Eating disorders and the PhD. Let’s talk about it.

DSCF1846Morning dear friends! I’m sure that you are all delighted to hear that my Very Bad Cold is a whole lot better! You may or may not know this, but this week is Eating Disorder Awareness Week (Feb 24th-March 2nd).  Eating disorders aren’t something we’ve really touched on much here on Academic Follower of Fashion but it’s something I’d like us to talk about. I’ve decided to dedicate this whole week to talking about eating disorders and how we can maintain a healthy relationship to food throughout our PhDs. I’ve got a couple of fantastic guest posts coming up plus an update on my adventures in Mindfulness! All week, I’ll be asking on twitter for your top tips on making time to cook and eat healthy food. If you would like to write a 100-200 word snippet on your top tip, give me a shout on academicfolloweroffashion@gmail.com.

Why don’t we talk about eating disorders in academia? While reading up about eating disorders a bit this week, I was pretty surprised to read that 6.4% of adults will show signs of disordered eating. I  don’t know why but I expected this figure to be far lower. That’s about 1 in every 15 people. How many people are in your department? There are about 60 people in mine. That’s 4 or so people who will struggle with eating in their adult life. That’s quite a lot actually! I did a quick bit of googling and I only found one person blogging about doing a PhD while dealing with an eating disorder. This doesn’t mean that it’s not happening. It just means that we’re not talking about it.

A PhD can be a dreadful environment for maintaining a healthy relationship with food. Have a look around your office. How many people do you see who have a box of cereal on the shelf about their desk. I bet it’s more than a couple! Breakfast at your desk, lunch at your desk, no set working hours, no set breaks, working late into the evening an then getting home too tired to cook so just having toast. Sound familiar? The stresses of a PhD, the loss of control you may feel as you struggle to work out what your supervisor wants you to do and your own battle against your inner perfectionism can all be major triggers for disordered eating.

Disordered eating can be a desperate attempt to regain control of a life that is spinning wildly out of your hands. I would feel like a bit of a hypocrite encouraging you all to talk more openly about disordered eating if I didn’t share my own experiences. (Mental health issues, gotta catch ’em all!) However, this is one of the things that I find it really hard to talk about.  This is possibly because, on the face of it, eating disorders seem so totally illogical that it makes them very difficult to explain. I think that the stigma towards eating disorders is very real and that the idea that only teenage girls who want to be thin get eating disorders is a misconception that just won’t die. I tend to think of my issues with eating as a symptom of my depression rather than an all out eating disorder but I guess it would fall under the catch all of Eating Disorders Not Otherwise Specified. What that means for me is that there’s no calorie counting, no rationing food, I just stop eating.The best way I can think of to explain it is that restricting what you eat can feel like a very powerful tool in taking back control of your  life when you feel like you’re losing control of your work to your supervisors, or losing control of your life to the demands of your work or to the symptoms of depression or anxiety. To me, in this mixed up state, I interpret hunger as a sign of weakness and, by refusing to give in to that feeling by eating, I feel like I am being strong and in control. Yes, I know how completely bonkers that is. I’m a biologist, I know what happens to my brain and my ability to think and concentrate when I don’t get the right fuel, I know it’s completely illogical but when I’m in that state of mind, it makes perfect sense to me. I feel drunk on the sense of power I get by walking down to Marks and Spencers, looking at the sandwiches and deciding against having anything. This tends to go away again as I get less depressed, so I’ve never had treatment for it (yes, I’ve experienced the delightful NHS reaction of “I’m sorry, you’re not thin enough to be treated for an eating disorder) but it pops up every time if feel low. I hope that kind of makes sense to everyone!

What can we do about it? I’ve said it before but uni counselling is a great resource, no matter what sort of issues you’re dealing with. Many universities will also run support groups for issues with eating and these can be really helpful. In a more general way, try to work regular hours, take a break for lunch and encourage other people to join you. Making breaks for meals a regular part of your day can be a great way become more supportive as a PhD or academic community.

Well gang, I was a bit nervous about sharing that with you today so I hope you’ll all be nice to me! Stay tuned this week for loads of top tips for eating well and looking after yourself on your PhD journey. 

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One response to “Eating disorders and the PhD. Let’s talk about it.

  1. Well done on sharing something so difficult. I’m familiar with food things playing up when depression and stress kick in although I don’t think it’s ever been troublesome enough to be considered disordered eating.

    I find I sometimes just stop eating, but it’s more like, being at my desk, I forget I’m hungry. Or I’m busy in the lab and don’t feel like I have time to eat. So I go much longer without eating than I should and that makes me cranky and hungry – crungry! I also find that if I’m too busy or I’ve been distracted by the internet I don’t get home til 8 or 9, at which point, gosh am I hungry! So hungry I must eat NOW – which leads to poorer food choices that aren’t so satisfying in the long run. Biscuits and crackers and cake – comfort eating in other words.

    What I try to do is cook large batches of vegetable soup or stews at the weekends, and then freeze most of it in portions, so that I have insta-food available for when I’m too busy/stressed/tired to cook.

    The other thing is to make sure I have healthy snacks at my desk – nuts and fruit etc to combat the afternoon slump.

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