Can meditation help us to overcome eating disorders and negative body image?

We all have a relationship with food. Sometimes this is a tenuous relationship. Other times, it’s domineering. We may experience an eating disorder when our relationship to food is too weak or too strong. Have you ever found yourself almost inhaling your food or avoiding it all together because you’re worried about your body image? It’s possible you have never experienced a situation like this, but it may be affecting someone you know. According to a scientific review, eating disorders are on the rise in many countries.

Eating disorders center around either not eating enough food or consuming too much. Three of the most common eating disorders are:

  • Anorexia Nervosa: Put very simply, anorexia nervosa is defined by being unwilling to gain weight. No matter what the person’s body size is — even if others see them as thin or healthy — when they look in the mirror, they’ll tend to see someone who’s “overweight.” This is based on a false understanding of one’s own body image.  People suffering from anorexia may decrease how much they eat or exercise excessively.
  • Bulimia Nervosa: Bulimia is defined by over-eating (or “binging”) and then trying to get rid of the food consumed, usually by forcing oneself to throw up (or “purging”).. Bulimia might be easy to miss because people who suffer from this disorder will go to great lengths to hide it. There is often a sense of shame or guilt on the part of people who suffer from bulimia.
  • Binge Eating: Binge eating is defined as consuming as much food as possible without any self-control, but unlike bulimia, binge eating is not followed by acts designed to “remedy” the over-eating.

Where does the problem begin and how can it be solved?

There isn’t one underlying cause behind eating disorders. However, genetic factors, irregular hormone functions, psychological issues, working in occupations where being “skinny” is a requirement, and the body image standards of the society we live in can all be contributing factors to developing an eating disorder. The three categories of disorders mentioned may all lead to serious health issues; some can even result in death. Eating disorders can only be tackled with the help of trained professionals such as psychologists or psychiatrists. If you think you may be suffering from an eating disorder, seek out the help of a doctor, psychologist, or other trained professionals.

One of the most common methods that medical professionals use in treating patients with eating disorders is called “cognitive therapy.” The cognitive therapy model says that our emotions and behaviors are created by the way we perceive the events that unfold around us. In other words, it’s not the events that we experience that affect us, but our outlook on them, along with how we interpret them.

This sounds a bit familiar, doesn’t it? That’s because this idea that we encounter in a therapeutic method used to help patients with eating disorders is one that meditation provides us as well. Meditation teaches us to simply be in the moment, without judging ourselves. Meditation, combined with the scientific data and a road map of cognitive therapy, aims to help patients get out of negative and inaccurate thought patterns that are holding them back. In addition to therapy by a trained professional, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, meditation can help us raise our awareness about our own thought patterns. It can be a tool to support us as we tackle our eating disorder with a professional.

Looking at three eating disorders under a single microscope

Many women, including myself, have gone through a point in their lives where they cared about their looks to the point of obsessing over them. There’s nothing wrong with vocalizing that fact. You may have gone through your favorite dessert in a matter of seconds when experiencing an emotional crisis. But that doesn’t change who we are as a person.

Scientific facts plainly show that both men and women suffer from various eating disorders. True, the scales tend to be tipped more towards women, but that doesn’t discount the many men that struggle with this situation. The examples above hopefully served to shed some light on what these people frequently experience, no matter their gender. For all the major types of eating disorders, there are important ways meditation and skills we learn from meditation can complement other forms of therapy and recovery.

Let’s start with Anorexia Nervosa: Anorexic people tend to consider “staying thin” as a form of personal success. In trying to help people suffering from this disorder, cognitive therapy aims to change this outlook and understanding. Can meditation be of help in this situation? Being able to simply be in the moment, without any judgement of ourselves, can support us tremendously in changing our understanding of “the ideal body” and dislodging the idea that “we have to be skinny.” Noticing your breathing and being in the moment can help greatly in reconnecting with yourself and your emotions. By learning to do this more, we can possibly obtain a tool that can help us with our eating disorders as well.

