Strong Fixations

We see a lot of hyperfixation in eating disorder work

How do Fixations Show Up?

  • People are fixated about the quality of food – is it clean, does it contain meat or dairy, is it good for me?
  • Fixated about the calories in food.
  • Fixated about aspects of the body, my stomach is marginally rounder, my thighs are too big.
  • Fixated about weight: I weight 3 lbs more than I should, I look fat, so I am fat.
  • Fixated about people “thinner than me” or, in the case of body builders, “stronger” than me or do more exercise than me.
  • Fixated about people, such as we have a patient fixated with the opinions of a medical mystic who claims to get his information from the spirit world (and maybe he does).
  • Fixated about what I ate today, was it too much, how can I deal with that tomorrow or punish myself.
  • Fixated about the opinions of other people, who must be destroyed if they have alternative points of view

How do we understand the fixated patient?

Fixations are beliefs that are strongly wired into the brain and they connect to the “alarm centres of the brain” – the amygdala. Obeying your fixations is one way to stop the alarm centres from firing off. So having a fixation and obeying its rules is one way of staying safe in someone who would otherwise be too anxious. The fixation is thus a way of being safe and woe betide us for trying to take it away.

So we understand fixations as belonging to someone with an underlying problem with anxiety.  But we need to ask ourselves, is this anxiety just part of the personality, or it is welling up from deeper irrational beliefs about the self.  For example, if I believe deep down that I am a disgusting or immoral individual, I might become very fixated on eating “clean” or “vegan” so that I don’t have to experience that unwelcome feeling of being “dirty inside.” 

Deep and negative beliefs are installed inside us at a very early age, often before we have words or even memories of them.  So normal psychotherapy often doesn’t root them out. People with low levels of anxiety might say oh I ate a burger today, it wasn’t what I would choose but, it’s no big deal for once. But the fixated individual would consider it a tragedy. Psychologists call this kind of anxiety reducing behaviours “schema avoidance”.

Hyperfixation is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more you obey or run the fixations, the stronger they become and the more fearful we become of doing the opposite of the compelling voice in our heads. We see this for example in people who exercise excessively. They may KNOW that it is OK to take a day off, but it just doesn’t happen.

There was once a young anorexic girl fixated on her daily exercise, she fell of her bike, fractured her  pelvis and was taken to hospital in an ambulance. When she was left alone on the gurney, she slipped out, and although in terrible pain, she went for a run around the block. Unsurprisingly, she was put on a Mental Health Section.

Another of my clients was fixated on alternative therapy as a cure for her cancer, shunned chemotherapy and declared that “doctors don’t know what they are doing”. She died.

I see fixations all around me, in anti-vaxxers, in conspiracy theorists, with activism on social media.  Some individuals hyperfixate on a person such as a guru or a terrorist. One thing is common to all of them; they are impervious to rational argument or to persuasion.  They may be benign or dangerous to themselves and they can be a nuisance or dangerous to other people.

Fixation as a Symptom

Fixations are described also as monomanias and can be a symptom of

Autism Spectrum
Anxiety Disorders

Unhelpful strategies include giving evidence to the contrary – such as persuading the person that their guru is a scammer or that “fat can be associated with diabetes”.  Telling someone that they are wrong or trying to stop them from preaching their opinions does not help.

There was once a religious sect in the 18th century who believed that Armageddon was to happen on a particulate day and time. They gathered together to pray and wait for the Apocalypse that didn’t happen. Did they change their view? Not at all. One half believed that the Apocalypse had happened and they were already living in a world-like heaven. The other half decided that the Lord was so impressed with their prayers, that He had put it off for now.

Psychologists have tools for managing fixations. This includes Cognitive Therapy. Cognitive therapy instals doubt and also addressed the value of holding on to the belief – in what way is this belief USEFUL to you? Trauma Therapy such as Eye Movement Sensitisation and Reprocessing, EFT (Tapping) and techniques from NLP can be helpful.

