“It’s going to make you fat, you can’t eat it,” are words that have echoed through Maria Elliott’s head since she was a child.
She recalls being concerned over her body image at the age of five, causing obsessive checking in a mirror. By adolescence Elliott had severely limited her diet, amounting to as little as a cracker and three grapes to sustain her over a day at school. “Every few months I would change and try a new diet, it was always new diets,” Elliott said. “I was tired a lot, I was hungry all of the time. I don’t know how well I really functioned.”
The 29-year-old Nanaimo resident has been diagnosed with anorexia nervosa, a psychiatric illness characterized by the unrelenting fear of becoming overweight. Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental disorder, with health authorities estimating that one in 10 people will die within a decade of the condition’s onset.
Anxiety and depression To recognize the dangers of limiting one’s food intake Feb. 2 to 8 is National Eating Disorder Awareness Week. Another concerning eating disorder is bulimia nervosa, which entails stringent diets followed by waves of binge eating.
“The root causes are the same; it’s depression, it’s anxiety, it’s feelings of low self esteem,” explained Keva Glynn, director for Mental Health and Substance Abuse with Island Health. “With bulimia your body is crying out for food. They’re going to eat the food and be overcome with feelings of despair and anger, so the result is purging.”
According to the Kelty Medical Health Resource Centre, nine in 10 people diagnosed with anorexia or bulimia are female. The ratio between men and women is closer with binge eating disorder, a third condition recognized as a mental illness for the habit of consuming large amounts of food at one time. This gorging often leads to obesity, and is brought on by an extreme hunger due to a food restriction or to sooth emotional needs.
Approximately 3,000 people on Vancouver Island are diagnosed with an eating disorder, although Glynn estimates there could be as many as 10,000 people on the Island who have symptoms.
Hospital admittance For severe cases Island Health has a contract with the Woodstone Residence, a treatment centre for anorexia and other eating disorders on Galiano Island.
Another two beds are designated for patients struggling with a severe eating disorder at the Royal Jubilee Hospital in Victoria. Elliott spent three months under care at the Victoria hospital last year after her condition had brought on a deep, suicidal state of depression.
“If they get to the place where physiologically their body is breaking down, then they come in for in-patient services,” Glynn said. “If somebody needs either feeding or they need their electrolytes balanced or they really need intensive psychiatric help, those would be reasons.”
Under the guidance of a team of medical professionals, including nurses, therapists, a psychiatrist and a dietician, Elliott was accompanied during meals to ensure her body was fortified with the nourishment it had been lacking. For people with eating disorders consuming food can be an insurmountable challenge, and on days that Elliott couldn’t overcome her anxiety she had the option of sustenance from a nutrient-rich drink. Since her release from the hospital Elliott said she is doing much better, although eating is still far from easy.
“It’s struggle a lot of times just to eat,” Elliot said. “For me to eat a piece of cake even now is very terrifying. I will stress about it for a week before and a week after if I know.”
Food tied to insecurities Statistics Canada reports that roughly 4.6 million adults in the country are obese and millions more are considered overweight. It could be difficult for many to sympathize with Elliott’s food difficulties, but health authorities claim that eating disorders are linked to deepseated psychological associations. “It’s not generally about the eating; that’s a symptom of what is really anxiety and depression,” Glynn said. “By not eating, it gives people a sense of control, which can on a short-term basis reduce feelings of anxiety.”
Elliott said many people in her family are overweight. When she grew up, members of her household were often insulted for being heavy. It often brought accusations of worthlessness in the home. These abusive connotations have fueled her ongoing struggles with food.
“I have been reminding myself since I was five years old -and I’m 29 now -that I’m worthless and that I’m going to be fat and worthless for the rest of my life,” Elliot admitted.
Constant exercise is another means many people with eating disorders use to fight their fears of becoming overweight. Elliot used to exercise seven times a day, but she said some friends who also have eating disorders have workouts even more frequently than she did.
Local assistance Help is available in the Alberni Valley for those who suffer from an eating disorder. Concerned parents can contact the Ministry of Children and Family Development’s local mental health office at 250-720-2650 for individual treatment.
Adults with concerning symptoms can seek help through Island Health’s Mental Health and Addictions department at 250-731-1311.