home Features Re-evaluating January Preoccupations with Health and Fitness – Comments from BodyWhys

Re-evaluating January Preoccupations with Health and Fitness – Comments from BodyWhys

By Maeve O’Keeffe

Trigger Warning: This article contains mentions of eating disorders and may be triggering for some readers. If you feel that you will be triggered, please refrain from reading this article.  A list of supports is mentioned at the end of this article. 

Though I relish cracking open a new diary, its blankness comforting in the promise of possibility that a new year brings, generally speaking, January is my least favourite month of the calendar. Yes, January can signify fresh starts and new beginnings, but so often these can be less about refreshing, and more about reinventing. Many of us will have set new year’s resolutions, renewed with ambition for self-improvement in the new year. Don’t get me wrong, a new year can be an ideal time to try to implement new routines towards self-improvement. Maybe you’d like to drink more water, read more books, finally stick to a skincare routine, keep your room tidier, or all of the above. These are all things that might enhance your life. However, as my social media pages are flooded with promises of body transformations and exercise regimes, it is worth noting that resolutions should not endorse radical transformations of the self as the “New year, new me,” social media tagline might suggest.

The pressure to embark on a diet or fitness ‘journey’ in the new year is ubiquitous. A wander around the Special Buys aisle in the supermarket will assault the senses with newly stocked Nutribullets, yoga mats, and weights. RTE’s Operation Transformation returns to screens, fashion magazines recommend where to get the best gym gear, and social media influencers hail weight-loss teas, restrictive diets, juice cleanses, and twice-daily workouts as the key to achieving their ideal physique. Many gyms and fitness clubs even offer membership discounts in January, anticipating the influx of eager gym bunnies, renewed with ambition after the Christmas season. None of this is necessarily bad. Of course, we should all aspire towards a healthy lifestyle. However, one question that this rush of health and fitness promotion poses is how much is too much?

Becoming fixated on healthy eating can itself be viewed as an eating disorder, which is known as orthorexia. I reached out to BodyWhys, the Eating Disorders Association of Ireland, to learn more about orthorexia, and the complexity of the month of January for individuals in recovery from eating disorders. Orthorexia has yet to be included in the diagnostic manual for mental health conditions, meaning that characterising the condition is challenging, but presently, orthorexia is understood as an obsession or intense preoccupation with the quality of food consumed, with often rigid and compulsive eating patterns. According to Ellen Jennings, communications officer for BodyWhys, orthorexia centres around, ‘compulsive behaviour and/or mental preoccupation with dietary practices believed by the individual to promote optimum health.’ Not following their self-imposed dietary rules can result in significant distress for an individual with orthorexia, with Jennings identifying ‘fear of disease, sense of impurity or negative feelings like anxiety and shame,’ as feelings that may result. When the ‘rules’ of the individual’s diet are broken, or if they make a change to their normal eating patterns, they may feel shame and remorse, often accompanied by anxiety over the perceived unhealthiness or impurity of what they have just consumed. These negative emotions can ‘lead to more stringent diet behaviours,’ Jennings tells me, noting that the condition often involves ‘dietary restrictions escalating over time such as elimination of entire food groups and more severe and frequent rules such as “cleanses” and “fasting.”’

While the emphasis on body transformations in the new year may contribute to a myriad of disordered eating patterns, orthorexia can be even more challenging to detect, as it is frequently overlooked as a ‘healthy’ lifestyle. Instead of understanding the rigidity and compulsiveness of orthorexia, people may applaud what they perceive to be the ‘discipline’ of those who abide by a strictly ‘clean-eating’ diet. The messages we are exposed to around this time of year almost universally promote dieting and exercising, but how can we recognise an excess of these behaviours? According to Jennings, ‘Compulsion is the difference between what we call [subclinical] disordered eating and an eating disorder,’ outlining how, ‘with eating disorders, there is no flexibility in the rules in the person’s mind, they need to follow these rules in order to feel ok in the world.’ There is inflexibility and rigidity that accompanies orthorexia because straying from the rules of their diet is so distressing. ‘Attention to a “pure” diet becomes problematic when it is an obsession that has a significant negative impact on a person’s life. Thinking about food and about how it is prepared becomes a means of coping with the stresses of life and avoiding the experience of negative emotions,’ explains Jennings.