Treatment usually satisfies family members or friends but the fixator is not usually enthusiastic about changing their mind. As one person said to me – “Why would I want to stop minding about Clean Eating if it meant I would start eating rubbish like you do”.

Fixators on a person are also unwilling to let go of their infatuation. What sets in here is “sunk cost thinking” – if this person is really a baddy, I will have to deal with all the regret about the time, the money and the emotional  investment I have wasted. Regret is an emotion that most of us want to avoid.

Our experience of treating fixations thus is that therapy is resisted. Removing the fixation does nothing to deal with the underlying anxiety that can surge to the fore.


This is a contentious opinion, but I increasingly wonder if fixations can be tweaked by the use of Psilocybin or other psychedelic drugs. Carefully managed, they introduce fixators to an alternative reality. Fixations are about guarding a very fragile sense of self and during a guided “trip”, this sense of self is surrendered so that an alternative self can be installed.

I do not think that this would be helpful for someone with schizophrenia, so a careful assessment has to be done.  There is also the question of motivation. A fixator would want to be certain about the outcome of taking a psychedelic drug and may convinced that something bad would happen to them.

The Social Context

Fixations take place in a social context. Family members often confront the fixator – ineffectively- or accuse the fixator or ruining their life. Many behave as if they are treading on broken glass – which is stressful;  or the fixator withdraws to avoid more confrontation and pressure. Carers  often feel emotionally blackmailed – “Accept me as I am or get lost”.   They say that they have no choice other than to collude with the fixator. We see this with all kinds of issues, including anorexia.

Fixations thus destroy family harmony and cause ripples of mental harm to close relatives and friends.  Family members can become isolated, neglected, and lonely as the fixator pursues their lifestyle. A person fixated on, say, golf,  can leave their family members alone at weekends and fail to attend to their basic day-to-day needs both practical and emotional. Fixators reinforce their fixations by  bonding with others who share their views, thus reinforcing their “rightness”.

Groups of people who share an ideology gain a sense of superiority, that is alluring to the fixator who often has a fragile sense of worth. You see, we have special access to the truth, we are not in ignorance like everyone else.

People who live with a fixator need urgent help and support, independently of what is happening to their loved one.  At the very least they can say to the fixator, we are for now going to get help for our own feelings about what is going on.

If you are a carer, please don’t frame this up as “we are going to get advice for how to show you the error of your ways” because this is not going to help.

What kind of help carers receive depends on a full analysis of the situation as the family sees it together with any other information we can glean about the problem. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to living with fixations.


If you have a loved one with a hyperfixation, we do have family therapists who can support you. Mental health problems are never easy and must be handled one step at a time.  If the issue is food, weight, food fads, or over-exercise, call 0845 838 2040 and see how we can help.

A conference of Interest

The Royal Society of Medicine Hosts a conference on the latest thinking for eating disorder treatment in late February 2023

Here it is. Always ready willing and able to upskill our wisdom and treatment

Semaglutide – a quick-fix for weight loss?

Doctors are reporting a rush of patients asking for SEMAGLUTIDE which promises rapid weight-loss.  Even psychotherapists working with obesity are asking us about the value of these medications to “kick-start” weight-loss for their patients.

At the National Centre for Eating Disorders we have views about weight-loss medications and we are not provoked into a knee-jerk response. Some people call them “anti-obesity” drugs. Because this term risks causing stigma, let’s for now call these latest drugs “metabolic medications.”

The Risks of Weight Loss

Using tips and tricks learned at slimming clubs or in the media, anyone trying to lose weight on their own, is exposed to a host of dangerous mental and physical risks. Fat is not just “stuff” – it is a metabolic engine that is controlled by many different systems and that is well-defended.  People who want weight loss (as is their right) need a thorough assessment, tracing the course of their weight over the lifespan with a sympathetic and knowledgeable therapist who also looks at the family and other aspects of their lifestyle. We need to learn about their relationship with food, to see if there is an eating disorder present. This is because weight-loss never cures an eating disorder and weight-loss efforts can make things worse. For an explanation of why weight-loss efforts can cause and worsen an eating disorder like binge eating or bulimia, another blog is needed.

