Gabrielle Clark


There’s been a sizable amount of overt fat shaming during the COVID-19 pandemic which adds pressure to the great number of people with a Binge Eating Disorder in Australia. People make jokes casually to their friends, family and co-workers about how they’re going to come out of this a lot fatter or how they’re avoiding ‘ISO-ARSE’.

Binge Eating Disorder (BED) is one of Australia’s most prevalent eating disorders but perhaps the most under-recognised, and the extreme uncertainty of COVID-19 has exacerbated the symptoms for many.

For example, seeing photos of supermarkets filled with empty shelves, home isolation’s increased exposure to food, disruption to food shopping, increased focus on our bodies and the inability to receive face-to-face or group support are all triggers for people with BED.

BED is a psychological illness thatis characterised by a person frequently eating excessive amounts of food and feeling that they’re unable to stop, often when not hungry. In Australia around 913,986 people have an eating disorder, of those people 47 per cent have a binge eating disorder.

BED can be triggered by an inability to cope and process emotions such as stress, anger, boredom, distress, traumatic experiences and genetic predisposition.

Psychologist and Manager of the Butterfly National Helpline Juliette Thomson says during isolation, stress and a change in routine can cause anyone with BED to have increased behaviours and thoughts about their illness.

Ms Thomson says eating disorders thrive on isolation environments and that people with BED should turn to crafting, journaling or reaching out to friends to distract them from their eating behaviours and thoughts.

Perth Psychologist, Sherry-Lee Smith says that people with BED may have increased behaviours at this time. “As people with Binge Eating Disorder often use food as a way to soothe emotional distress and boredom,” say says.

She says “We know from data from other outbreaks, such as SARS and Ebola, that the psychological impact of quarantine, including isolation and loneliness, is likely to increase the incidents of acute stress, post-traumatic stress, depressive symptoms, low mood, irritability, insomnia, anger, fear, sadness and grief.”

Many people who suffer from an eating disorder have suffered psychiatric comorbidity whereby linked additional conditions co-occur with a primary condition such as anxiety or depression.

Research shows that women with eating disorders have a higher prevalence of anxiety than men.

Jerita Sutcliffe is a 25 year old young woman from Perth, Western Australia who has BED and says it has affected every aspect of her life.

“It’s a vicious cycle of a poor and unhealthy coping mechanism,” she says, “I then get depressed about my weight and appearance and binge eating then transforms from an unhealthy coping mechanism to a method of self- harm.”

Jerita Sutcliffe and her husband Ash Sutcliffe on their wedding day.

Due to a weak immune system from her chronic illness, Jerita is in a high-risk category and hasn’t been seeing her friends or her family during COVID-19 which, she says, has negatively impacted her mental health.

As a result she has turned to food to numb the pain of isolation and loneliness, although this is only a band-aid solution.

Not everyone recognises BED as a serious condition and in fact the condition only received formal recognition as a distinct eating disorder in 2013, in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5.)

It is no wonder people with this condition feel this illness is misunderstood as it has only been accepted as a formal illness in the last decade.

Jerita feels people don’t take an eating disorder seriously when one is overweight, she says “It’s just easier to see a person as ‘lazy’, ‘overweight’, ‘a slob’ or ‘a glutton’ rather than see the truth that this is a serious mental illness.”

Contrary to popular to belief, having BED does not necessarily mean someone is overweight, but it is a serious mental illness affecting a large proportion of our population.

People with BED often have feelings of shame or guilt about eating, and eat in private or avoid social situations, particularly those involving food.

“I don’t enjoy eating out in public or even simply being in public because I am constantly worried about the opinions that strangers have of me, based solely upon my appearance.”

Lucia Picerno, a designer from London took to Instagram with a powerful message; “the pandemic is not an excuse to fat shame” she continues, “A lot of people are posting memes that make fun of fat bodies … is it really your worst nightmare in this pandemic to end up looking like me?”

While the COVID-19 pandemic has increased the behaviours and thoughts of BED for many, treatment has become less accessible.

Ms Smith says the pandemic has created barriers for people to seek usual treatment including group programs, and “inability to attend even telehealth sessions if their significant others are unaware of the eating disorders.”

If you need help with your Binge Eating Disorder here are some tips:

I’ve tried my luck at a fair few diets, including when I stuck it out with a popular shake diet and lost almost 20 kg, which hardly lasted when I put it all back on again plus more. But I’ve also gone down the doctor recommended path of seeing a dietitian and wasn’t hugely successful either.

Most of us have tried our luck at some sort of diet, whether it’s a juice cleanse, the shake diet, intermittent fasting or the cigarette diet (ok, maybe that one’s a far stretch). We’re constantly bombarded with advertisements and news articles telling us which diets are best for us. There’s always Jenny Craig ads on TV where Sharon parades around town showing off her 32kg weight loss, all while you’re on the couch polishing of your eighth taco. Thanks a lot Sharon.