Meditation might possibly help individuals suffering from Bulimia Nervosa as well. Meditation may help us identify the root causes of the guilt that drives us to get rid of the food that we consume. By being aware of the reasons behind our guilt, we can hold it under the microscope. As we discover the thoughts and beliefs that fuel this feeling, we can share them with our therapist. This may, in turn, allow us to go down the road of recovery more quickly and with more self-awareness.

If we have issues with binge eating, then it’s important that we learn to be present in the moment. This kind of eating disorder generally entails eating greater a quantity of food than normal, even to the point of feeling physically uncomfortable. In a sense, this is a process in which our conscious minds are disengaged. This is why awareness meditation can help us become more aware of what’s going on in that moment, and prevent us from being swept away by the urge to eat exactly in that moment. The new pathways that we open in our brains through meditation can help us realize how hungry we really are. They can help us make calmer decisions about when and what to eat.

A new way of approaching food

While it’s important to stress that therapy and professional help are absolutely necessary when tackling eating disorders, awareness can be an important tool for us during this process too. That’s why it’s important to:

➢ Slow Down: Your body gives your mind the “I’m eating” signal not when you’re eating, but 20 minutes after you’ve begun to eat. Considering this, it’s a good idea to eat slowly instead of quickly. This will not only help our digestive system but also make it easier to recognize when we’re full.

➢ Listen to your stomach. Are you really hungry? Or is your mind telling you to eat for another reason? If your stomach is growling, then you are good listener! It means you’re paying attention to what your body is saying. This won’t just help you with binge eating problems, but with disorders like anorexia as well. It’s important to eat when our bodies give us signs that we’re hungry.

➢ Don’t eat randomly: Settle on a meal plan that fits your lifestyle. That way you can create a routine that will support you along the way. Not leaving food around at home or in your workplace can also prevent your mind from thinking about it frequently.

➢ Make room for healthy dishes: Replace dishes that are high in carbs with healthier options. But don’t just choose dishes that mean nothing to you just because they’re healthy. This can cause you to revert to your old eating habits. Instead, choose dishes and foods that you actually enjoy. If you’re craving something sweet, how about enjoying some raisins? It’s important to realize that we have the ability to slow down and make the choice to eat healthy food in moderation.

➢ Have a relationship with your food: One thing that’ll make you more mindful of what you consume is thinking about what process the dish you will eat went through before landing on your table. How were the greens, the tomatoes, the cucumbers and other colorful veggies in your salad bowl grown before being served to you? Stop and picture that for a moment. How was the dough of the pizza pie on your plate kneaded, or where do you think the mushroom you’re enjoying now was harvested? Expressing your gratitude for all the time and effort people you’ve never even met put into gathering all these ingredients and getting them to you may change your whole outlook on food. What’s more, it can even drive you towards making more mindful choices for the planet, as well as for yourself.

➢ Only focus on your food when you’re eating: There are plenty of sayings about food and eating. One well-known one is “I all but inhaled my food”. When we become mindful of each bite that we’re taking, we’ll enjoy the taste of the dish before us even more. We might even begin eating less than we normally do. Alternatively, we might begin to make more room for something that we want to eat and stop bothering ourselves about it. Thus, mindful eating can help give you exactly what you need.

Ask your stomach: what does it say?

Our relationship to food has gone to many extremes thanks to the consumerist society we live in. Either we don’t eat and hurt our health, or we overeat and hurt our health in a different way. Have you ever considered what prompts you to be so tough on yourself? Ask your stomach: Are you really hungry? If it is, then give yourself what you need. Who cares if your mother looked different than you when she was your age? When I was 16, I tried to fit into my mother’s wedding dress. I couldn’t. This experience that caused me such pain then, but now makes me laugh. Because in time I realized that it’s not important what my weight is, as long as I’m healthy. Everyone doesn’t have to be a certain size. In the end, we can all try to pay more attention to our bodies and less attention to our minds.

All of this being said and considered, this is a conversation that needs to continue being discussed in communities throughout the world. Everywhere there are men and women struggling with their body image and eating disorders. That being the case, we would welcome your thoughts, questions, and opinions in the comment section below. We look forward to hearing from you!

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