When dieting becomes a disorder

3 July 2018

Katie Babbott at the 3 Minute Thesis Masters Finals.

Have you or someone you know had dieting get out of control?  University of Waikato Masters student Katie Babbott is researching community-based treatments for disordered eating. Disordered eating refers to abnormal and often dangerous patterns of eating behaviour that, by themselves, do not warrant a clinical diagnosis, but will often impact health and quality of life. It’s an area of significant concern in New Zealand, as it’s common among men and women of all ages. It’s an insidious problem, and for many, crossing the diagnostic threshold and developing clinical eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia results in lifelong illness.

The Ministry of Health has reported a dramatic rise in demand for eating disorder services; a 51% increase over the last three years. Due to the high numbers of referrals they receive, the Waikato Regional Eating Disorders Service often has no choice but to triage patients, and only take those with chronic eating disorders, and patients who have already made a suicide attempt. Katie says this ambulance at the bottom of the cliff approach is a symptom of a broken system, and her aim is to help treat people at an earlier stage.

Katie says disordered eating is often overlooked in terms of seeking help and resources, but once people go past this stage it is very difficult to treat them effectively. In fact early intervention is often the key to lasting, long-term recovery.

But how do you get people to seek treatment earlier? Katie says you need a greater engagement within communities and within places such as schools. “My big thing is advocating that high schools and primary schools are teaching media literacy, emotional literacy, understanding what diet culture is, as well as what it looks like if things go to far. Disordered eating does cause a lot of distress, and people realise what is going on, but just don’t know how to fix it.  I think there’s a lot of shame involved, and people want to avoid the stigma of being seen as out of control. New Zealand’s doing really well at reducing that stigma, but we have a long way to go before people realise they can seek help before things are really dire.”

Katie is completing a Masters of Social Science, majoring in Psychology. She believes that with a greater emphasis on early intervention and accessibility, people will have a favourable prognosis and a better chance at a full and happy life.