A quick disclaimer: this is perhaps a more emotional and quick post; a rant, if you will. This post will feature triggering language centred around exercise, calories, ‘offsetting’ your calories with exercise, and pro-eating disorder information. I wanted to get my feelings and thoughts out there, because this has really angered me.
Have you opened up a newspaper recently, while you’re sitting down with your morning coffee, to be greeted with the sentence: Yes, you can have your cake, as long as you run upstairs? Well, I had this experience a few days when I opened up Twitter to see a photo of The Times’ article with a barrage of calories, food, and an incredible amount of toxicity, shame and guilt surrounding your consumption of this food. Within moments of my eyes laying on the article, I was transported back to my days where I would spend hours scouring and trawling Pro-Anorexia sites. As I zoomed in and inspected every item of food featured in this article, I had to check time and time again if this wasn’t straight from an eating disorder site.
Under each food item was their calorie intake and the number of minutes you need to exercise in order to have that food. To earn that food item. Because that’s how we have learned how to treat our food now: as though it’s something to be earned. The diet industry and the fitness industry have duped us into believing that we have to feel guilty or ashamed of any food we eat. And, I mean, any food. Throughout this article, the foods mentioned moved from the stereotypically unhealthy foods like cakes and crisps to foods recommended within healthy diets like a boiled egg or a handful of almonds. Foods that are already used as a substitute for the former are being laden thick with guilt and shame. If you want any food it seems like, you need to exercise off the calories before you can eat them.
The diet industry has ingrained in us this ideology that we cannot simply enjoy our food. We have to instead feel rubbish about ourselves for enjoying a piece of cheesecake or even a banana. The attention brought to exercising for prolonged periods of time isn’t a method to get you to exercise and keep fit. It’s a method to make you feel ashamed for eating at all. How dare you enjoy your food?! You’re going to have to do a HIIT class to eat that piece of red velvet cake, so you might as well not eat it all together, and just choose to have a pot of natural yoghurt. But, wait, you need to exercise for 15 minutes first before you can eat it.
What’s worse is this article, and many others like it, have developed this association between general everyday activities and burning calories. There is a genuine suggestion of “putting your kids to bed” so you can allow yourself to eat two celery sticks and some guacamole. What a fantastic way to take the act of caring for your children and turning it into a way to earn your evening snack.
Oh my God, I can’t describe how beyond dangerous this rhetoric it is and how frustrating it is that no matter how much you shout about this the media don’t seem to want to learn!
For a bit of clarity for the media, this is why it is dangerous. This article by The Times will have the high probability of being weaponised by Pro-Ana sites. I can guarantee it will find its way onto these sites and it’ll be used to normalise the behaviours in eating disorders, because hey, look a mainstream newspaper is giving all this calorie information and how to burn it all off! Save these foods and their calories in your journals so you can track it easier. It is an informative graphic that contains a menagerie of healthy and unhealthy foods that will teach people with eating disorders to fear any and all foods. These pro-eating disorder sites will convince people that any food is dangerous because it requires exercise for you to have it. For someone with an eating disorder, exercise is a counteractive action to food you eat. If you dare to eat food, you have to exercise it off immediately. I don’t know how many times I saved workouts, dangerous, dangerous workouts, that were centred around how many calories I could burn and what that was in the equivalent of food. I was taught that exercise was solely to burn calories and to counteract the food I ate. It took years for me to relearn the benefits of exercise, and I am still trying to undo that damage. That infographic would have been like a Bible verse for me. It’ll become a well-used tool on a pro-anorexia site.
By having this information in mainstream media, people with eating disorders or disordered eating will internalise this that their difficulties are, in fact, justifiable and appropriate. Growing up with this sort of information would have made me believe that if the media is pushing this agenda then what I am doing is completely normal and I shouldn’t be concerned about the damage being done to my mind and my body, and neither should anyone else. Our eating disorders are continually trying to convince us that what we are doing is normal, and they use this propaganda as evidence that our restrictive or purging behaviours are okay, that our punitive acts are fine because look the newspapers and magazines are saying that it’s recommended that you should run 5 miles to have a bag of crisps. As though it is some relatable and quirky thing.
People with eating disorders struggle to equate exercise with anything other than weight loss. We know the number of jumping jacks we need to do to eat a sandwich. We know that fidgeting and shaking our knees will burn calories. We know about negative calories. But, this has helped our eating disorder to create the impression that it’s actually alright to continue to exercise only for weight loss and to earn the right to eat.
Mainstream media, and even social media, needs to redefine the need for exercise. Exercise is not all about weight loss. Unfortunately, it’s a driving force for many people, but exercise can provide so much more. Exercise is so incredibly beneficial. There are a million other reasons other than being allowed some pizza. There is no need to focus on weight loss, particularly completely outrageous and disgusting guilt tactics to make us think we need to achieve a workout of some sort to nourish our bodies.
This pandemic has shown that people crave being active because it gets them fresh air and gets their legs moving. People are going out on runs to feel a moment of freedom. We are stuck in our houses, trying to protect ourselves from a disease, and you are trying to make us become laden with guilt and shame because we want to eat, because we want to cook meals we don’t normally get to cook, because we want to be nourished. Exercise can help keep the blood pumping around your body. Exercise can stimulate the brain and help to prevent the development and prognosis of diseases such as Alzheimers. It can alleviate the strain of sedentary behaviour on our muscles. It can strengthen our bodies from injury. Some consider it a mindful and meditative process.
Exercise is not, and never should be, something to give you permission to eat.
Check out Beat for information and support on coping with an eating disorder whether it is yourself or someone you care for. Please consider donating to keep their services running as during this pandemic they are experiencing an increase in their need for support services while a simultaneous drop in their income.