Fitness guru and former Bachelor star, Sam Wood, told A Current Affair, “Your shake diets, your fat burning pills, all this kind of stuff, it’s really not good for you.”

“Typically, you’re not losing fat. These short-term quick fixes are designed to help you drop water and often muscle.”

“It’s a vicious cycle that goes around and around and before you know it, you’ve actually put on more weight than you’ve lost in the first place.”

This is partly my experience with shake dieting. In 2017, I lost 17kg from using Optifast shakes and then, only a few months later all the kilograms piled back on, and more. These are just some of the diets I’ve tried in my time…

In a Facebook post in one of the support groups recently, somebody asked, “Has anybody actually sustained weight loss for more than two years?” nobody responded.

Lite n’ Easy
I still receive (love) letters in the mail from Lite n’ Easy and no I will not ever go on it again. To me it was paying more for eating less. Plus living at home with a fridge full of groceries, there was no space for the over packaged food. I had to plug in the Engel and put all my Lite n’ Easy stuff in there.

The mornings were good, I remember I would get a piece of toast, maybe two, I was always full. The lunches were pretty hit and miss. I remember I got this awful vegetable salad that I had to heat up in the microwave and was soggy and revolting. I do remember making what I would call a mini burger for lunch, it was so tiny and I inhaled it less then 30 seconds.

But there was no snack with dinner. I would force myself to wait until 6pm and eat at a reasonable time but then I was still so hungry. Anyway, I did walk every day, I was determined and I did lose four kilos over about four weeks, but that was as long as I could take it.

I was at my friend Georgia’s house and she offered me a piece of chocolate and I straight out refused because I didn’t want to slip up on my diet.

Vita Weat or ‘Birdseed’ Diet

When I was in high school I became passionate about fitness and weight loss. I developed a fitness routine and diet plan for myself and I was so dedicated to stick to it. Looking back, I was on a very low calorie diet and I remember feeling light headed and found it difficult to concentrate sometimes. Just about every day I would run 4km and I was also on the running team and the rowing team at school.

As for my diet, I can’t remember who it was who called what I was eating birdseed, referring to the Vita Weats, I think it was my aunty, I laugh now when I think about it.  I was at my friend Georgia’s house and she offered me a piece of chocolate and I straight out refused because I didn’t want to slip up on my diet. My meal plan every day was:

¼ cup muesli for with plain Greek yogurt
Morning tea
Plain almonds and dried apricots for morning tea or an apple
Carrots and celery sticks and 4 Vita Weat crackers with vegemite and cheese
Something light

My sister did this diet with me too and we both lost some weight. I remember getting lots of compliments on my figure at the time but I definitely don’t suggest eating like this as it was not healthy.

I would force myself to wait until 6pm and eat at a reasonable time but then I was still so hungry.

Optifast Diet
As mentioned before, I lost 17kg in several weeks, but then I put it all back on again plus more so, take from that what you will. Someone once said to me “shake diets are good if you have a wedding to go to”. I think they summarized it quite perfectly, if you have a date set, and you need to shed the kilos fast, a shake diet can be a quick fix. But beware that the weight can come back.

But if you want to go down this road and a lot of people do, there are some benefits.

I actually started my own Instagram page for my weight loss journey which I shared with my close family and friends which I found helped me stay motivated. There are plenty of hashtags where you can find other Optifast dieters and follow their journeys.

There are various support groups on Facebook including Optifast Support, OPTIFAST SUPPORT for Aussies, Optifast Recipes – Intensive Phase and Opti Cook. In a Facebook post in one of the support groups recently, somebody asked, “Has anybody actually sustained weight loss for more than two years?” nobody responded. I think that example speaks volumes about this diet in that there’s hardly any evidence to suggest that weight loss is sustained post diet.

After trying a few diets and not really getting anywhere, the doctor suggested I see a dietitian.
Seeing a Dietitian – The long hard road
After trying a few diets and not really getting anywhere, the doctor suggested I see a dietitian. I went to see a dietitian and she gave me a meal plan to follow, it was mostly what you’d expect – eat more veggies, less carbs and a small amount of protein with every meal and I was told to ditch fruit juice. Everything had to be measured from now on. I basically had to go out and buy a whole bunch of Chobani yogurt and tiny cans of baked beans. Initially nothing was happening in terms of weight loss, because I wasn’t really following the dietitians plan at all. But then I had a sudden motivation and I lost 10kg following exactly her plan and it worked. And I was actually able to sustain that weight loss for a long period of over a year.