Dieting in Plain Sight: Exercise Bulimia

waist-ing away.

waist-ing away.

With all the attention society pays to body image and the pressure people feel to live up to standards of beauty, there are unfortunately those instances where an obsession with food and fitness can escalate into an eating disorder. Some studies show that eating disorders affect as many as 10-15% of Americans, and that up to 18% of college-aged women have experienced an issue with bulimia. Yet, for all their prevalence, eating disorders are still treated as shameful, can be confusing to those who have never experienced one, and are sometimes even difficult to diagnose.

The two most familiar forms eating disorders take are anorexia (severely limiting calories to starve the body) and bulimia (purging after eating to get rid of calories, usually by vomiting, using laxatives, or exercising). One of the documented problems with the way that eating disorders are diagnosed is that there is a huge gray area between what can be considered a mentally-sound decision about food and what can be considered unsound. A “healthy” person can embark on a three-day juice cleanse every once in a while  (if that’s the case, then half the population of Los Angeles can be considered “healthy,” but an obsessive body-conscious person partaking in the same cleanse is cause for concern. To be considered bulimic, the purging behavior must be classified as “ongoing,” but what about  someone who throws up once a year or after major h0liday meals? Doesn’t it seem like they might have an issue?

Some of the strict guidelines used to classify eating disorders tend to exclude people in recovery, but just because someone is eating a “normal” amount of “normal” food doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re recovered – if they’re still exhibiting the same thought patterns they were while they were battling anorexia, they’re still anorexic, “recovered” or not. In the same vein, there are the variations of eating disorders that don’t get much attention at all because they border on or can pass for behaviors that society has deemed “healthy” and thus acceptable. Case in point… exercise bulimia.

Exercise bulimia stems from the same motive as traditional bulimia, but instead of vomiting after a meal the person exercises excessively with the goal of making up for calories they ate or plan to eat by burning them off. They have a preoccupation with food, use unhealthy means to control their caloric intake, and have a weight threshold that they hold as ideal. It can be life-threatening and incredibly damaging to mental and physical health. But doesn’t it also sound a little to close to what dieting is?

Participating in sports and exercise carries little to no social stigma, making it easier to hide unhealthy preoccupations with weight or body image.

Every day, society bombards us with slogans like these:  Exercise is great! Hit the gym! Fit is revered! Cut those calories! No carbs! People who battle exercise bulimia hear those same messages, but use them to fuel and motivate their unhealthy behaviors. So where is the line drawn between “healthy” and “unhealthy?” Plenty of people who don’t deal with exercise bulimia place a high amount of emphasis on their fitness habits, so it’s not necessarily evident where the issues lie. While the diagnostic classification for exercise bulimia includes criteria like choosing exercise over social activities, isn’t it interesting that every professional athlete does just that?* When men suffer from eating disorders, they are more likely to do so through exercise bulimia, because participating in sports and exercise carries little to no social stigma, making it easier to hide unhealthy preoccupations with weight or body image. Adding an extra day of exercise to a daily routine to make up for overindulging in Taco Tuesday might be acceptable for a “healthy” person, but can be a symptom of a disorder for someone else. The line is fuzzy, and it’s made even more so by the fact that people can have eating disorders and be at normal or above average weights.

Many of us can admit to having, at some point in our lives and some of us more than others, critical thoughts about our bodies and making promises to ourselves to hit the gym more often. And more often than not, they occur because we compare ourselves to certain standards that we think we should be meeting for our own good. Realizing that people who suffer from eating disorders like exercise bulimia (which are often exacerbated by mood disorders like anxiety and depression) feel these same pressures and have these same thoughts as the rest of us but more intensely allows us to understand how complicated and slippery the scale of food and fitness behaviors is. Understanding is the first step to destigmatization, which will make it easier for people who suffer from exercise bulimia and other eating disorders to stop suffering in silence and seek the help that they need.

*We’re not claiming that professional athletes suffer from exercise bulimia, and we understand that the mental motivations behind participating in a sport and participating in bulimic behaviors are different -we’re just illustrating that society permits and even encourages certain behaviors in one situation that can be detrimental and dangerous in others.

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