It is helpful to our readers to point out that not all people in larger bodies have an eating disorder. About 1 in 2 people who seek help for their weight issues have some form of eating disorder; that means many people in larger bodies do not have an eating disorder. Maybe they just like….  ummm (how do I say this) “fat-promoting” foods or they might have genes that make them gain weight more easily. We are not all the same. Nonetheless, people have agency and they have the right to choose how they want to live. They are misled to be told that there is no link between body fat, diet and disease.

The metabolic meds like Semaglutide are not designed to make people feel happier because of how they LOOK. Let’s be honest – looking different is a motivation for many people seeking weight loss. They will say, Oh I want to be healthier or fitter, but what they really mean is, I want to approve of myself when I look in the mirror. The metabolic meds are designed to make people healthier. The question is, do they?  Metabolic meds change aspects of metabolism and some drugs can improve cardiometabolic health.  To give my readers, clients and professional therapists a balanced view, let’s look at the pros and cons of Semaglutide

Benefits of Semaglutide

Semaglutide is a drug that affects a hormone called GLP-1 that is part of what we call the “incretin pathway”. This slows gastric emptying, making people feel fuller for longer and it affects some of the many hormones in the brain that control appetite. It is a drug that causes fast weight-loss and some people discover that their blood sugar profile improves, they may stop being diabetic.

As long as the drug is taken, Semaglutide also affects weigh-regain mechanisms in the brain. Alongside fat loss, the level of inflammation in the body improves. Very few people understand what “inflammation” means and how it relates to obesity. Inflammation is responsible for a great deal of illness including cancer. Inflammation can also be caused by stress, so for sure, stress and weight stigma can also make you ill.

A great many people think that taking a drug or having surgery to lose weight is cheating. This is unkind, because obesity is a complex metabolic condition that is affected by many things; some of which are out of our control. Each single person is affected differently by genes, our living environment, our personal biome, our early eating patterns, even the behaviour of our mothers when we were in the womb.  Now we know that going on a calorie-controlled diet is ineffective and potentially dangerous. But we cannot shrug our shoulders and just tell people that there is nothing we can do and more controversially, that people “should” welcome obesity into their lives.

Even while being sensitive to stigma, I do not remove hope or healing. If, for example, you have insulin resistance or diabetes Type 2, a metabolic drug will level your metabolic playing field and give you a better chance of widening your choices. What can be wrong with that?

The cons of Semaglutide

Metabolic meds do not change a person’s relationship with food, including the ways in which food is used as a fix or a way to regulate feelings. Most of us eat to manage our moods some of the time and some people do more comfort eating than others. Emotional eating is not just “in the mind” – some of us more than others are  “wired” to need more pleasure from food. How can I best explain this?  – well –  it is possible to develop faulty wiring because of long-standing eating patterns. Binge eaters, for example, usually develop resistance, deep in the brain, to the normal signals of pleasure when they have eaten something that they like. Now is not the time for me to explain how we can put this right;  but putting it right does NOT involve taking a metabolic drug.

Semaglutide can have a lot of unpleasant side effects like nausea and vomiting. More worryingly, as soon as you stop taking it, the weight piles back on. People wanting weight loss assume that losing weight is enough to make them able to keep it off.  In over 99% of cases, weight is not only regained but it is exceeded. The drug can make you end up fatter than you were before and this gives rise to shame and worry.  So, I would not do anything that makes a vulnerable client feel worse. My final concern is that we don’t know the long-term effects of manipulating pancreatic hormones. The drug industry is littered with the history of very adverse and sometimes fatal consequences.

So, when one of our therapists tell me that their client wants to take Semaglutide for a weight-loss fix, I tell them “NO”- do not go there for now.

The take-home

I am on the side of happiness and wellbeing. If there was a weight-loss drug that could be taken safely for life, that would help people look and feel better (in their mind anyhow) I would be all for it. I don’t believe in “cheating thinking”, because we are all born with different bodies and different challenges when it comes to what we choose to eat and how our body deals with it. 