Orthorexia can have serious consequences for the individual, as well as their friends and family. Because of the distress that can accompany straying from the rules of the individual’s diet, ‘efforts spent trying to satisfy the rules may increase and a person may avoid social situations where they are unable to follow their food-related rules,’ says Jennings. There is an inability to deal with spontaneity, and the individual may withdraw from their social circle to avoid lapses in their dietary regime. The often increasingly complex and detailed rules of the individual’s diet, as well as various, cleanses, detoxes or fasts may result in weight change, ‘but the desire to lose weight is hidden in ideation about healthy eating,’ explains Jennings. When an individual with orthorexia excluded food groups from their diet, they also run the risk of malnutrition or other medical complications. Aside from this, Jennings highlights how orthorexia can become clinically impairing for the individual by rendering their ‘body image, self-worth, identity and/or satisfaction dependent on compliance with self-defined “healthy” eating behaviour.’

The pressures to restrict one’s diet to ‘healthy’ food only, and to engage in rigorous exercise programmes can allow for debilitating eating disorders to go undetected. As well as this, the incessant emphasis on nutrition and fitness in the new year may be a triggering or conflicting time for individuals suffering or recovering from eating disorders. The lead-up to Christmas is frequently centred around an abundance of food, which in itself may feel intrusive for someone recovering from an eating disorder. But in the aftermath, it is as if self-loathing is normalised, with comments about weight gain not uncommon. Jennings explains how ‘as messages shift towards dieting, appearance and exercise,’ in January, individuals with eating disorders are particularly vulnerable, as their ‘eating disorder will try to take advantage.’ It is worth noting that it is rarely anyone’s intention to be insensitive to an individual with an eating disorder, but even a seemingly benign self-deprecating comment about how your jeans are snugger or comment about how ‘A minute on the lips is a lifetime on the hips,’ can all be unhelpful to individuals recovering from eating disorders, and can reinforce harmful behaviours for those with eating disorders. Regardless of whether you are suffering from a diagnosed eating disorder or not, we need to stop normalising body dissatisfaction, particularly after a Christmas season that might have been stressful and isolated. Try to insulate yourself against the pressures of the January health and fitness craze by showing some self-compassion.

In fact, BodyWhys has recently issued a statement about the RTE television series Operation Transformation, calling for a reform of the programme’s approach to dieting and weight loss. Operation Transformation centres around the weight loss of six contestants, with the help of experts in the fields of nutrition, fitness, and psychology. It has been on air every January since 2008 when the RTE Guide described it as a ‘flab to fab’ reality TV show. According to the statement issued by BodyWhys on the 5th of January 2022, ‘Although the show has a positive objective intending to bring focus to health and wellbeing, the considerable emphasis on dieting, body weight and shape and the way these are measured, collectively counted and presented, create a community sanctioned dieting culture that research shows does little to achieve long-lasting weight loss or health promotion.’ Emphasising the significant rise in hospital admissions for young people and adults suffering from eating disorders, BodyWhys implored the national broadcaster to recognise the role of the media in ‘creating normative discontent with how people feel about their body and their relationship with food,’ and instead to ‘promote health and well-being in a way that is inclusive and diverse.’

‘It is important for anyone in recovery to recognise that these messages are unhelpful for them, come back to their coping strategies and offer themselves self-compassion during this time that can be really challenging,’ Jennings tells me. Though there is often a misconception that individuals with eating disorders are obsessed with thinness because they believe it equates to attractiveness, the reality is a lot more complicated, with many different factors influencing their condition. That said, the focus on diets, exercise, and appearance in the new year can be extremely intrusive, and it is important to develop a heightened sensitivity to the issues of those around us, even if they are not immediately obvious. Rather than striving to transform one’s shape or the number that pops up on the weighing scales, we should promote a transformation in how we talk about health and well-being. Instead of focusing on calories, kilos, and kilometres ran, we can appreciate all that our bodies do to serve us each day, and treat them with the kindness they deserve.

If you are concerned about any of the topics raised in this article, the BodyWhys support services are operating as normal.

The BodyWhys helpline service can be contacted at 01-2107906, and operates on Monday, Wednesday and Sunday evenings (7:30 pm-9:30 pm), and Saturday mornings 10:30 am-12:30 pm.

The BodyWhys email support service can be contacted at alex@bodywhys.ie.

The BodyWhys support groups for adults and young people with eating disorders, as well as dedicated support groups for family members are also operating as normal, with more information available on the BodyWhys website.

As well as this, UCC Counselling can be contacted by emailing counselling@ucc.ie.