia. Additionally, people may be affected by environmental push factors that might cause disordered eating. In my cousin’s opinion, lockdown provided several pushes, the first being a boom in the online body image industry.


During last few months, social media such as TikTok, Instagram and YouTube were over-run by ‘what I eat in a day’ videos, ‘calorie-torching’ workouts and ‘hacks to lose weight during lockdown’. Whilst fitness gurus flaunted their abs and ‘macro-friendly’ meal plans, my cousin became obsessed:
 “If I wasn’t studying or working out, I was on Instagram or YouTube, scrolling through videos of other people working out. I found myself thinking, ‘I want that body, I’ll do these exercises. I compared myself to people on Instagram, thinking, ‘Her body is nicer than mine and her abs are better than mine.’” 
It was a quick route from there back into the anorexic cycle. To get the bodies that she had seen on the screen, she felt the urge to eat less and exercise more. During the lockdown, she was less active. When she was hungry, she replaced food with exercise.




Intensified isolation and uncertainty


But the pushes weren’t all external. For many young people, lockdown brought isolation, which sparked a range of feelings. “Being lonely, being bored,” my cousin said, “feeling unappreciated by other people triggered me. If I felt rejected, I thought it was my fault for being fat and lazy.”


Lockdown also brought uncertainty, an interruption of current routine and future plans. As a student, she struggled to cope with this disruption and found herself distressed by planning for when she should study and by how much. “I can’t control this situation, but Anorexia gives me something I can control. It’s a default mode. Some people comfort-eat or watch series, I exercise.” When you feel that you can’t control your circumstances, the control over your body become centred.


Recovering after the lockdown


Now, as lockdown restrictions lift and her outings are almost unlimited, she is struggling to return to ‘normality’: “I go for a long run in the morning and when I do eventually eat something, I feel guilty. Now I run more, workout more and eat less than I did before lockdown.” Fortunately, having previously recovered with the support of rehab, counsellors, family and friends, she can recognise these early signs and knows how to put measures in place to prevent regression. But she fears others may be less fortunate, in the sense that lockdown may have induced many people to alter their diets and potentially increase the risk of eating difficulties.


Having realised how my cousin developed an eating disorder through a diet under normal circumstances, I can understand why she thinks lockdown may have sparked anorexic thought patterns in others. She was aware of the risks and yet her anorexia reappeared so soon after she was placed in a challenging situation.
“Lockdown brought things back that I would rather not experience again. I realised that I can never let my guard down.” 
Talking to my cousin made me realise the importance of, well, talking. As family or friends, we need to make time to listen - understanding the loneliness, the isolation, the uncertainty. And then we need to offer a voice that counters that of social media. We cannot let diets be idealised, because sometimes, that is all anorexia needs.

You can also find more support at Student Space, a new collaborative mental health service to support students during these challenging times led by Student Minds. For more resources on managing your mental wellbeing during the Covid-19 pandemic, please visit Student Minds website



Hi, I am a sixth form student at Hills Road in Cambridge, hoping to study medicine. When I was 12, my close cousin developed anorexia, and ever since then I have been asking, “Why?” As part of an extended college project, I was able to research this question. At the same time, I interviewed my cousin, who is now at university. This piece came out of both investigations with permission from my cousin.

No comments:

Post a comment