At The National Centre for Eating Disorders, we do a deep, holistic assessment, to learn more about a person and their relationship with food before we make judgements. Clients in treatment for an eating disorder are discouraged from trying to lose weight and we attend to their body image, their feelings, their mindset, self-esteem and ability to self-care. We do not assault our patients with tyrannical views about how they “should” eat,  what they “should” weigh or how they “should” feel about their body size. If they are desperate and craving a metabolic drug, we give them the facts as we know them.

If you or someone you know is considering Semaglutide, or bariatric surgery, please don’t take action before having an assessment with a properly trained therapist.  This therapist will want to learn everything about your relationship with food and how it has gone astray. Email us at admin@ncfed  or call 0845 838 2040.

The Vegan

Alsana treatment service have done a study with dieticians who work with eating disorder clients. They have something to say about veganism and eating disorders. What follows does not apply to people who are vegetarian for religious reasons. Asana writes:

“In a survey we conducted with hundreds of dietitians who specialize in eating disorders, we found that 98% of eating disorder dietitians saw clients who followed a vegan eating style. Of these, 75% of vegan clients realized that their eating disorder was enmeshed with veganism, while 25% of clients realized the eating disorder was separate and veganism was a true value in their belief system”.

We ask, how does a client KNOW whether their veganism is a symptom of eating disorder behaviour. Most insist that they have genuine concerns for the planet, for animal welfare and for sustainability.

The clients whose vegan diet is mostly a symptom of the eating disorder, do not have a therapeutic space to  disentangle their veganism from eating disorder thinking. At the start of therapy most insist that veganism is essential to their identity.

At the NCFED we have many thoughts about veganism, while accepting how important it is at first. We want to know whether there are other hidden issues that make veganism a compelling dietary choice. Veganism has been linked to autism, to irrational contamination fears and to early attachment issues between a mother and her child during the developmental stage we sometimes refer to as Kleinian Rage! Freud may have linked eating choices to fears of oral impregnation. We have found that veganism and also vegetarianism can be associated with OCD especially if there is no flexibility in the person. In other words, would even thinking about eating a bit of fish cause a meltdown – or would it be OK if nothing else was available.

The vegan diet can lead to serious nutritional deficiencies such as choline, iodine, B vitamins and imbalances in essential fats that cannot always be rectified by vegan sources (especially Omega 3 fats). The effects on the neurochemicals of mood, metabolism and appetite can maintain eating disorder symptoms.

If veganism is a symptom rather than a true spiritual value for the 75% of patients identified in this study, the route to recovery must include broadening the choice of food. Supplements alone are not a good way to address the potential depletions of a vegan diet, because supplements lack the synergy of nutrients that exist in real food. Some people see supplements as an alternative to eating a balanced diet, and this is also part of eating disorder thinking.

No one has yet come up with a treatment that will confront the thinking that has led to their choices as well as to rebalance their physiology.  Recovery is not just about dealing with childhood adversity.

If your client is vegan or vegetarian, recovery may entail getting more variety into their diet. and oh my goodness, how this will be resisted! Can they become a flexitarian, and use some form of animal based foods as a medicine? Will they secretly consider themselves superior to you because they make more ethical choices? This will interfere with your therapy.

If you the healer are vegetarian or vegan, can you congruently help a person to expand their food choices? Will you see yourself as superior to your meat-eating client? This will interfere with your therapy.

Eating disorders are not just about feelings, they are also about food. A restrictive diet is not great for anyone with an eating disorder. The vegan / vegetarian client may need a great deal of informed and compassionate support to disentangle their values from their eating disorder symptoms and be more open with their choices.

Self X & Eating Distress


I’ve been watching  a series called Phil Stutz on Netflix  and was so excited because this is how I work. I am always sharing pictures with my clients to explain to them what is going on and keeping them stuck in their body image hell and horrible relationship with food.

Stutz tells us that we all have an interferer self he calls “X” that gets in the way of us being happy. Shakespeare said much the same thing when he wrote about each person’s unique fatal flaw. Macbeth had his fatal ambition and  Hamlet’s fatal flaw was his procrastination he just couldn’t make decisions until it was all too late.

