Hope shares potential warning signs, gives helpful advice and comments on new TV show The Restaurant That Burns Off Calories
Lock-down has been a challenge for us all – but to varying extents and in many different ways.
For those with mental health conditions, their carefully curated bag of helpful tools has become much harder to reach into in this period. Those with eating disorders are having an especially difficult time trying to cope with lock-down and the nation’s favourite online topics of the moment: food and exercise.
Eating disorder charity Beat has seen a 35% rise in demand for their helpline, with coronavirus leading to upset routines, cancelled appointments and limitations in support systems.
I interviewed the author of Stand Tall Little Girl, mental health advocate and speaker, Hope Virgo, who provided an insight into eating disorders both in general and in the current context of the pandemic.
Hope tells me she developed anorexia at 13-years-old. Growing up in a dysfunctional family environment, she sought a way to deal with her emotions and exert control over some area of her life.
“My coping mechanism came out in food,” she says “so, I was restricting and over-exercising.”
Hope hid her eating disorder for four years until finally seeing her GP. She then spent six months as an out-patient at CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services) before being admitted to a mental health hospital for a year in pursuit of recovery. She now describes herself as being in an “ongoing state of recovery” since being discharged.
She relapsed once in the last eleven years and, after trying to get help again, was turned away for not being thin enough. She eventually managed to get through it on her own, and launched the campaign #DumpTheScales – calling on the government to review the eating disorder guidance delivered by clinicians.
Below is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.
What are some possible signs of an eating disorder?
I would say any kind of disordered relationship with eating is a potential red flag. If you’re constantly hungry, always thinking about food, calories, exercise, planning when you’re next going to eat a meal or planning when you’re next going to exercise, that’s not healthy.
I think it’s also when healthy exercise turns into an obsession. So when it stops you going out with your friends in the evening. Or if you can’t go to certain restaurants because of a fear of what’s going to be on the menu, or whether you’re going to be able to get a really specific dish.
And, of course, one of the most obvious signs is a change in body weight, but I always say we can’t wait for [that] before doing something about it. It’s about noticing those distractions, people’s change in food patterns, whether they’re constantly putting themselves down. If someone’s mood is a bit all over the place as well, that’s an issue.
How can people help themselves?
The most important thing is trying to find someone to talk to about it – whether that’s your GP, someone in your family, your friend or a support group.
I know taking that step is really really scary, particularly if you don’t feel like you deserve that help and you don’t feel like you’re the right weight or something like that. But as soon as we make that first step, then that conversation can start to happen.
For me it was about focusing on my motivation for getting well. I would think of all the things I couldn’t do if I kept having an eating disorder and then wrote them down.
How can we help others?
I think if you’re supporting someone with an eating disorder, first it’s really important not to try and fix that person. They have to choose to get well on their own. It’s about walking alongside that person and giving them the support they need, when they need it, and reminding them you’re going to be there.
Don’t comment on someone’s weight, don’t tell someone they look healthy, because the eating disorder part of the brain skews all that information and turns even words like “healthy” into something negative.
There’ll be times when you talk to someone about their eating or their exercise habits and they will get really dismissive, they might shut you down, they might get really angry. When that happens try to be patient and then make another attempt at that conversation again a couple of weeks later.
How has lock-down made things harder?
For me, the main problem has to do with exercise. There’s constant chatter on social media about exercise instilling fear into us that if you put on weight during lock-down, it’s bad. Also the fear that just by being in lock-down, we’re all going to get really overweight. All of that stuff I find quite triggering.
Hope says she found the inability to go to the gym very challenging at first. She had created rules within her eating disorder (which she is aware weren’t right), such as “only working out in the gym” and “if it wasn’t the gym then it wasn’t a workout.”
She acknowledges that finding other ways to do physical exercise without being in the gym, and feeling okay with that, has been really important.
What are some challenges with shopping for food during this period?
In the first few weeks when people were stockpiling, that was really challenging, because you have them just going out and buying all of your safe foods.
I think what it did for me was highlight that actually there are quite a few little cracks in my recovery, and these are cracks that maybe I have to deal with.
What eating disorders do is try and suck us back in, telling us that if we stop eating and start calorie counting and exercising all the time, then it’s better for us because we’ll get a sense of control back.
What are your tips for anyone struggling? What has helped you personally?
I need to have a routine. I get up and go to bed at pretty much the same time everyday and I make sure that I have my structured three meals throughout the day.
Monday-Friday I always make my lunch the night before just because it’s easier and then I guess it makes me stay on top of that as well.
Every single morning I say something that I’m grateful for which sets me off in a positive mindset for the day.
Also, I try to be mindful of what I’m looking at on social media. That’s involved unfollowing a load of fitness accounts, just because I find it really unhelpful to get constant updates about the Instagram lives of people working out all the time.
I also block accounts that might be profiting from people’s weight- and food-related anxieties and unfollow anyone making jokes about the fear of putting on weight during lock-down.
Eating disorders thrive in isolation, and when I was really unwell, I used to work out secretly a lot, on my own, in my room. During lock-down, I’ve had to be really careful that I’m not exercising obsessively because that takes me back to a really dark place.
I’ve been trying to listen to my body and take days off just to rest and chill, and not to put pressure on myself to constantly be productive.
People tend to post a lot [about their exercise routines and food] at the moment because there’s nothing else for them to do, and they might feel the need to justify sitting around.
Last question: what’s your opinion about the new TV show The Restaurant That Burns Off Calories?
The whole premise behind the programme was that in order to have a meal, you had to earn your food [by working out]. That’s really unhealthy messaging in itself. We don’t have to earn food. We don’t have to earn our calories. We don’t have to punish ourselves for eating. It’s a normal part of everyday life that we should be enjoying.
For people with eating disorders, this type of messaging was really triggering because it creates a cycle of self-hatred, where whatever calories we eat we have to burn off.
Seeing a programme normalise that kind of behaviour is just appalling on so many levels because it can create an entire society that’s got a completely disordered relationship with eating.
I know some people struggle with eating too much, and some people don’t have an understanding of how or what they can eat on a day-to-day basis. And I know we have an obesity crisis at the moment – but the programme doesn’t take into account people’s individual situations, body types and the fact that we all need a different amount of calories and exercise every day.
What we should be doing instead is educating people more broadly. We should be going into schools and working with parents to teach them about healthy eating and a healthy lifestyle.
Hope mentions throughout our conversation that it’s very important, when recovering, to deal with the feelings and behaviours fuelling one’s eating disorder. She finds it frustrating that a lot of services discharge a patient as soon as they reach a healthy weight.
She believes that by tackling the underlying issues through therapy or a support group, people can learn to have a healthy and long-lasting relationship with their bodies and body image. All too often, in the process of trying to heal the body, the mind gets overlooked and seen as a separate entity. This needs to change in the current approach to treating eating disorders.
Find Hope on Instagram for helpful live videos and webinars: @hopevirgo_
More resources for those struggling with an eating disorder:
Hub of Hope: https://hubofhope.co.uk/
First Steps: https://firststepsed.co.uk/
The Mix: https://www.themix.org.uk/
A spokesperson for the BBC stated: ‘The intention of the programme was to give viewers information about the latest research into the science of calories, about why our bodies need them and how our bodies use them. The voiceover is clear throughout that there are government guidelines for the recommended number of calories needed for the average man or woman to remain healthy (2500 for men and 2000 for women). The programme never endorses or suggests restricting calories below these levels.’