health

'She counted every calorie we were eating - and only I knew why'.

A few years ago I was invited to a rather glitzy awards evening held in one of Sydney’s most exclusive locations.

When the invitation arrived and it included a spot for a guest, I decided to ditch my boyfriend for the evening and invite a girl friend who would truly appreciate the glammed up frocks and celebrity-spotting.

When we arrived on the red carpet, we weren’t disappointed. As celebrities posed before waiting paparazzi, my friend and I ducked our very-non-celebrity-like-selves inside, and took up a spot which afforded the best vantage-point.

Things were going well right up until the dinner began. As we found our seats, I scanned the table and realised we were seated alongside a number of very high-profile women. Score! I thought to myself. One woman in particular was a fitness blogger and personal trainer.

But what followed was genuinely shocking. Over the next hour this woman scrutinized each person’s plate, offering a manic (and completely unsolicited) running-commentary on the calorie-count of the food as we ate it – starting with our dinner rolls. “Well, I guess that carb is going to be a special treat!” she exclaimed, as some of us reached for the small bread roll.

During the entrées and main meal the food-phobia only continued, as the personal trainer leaned across the table to scrutinize the food on other women’s plates, offering her opinions as she went. She commented on everything from the suitability of the portion size to the likely content of oils and kilojoules. The other women at the table looked horrified. And when the personal trainer discovered that the only woman skinnier than her was a dancer of some kind, she commenced a bizarre series of questions and suppositions about this woman’s diet and exercise regime.

From the moment the personal trainer had started speaking, her conversation around food was compulsive, incessant, and deeply food-phobic. Having since read interviews with her, I’ve observed very similar themes; obsessive thoughts about food and fitness, the black-listing of entire food types, a strict adherence to calorie control.

Meanwhile, back at the dinner table my friend had become so aghast at how inappropriate this woman’s behaviour was, that she whispered to me that she was ready to walk out of there. We went to the bathroom to conference it out. Both of us agreed that given how badly the main meal had gone, a dessert with this woman would be utterly unbearable and we were probably better off just leaving before the night got any more tedious.

So having spent weeks looking forward to this event, and having bought a new dress especially for the occasion, I turned around and walked out of there.

Outside my friend told me that she had never experienced anything quite like it. At first I agreed. And then I realised that actually, I had experienced something similar. In fact I’d experienced something identical to this years earlier.

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And that was when the penny finally dropped: I used to behave like that.

See a number of years earlier, I had been in the grips of a terrifying eating disorder (bulimia which later progressed into anorexia). Just like the personal trainer, I had wanted to talk incessantly about food. Just like the personal trainer, I was intensely fascinated with what other people at the table were eating. And just like the personal trainer, I had very strict rules about which foods were ‘safe foods’ and which weren’t.

That night, listening to the personal trainer’s food rant wasn’t just uncomfortable. It was also confronting because it made me face up to what I had put so many other people through.

And while I have no idea whether or not this particular personal trainer has a diagnosable eating disorder, what is absolutely certain to me is that her behaviour is exactly the sort of behaviour that encourages disordered eating in others.

But there is another uncomfortable truth that I think we all need to admit: that irrespective of whether or not a given individual might be suffering from an eating disorder, I have noticed that people who have eating disorders are often drawn to careers and study options which enable them to continue their fascination with calories, fitness and dieting.

This means that at any given point in time, some percentage of the diet and fitness industry may be comprised of individuals who are practising eating disorder behaviour behind closed doors. And some of these individuals will no doubt go on to achieve at a top level (especially when you consider that determination, ambition, persistence, focus, and drive are common traits of a number of eating disorders).

One sufferer I know was drawn to study nutrition due to her obsession with calories and numbers. Nowadays she finds herself dispensing diet and nutritional advice to others, even though she never fully sought help for herself. Another woman I am aware of was such a regular at her gym, that when the instructor was off ill one day, she found herself taking over the class. This is how women (and men) with eating disorders can find themselves immersed in jobs which camouflage their illness, and allow them to hide in plain sight.

What’s really disturbing though, is that even though this phenomenon may be a function of the illness itself, some of these individuals end up dispensing health and lifestyle advice to others who have no idea about their status as a sufferer.

One such woman was UK trainer, Nisha Obaidullah, who first developed an eating disorder at age 6. Then in 2004, while bulimic and abusing laxatives, she became a professional fitness instructor. A full eight years later, in 2012, and after being in recovery for just three months, she opened up about the inappropriateness of her role as an instructor.

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“It’s a very secretive disease,” she said. “You would not believe the number of fitness professionals who suffer. I want to spread awareness so people are not afraid to come forward for help.”

Ms Obaidullah said that eating disorders were a taboo subject within the fitness industry, even though many people suffer from them, because of an awareness that clients wouldn’t trust afflicted trainers. And this only drives the issue even further underground.

But the fitness industry doesn’t just attract existing sufferers. According to Obaidullah, it can also exacerbate suffering. “The pressure to look great and conform to that image is really great. They’re always talking about what percentage body fat have you got.”

While it’s not clear exactly what percentage of fitness instructors and health and lifestyle gurus may be suffering from an eating disorder (in part because the secretiveness, reputational risks, and lifestyle itself, combine to enable them to evade detection) it is clear that modelling isn’t the only industry that ED sufferers are attracted to. And as difficult as that may be for fans and devotees to talk about, it’s time that we had that tricky conversation.

It’s also time that we recognise that, very often, it’s other sufferers (both current and recovered) who are the first to recognize the warning signs in others: the dozens of little red-flags which, when taken together, alert you to the fact that things might not be alright.

This is because the very nature of an ED is that it makes you highly sensitized to how other people behave around food.

Of course it’s possible to get it wrong and no one ‘red flag’ by itself is ever solid evidence that something is wrong (for example, a person vomiting after dinner might be a sign of bulimia, or it might simply be a sign of pregnancy or unrelated illness etc).

But the point is that there are also some red-flags which are more obvious to people who themselves have a history of eating disorders, including some of the less well known behavioural traits.

And when a certain cluster of these red-flags go off simultaneously, we shouldn’t be afraid to talk about why that might be, even if the person demonstrating them seems like a paragon of health and fitness virtue.

If you or someone you know has an eating disorder and you need help please contact The Butterfly Foundation. The Butterfly Foundation provides support for Australians who suffer from eating disorders and negative body image issues. They also provide support for their carers. They can be contacted through their website by clicking here or by phone on (02) 9412 4499.

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