Eating disorders shows us our particular and unique X-SELF. We don’t get an eating disorder simply because someone was mean to us or because we had a difficult childhood; the X-SELF that drives us toward our eating disorder could be that our basic nature is sensitive, or an anxious, or that we have a perfectionistic nature. Oh;  of course, our life experiences have some bearing on our disorder of choice but even people without traumas develop anorexia, bulimia and problems with binge eating.

The question we must ask ourselves is NOT what caused our eating disorder, we have to face up to WHO is this X-SELF that has decided to  obsess about food, calories, the bodies of pop stars and influencers to such an extent that we want to mould ourselves like putty into an ideal shape and size. What is the real X-SELF that is blinding our light.

This X-SELF is part of us, it isn’t something that will go away, it takes constant and continual self- awareness, pain and hard work to stop critic-X from interfering with our better life.  You won’t get rid of X-SELF by starving yourself or working out for hours in the gym. You just put off the pain.

There are so many ways of having an eating disorder. One sad young woman starves herself, eats in 8-hour windows and spends hours in the gym. She has a meltdown if the scales show that she has gained half a pound (of what).

One sad married woman is addicted to cola and McDonalds; the idea of missing her fix makes her shake with fear. She is 30 stones and desperately unhappy. She lives only to eat and her life has shrunk to the corners of her living room. She thinks that a gastric band would solve all her problems with food. It will not.

One sad man can only allow himself to eat so long as he purges afterwards. He is going to live his life  with his head down a toilet. If he is watching the sun rise over a glorious mountain he will be thinking about when he can next eat and purge.

I share many ideas with Phil Stutz and I work in ways like him.  He says (among other things) that the meaningful life starts with caring for the body, not using it like a lump of putty to showcase the six pack or the 13-inch waist. Not overeating in an act of defiance against a fat-phobic culture.   Oh yes, we can use the tricks of therapy to get someone partly well, like CBT and DBT and MANTRA. But every person with an eating disorder needs to meet SELF-X and learn how to use every tool in the book to stop it from pulling your strings. Hard, occasionally uncomfortable and ongoing work.

Only with guidance from a therapist who can show you the mirror into your soul, can you ever get well. Watch Phil Stutz, and reach out for help, we are waiting. 0845 838 2040

Obesity in the elderly-does it matter?

I have just returned from a cruise. Cruises are exciting holidays that are often favoured by  older people, especially those who are widowed, because they are safe and there are many opportunities for connection that you will not find in an hotel. Being of a curious mind, and  a watcher of the behaviour of other people, I noticed many things about my fellow guests.

The food available on a cruise ship (and in holiday hotels) is vast. Many people use eating as a form of recreation. It has nothing to do with staying alive. Holiday food is like being in a sweet shop, with no one there to stop us from putting our hands in the cookie jar. If you add the cocktails and if you are on a package where all you can drink is included, it is even better.

Many people on holiday eat and drink as if there is no tomorrow. Our enjoyment of a holiday is often conditional on letting go of all the rules and constraints of everyday life. Our Palaeolithic brain drives us to gorge on anything that is placed in front of our nose and the tastier it is, the more we want it. But; Palaeolithic man spent much of his life in starvation mode as well, and we have not learned how to adjust.

Many older people are infirm, they are using walking sticks and the elevator rather than the stairs. They have problems with their hips and their knees and they have trouble getting up or sitting down. Some are riddled with arthritis, that is an inflammatory condition. They sit with their morning coffee, watching the exercisers on the walking deck that every cruise ship boasts. The average deck extends for between quarter and a third of a mile around the ship. The older walkers are not particularly thin but – none are at the other end of the scale.

Health in the elderly is Not At Every Size. Obesity in older people is significantly associated with a range of infirmities that affect health and quality of life. Thinness is not a good idea either. I am told that longevity is best in people with a BMI in the “just overweight” category.

