Thursday, October 15, 2009

Is Food Intolerance an Eating Disorder in Disguise?

Australian Consolidated Press launched one-off health magazine Your Body this week. The magazine aims to help women live a healthy, balanced life and covers everything from nutrition, stress management, relationships and emotional wellbeing to health and fitness.

An article in Your Body titled 'Allergy or Anxiety; the rise of the 30-something eating disorder' explores food intolerance as a judgement free way of restricting food intake. This article is a must read for anyone who knows someone suffering food intolerance as while many women suffer from genuine conditions, others use this as a convenient excuse to avoid certain types of food.

With orthorexia, sufferers are obsessed with pure and organic food and will only put that which they deem 'healthy' into their mouths, sometimes resulting in cutting out entire food groups such as dairy and meats & protein. However, their motivation is to feel pure and healthy.

With anorexia, the underlying motivation is to lose weight by restricting food. So claiming to suffer from a food intolerance provides the perfect excuse to eliminate certain elements from a meal, thus aiding the anorexic behaviour.

It can be a powerful disguise. When I struggled with anorexia, the first thing I did was announce I had turned vegetarian because of cruelty to animals. Of course the real reason was to avoid eating meat. Then I discovered the new health buzz word was IBS and claimed to suffer from this condition. I refused to eat anything that had a skerrick of butter or sauce, vehemently insisting it would unsettle my stomach and cause cramps and bloating.

A recent US study found that only one in four people who believed they had a food allergy or intolerance actually had one. Further evidence is provided by the UK's Allergy Foundation which estimates that two to three percent of people have a true allergic disorder. While not everyone with a food allergy or intolerance is suffering from an eating disorder, I know from personal experience that when you do have an eating disorder, you will use any excuse to avoid food.

With yet another way to mask disordered eating, it can be even more difficult to recognise in someone you love.

In my book Why Cant' I Look the Way I Want; Overcoming Eating Issues there is a chapter that explains the early warning signs - one of which is going on an unusually strict diet. Others include avoiding eating in front of people or with the family, making excuses such as 'I ate lunch at my friend's house' or 'I'll grab something on the way to work'. Also a sudden obsession in the preparation of food. There are also changes in disposition; the person may become suddenly hostile if questioned about their aversion towards food.

If you suspect someone might be using food allergies or intolerance as a way of hiding an eating disorder, unfortunately most of these warning signs apply. However, the change in disposition is key. Hostility is often a sign of emotional imbalance and if you see this in someone you love coupled with food avoidance, sit them down and let them know you care about them and are concerned about their behaviour. One of the best ways you can help someone you love is to let them know you are there for them, even if you don't understand. Unconditional love, as simple as it sounds, is most effective.

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