Every time summer comes around I observe the normalisation of irregular eating in social settings.
While it is normal to under-eat on some days, and overeat on others (especially when our social calendar is packed), it is not normal or healthy to intentionally restrict food. We can think of irregular eating as dieting.
Skipping meals at long park sessions, ‘saving space’ (fasting) for a big event, cutting out whole food groups that are ‘bad’ or ‘unhealthy’, following diet plans which tell you when and what to eat, or replacing food with coffee or alcohol are all examples of dieting. When people around us engage in behaviours like these, it can seem normal and harmless, but the effect on our mind and body is real.
When we put our body on a diet, we put our brain on a diet too. This means limited cognitive and emotional functioning, like low mood, irritability, increased anxiety, poor focus, difficulty with memory/problem solving and a reduced capacity to cope with stress. Physically, dieting has noticeable impacts on our energy levels, physical strength, and gastrointestinal functioning, meaning we just don’t feel well in our body. Read more about why diet's don't work here.
People who diet are also more vulnerable to eating past the point of comfortably full or experiencing binge eating episodes, due to underlying physical hunger or feeling psychological deprived of foods you enjoy. From a physical and psychological state of restriction, binge eating can also become a form of coping with difficult emotions.
Regular eating creates a pattern of nourishment for our body and mind. It can help stabilise our cognitive and emotional functioning, prevent over-eating/binge eating, and help us feel well in our body. The general guide is 3 meals and 2-3 snacks every day. Learn more about regular eating here.
Tips To Care For Yourself:
- Be prepared — schedule in grocery shopping, have the basics you need at home, and carry snacks with you to the beach, park, work, friend’s houses etc
- Reduce effort — brainstorm and highlight your favourite go-to foods that are easy to make/buy and help you feel nourished e.g. I write down simple, delicious meals on my fridge
- Look forward — look at the day ahead and think about when and what you can eat and if there’s anything you need to do to prepare
- Remember your why — remind yourself why regular eating is important to you e.g. to stabilise anxiety levels, to feel strong when you move your body, to connect with friends and think creatively
- Begin again — if you have a day of irregular eating, be kind to yourself and begin again by focusing on your next meal or snack and anything you could do differently in the future
Tips To Support Your Friends:
- Model regular eating — be the regular eater who leads by example in social settings. You may notice the ripple effect of regular eating around you, or you might just give someone mental permission to nourish themselves too
- Shift the conversation away from dieting — diets are very good at stealing our time and thoughts. Do not encourage or praise other people’s dieting efforts and remember that dieting is not a normal topic of conversation
- Encourage help-seeking — If you notice that a friend is speaking about dieting/wanting to change their body, or you notice a pattern of irregular eating, this could be an indicator that they are struggling with food/body image. This could be an opportunity to be curious, ask how they’re going and encourage them to seek professional support
- Help others be prepared — if you know that your friend or loved one struggles with irregular eating, be the one to look forward and help plan e.g. going to the shops together, asking what they’d like for dinner later or bringing snacks with you when you hang out
This information is not a substitute for individualised advice or support. If you or someone you know is struggling with disordered eating or an eating disorder, education and support is available.
Butterfly Foundation — Helpline 1800 33 4673 (8am - Midnight, 7 days a week)
Eating Disorders Victoria — Hub 1300 550 236 (9am - 5pm, Mon - Fri)