Obesity rates have increased enormously recently, even in more elderly age groups,” said Eva Kiesswetter, PhD, from the Institute for Geriatric Biomedicine at the University of Nuremberg, Germany, at the DGE conference.

In addition to the other well-known consequences, excess weight in the elderly can affect falling risk, pain, cognitive performance, and above all, one’s independence. The infirm elderly can live for a long time, but often in a state of pain, dependency and depression. Some of my companions – most if not all in larger bodies went on a trip, but could not get out of the tour bus and walk around– that is not much fun for them.

The need for vigilance in ageing

Research tells us that increases in BMI are normal through the lifespan partly due to changes in muscle mass and metabolism. To avoid weight gain in ageing is effortful and would require vigilance regarding diet and activity. Vigilance is not the same as dieting. Also, there are concerns about weight loss, even in the elderly. This is because weight loss leads to a decrease in muscle mass or bone density that can be particularly risky for elderly people. Dieting alone is thus unhelpful for older people.

Kiesswetter and her colleagues in Germany investigated which weight-loss interventions had a positive effect on elderly people’s physical functionality. The team incorporated 49 studies into their evaluations. They found that a combination of nutritional and activity interventions produced the best results. This combination can improve functional status and moderately reduce body weight without causing a loss in muscle mass, according to the findings.

Gerontologists also tell us that eating extra (complete) protein is helpful for the average older person, helping to sustain muscle mass particularly if someone also spends a little time moving on their feet. Sugar is unhelpful to older people. This isn’t dieting, it is self-care.

Elderly people with a normal BMI can also become ill but are less likely to be “inflamed”. Difficulty moving makes old age FEEL much older than it is; apart from what we know to be the associated health risks.

QOL in the elderly is being able to stand up gracefully, move about flexibly, sit down softly, get dressed easily and to go for long rambles with family and grandchildren. Age has its challenges but our body is a companion to the mind and both need care.

Is obesity a disease?

A number of academics and researchers have come together to advise that obesity should be recognised as complex, progressive, chronic, multifactorial disease. It is a disease for which there is no effective treatment other than strategies that could make it worse,  such as changes to diet and lifestyle. All the names one gives obesity – “disease, “weakness”, “moral failure” etc, cause stigma, and stigma makes the problem worse. Because of this, it is proposed by some people that the word “obesity” should be banned and fatness should be celebrated.

At the moment, whatever you feel about it, the word “obesity” simply refers to an arbitrary and often inaccurate measure of the amount of fat on a human body. There is a certain level of fatness that is associated with better health, but not in everyone. I get that. Thin may also mean sick. Unexercised also means sick and smoking also means sick. But not in all.

There are levels of fatness which – with or without stigma – are associated with poor health.  And it for this reason that I am conflicted. Because, removing the effects of stigma will not remove the effects of obesity.

There is an inconvenient truth that the fatter a person is, the more they are at risk of diabetes, some endocrinal cancers, inflammation, cognitive impairment, liver disease. There is a lie at the heart of ‘Health At Every Size’. Yes, I do know that stigma increases the health effects of a fatter body. And the more I list the effects of obesity, the more defensive I feel.

It was proposed by my erstwhile colleagues that we can reduce stigma by calling obesity a metabolic disease rather than a moral issue. But how are these academics planning to create this change in the short-term, when most people in the community really don’t share this definition of obesity and would prefer not to live in a larger body?  I think that it is important to throw off the shackles of stigma and celebrate any human shape, but, despite the body-positive movement, we aren’t there yet. Children asked to say what they most worry about STILL put weight gain near the top of their list. We are also still getting fat stigma in micro-doses everywhere.

Last month for example,  I went to see Back To The Future. I couldn’t help but notice that the villain was fat, the hero was slim and the love interest was not plus size. Even if “disease labelling” makes health professionals take treatment more seriously, I am uncertain whether feeling diseased will help anyone feel happier or more at peace with themselves.

