Social Media Drives Eating Disorders

Social media is a significant player in the challenging relationship some of us  have with food. 

Research shows that there is a complex connection between social media and eating disorders, and the knot seems difficult to untangle. With social networking platforms such as Facebook, Youtube and Instagram gradually taking over our lives, we are constantly being fed with unrealistic images, making it harder to break that behaviour of comparing oneself to others. In some cases, this will gradually lead to eating disorders. 

Among various types of eating disorders, the three common ones include Anorexia Nervosa (AN), Bulimia Nervosa (BN) and Binge Eating Disorder (BED). 

According to dietitian Nurul Asilah, AN is a prevalent eating disorder. To put it briefly, people suffering from anorexia have a twisted perception of their body weight, as they perceive themselves as fat even though in reality, they are underweight. These individuals have an extremely restrictive diet and consume very little food due to severe fear of gaining weight. 

Meanwhile, individuals with bulimia engage in a binge-and-purge cycle. BN is linked to episodes of consuming an uncontrollably large amount of food and then purging (forced vomiting) to get rid of the ‘excessive’ food they have eaten. 

BED, on the other hand, is associated with emotional eating, whereby one binge eats in a brief span of time to feel better. They turn to food for relief but the feeling of guilt and shame of being obese often follows. 

Posts on social media have a direct effect on one’s thoughts, behaviour and feelings, where people would fixate negatively on how they should look a certain way, or compare themselves with their friends; thus perpetuating unnecessary concern on one’s body weight, shape, and appearance. Evidence shows that people, especially women, wallow in the misguided ‘ideal’ body standard often presented on social media, glorifying extreme thinness  and aiming for an unfeasible weight loss goal.

“People perceive that to be healthy and beautiful, they have to be extremely thin. Heavy usage of image-driven social media platforms that feed their followers an endless stream of photos and videos demonstrating impractical body shapes, beauty and diets may increase one’s risk of developing an eating disorder,” she said.

However, Asilah explained that social media is not the sole cause of eating disorders, and that the root cause often varies.

“The disorders may be stimulated by a complex interplay of factors including biological, psychological and environmental factors; cultural pressure, emotional health, genetics as well as peer pressure,” she said.

Eating disorders are not one-size-fits-all, anyone can develop the condition, regardless of their physical appearance. 

But is it inheritable? 

The food and nutrition expert said that it is uncertain whether the psychological disorders are hereditary, though genetics do contribute to the development of food-related disorders to a certain degree. 

She shared with Ipoh Echo that a child is 10 times more likely to suffer from an eating disorder if they have a family history of the condition. “It’s a proven fact that children learn mostly everything from their surroundings. Growing up around family members or friends who are practicing unhealthy eating behaviours will significantly influence the child to follow in their footsteps, especially if the genetic components already exist. 

“However, genetics alone typically won’t cause an eating disorder. Meaning, despite having a family history of an eating disorder, one doesn’t directly inherit the condition. Eating disorders are caused by a combination of various complex factors,” she stressed. 

Based on her experience, many battling eating disorders steer away from seeking treatment as they feel ashamed and scared to disclose their problems with health professionals. 

“It’s common to see those facing body image issues attach their emotions and sense of self-worth to their weight. Their inner voice says they will never be happy until they lose a certain amount of weight and they hold a belief that self-worth is measured by how they look.  

“Family, friends, media and now social media can have a huge impact on how we feel and perceive our body. When it comes to our mental health, people struggling with negative body image feel that their bodies are inferior to others and are more likely to suffer from isolation, low self-esteem and depression,” she added.

Recognising the problem and having faith that it is treatable will put you on the comeback trail. 

We need to understand that leaving the cycle is more than just giving up unhealthy eating behaviours, it entails learning new ways to cope with emotional disturbances, loneliness and rediscovering who we are beyond our eating habits, weight and body image. And with the right support and guidance, you can wave goodbye to the bad eating patterns, regain your health and enjoy life. 

Gisele Soo


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