As an obesity trainer, I have pondered how to help health professionals manage the overweight client without bringing stigma into the room and without agreeing or disagreeing about whether a person “needs” to lose weight. I think that we need to respect the client, while also doing a proper assessment to understand their motives and outcomes and to make sure that nothing else is wrong. If they are overweight because they have a seriously disturbed relationship with food, this needs to be dealt with first and there is no quick-fix for a longstanding eating disorder.

It has been argued that eating disorder professionals shouldn’t touch the client wishing to lose weight, because weight-loss efforts are associated with compulsive eating. This frankly is simply an opinion I disagree with.  The eating disorder specialist is schooled in neuroscience, nutrition, physiology, and psychology. With this knowledge we know enough to do a holistic assessment of the person wanting weight loss.  A relationship with food is by nature complex; and it evolves in the crucible of the client’s life events and relationships. By getting the client’s story, their health, the history of their weight loss efforts, their lifestyle and aspirations, we are better able to guide him or her on what to do next.

The latest thinking on weight-loss therapy does not involve dieting, deprivation or going to the gym. But here I end my blog because, that is another story for another time.

Boxing, weight loss & eating disorders

Boxing, Cricket, and dying to be thin.

I always knew that boxing was one of those sports that led to eating disorders in men, and most probably in women too.

A talented 17-year-old boxer called Ed Bilbey died in the ring after drastically cutting his weight so that he could keep competing in his weight category.

It was a chance visit to a boxing gym when he was 13 that set the course of Ed’s short life.

As he watched the men pummel the heavy bags, Ed fell in love with the game, and he eventually became a gifted 17-year-old wanting to pursue a long term career in boxing.  He was training hard to win the E. Midlands welterweight title; he had remained in this category since he was much younger despite having grown to 6 ft tall. To keep his weight down, his mother would catch him taking hot baths and sleeping in layers of clothes and duvets as he tried to lose weight through dehydration. He had been running in black bin bags; he said to his mum “I’ve got to sweat this weight off”.

On the day of the weigh in, he ate some eggs for breakfast then nothing else for the rest of the day, then he went into the ring for his match. Shortly after the fight ended, Ed collapsed and died. The Coroner said that his intense training, and rapid weight loss through dehydration had killed him.

Cricket also has its men with eating disorders. Freddie Flintoff was bulimic and now engages in compulsive exercise to keep thin. No one YET has made the connection between Shane Warne’s rapid weight loss behaviours, periods of starving,  and his struggles to keep his weight down. One may ask, what other things did Shane do to try and deal with his weight?

Another highly ranked boxer called Conor Benn has recently tested positive for a female fertility drug that causes males to lose fat and build more muscle. He was due to fight Chris Eubank’s son, aged 33, who at that time weighed as little as he had done at age 18. His father said that his son cutting so much weight was “suicidal”.

If only people knew what we know. Sweating weight off is a losing game. Sweat takes minerals out of your body that help your body to burn energy.  Those minerals also keep your heart beating.  In the end, even if you don’t actually die, you gain weight more easily and your body becomes a fat-making machine.

I wish that all sports coaches, especially in boxing, knew the cost of eating disorders and the sheer dangers of forcing a person’s weight down so that they can be match-fit for the category in which they are competing. Ed’s Mum and England Boxing have raised concerns that people in sport put hopes of future investment ahead of boxers’ welfare. England Boxing claim that they are starting a review; let’s not build our hopes too high.

Are sweeteners good for people with eating disorders (& obesity)?

Written with acknowledgement to Science Magazine

Artificial sweeteners, which can be hundreds to thousands of times sweeter than cane sugar, are generally not processed by the human body, which is why they provide no or few calories.

We have all been there, feeling virtuous because we have a diet drink. All that lovely sweet taste and filling fizz without the guilt or calories associated with sugar. But a new study suggests that these artificial sweeteners may not be as harmless as once thought; they may even increase the risk of diabetes or weight gain.

Scientists have long suspected a link between artificial sweeteners and obesity in humans, but until now that connection had only been shown in lab mice. Now, scientists in Israel have tested these chemicals in humans. Their results show that artificial sweeteners not only disturb the microbes living in human guts – which are critical for supplying essential nutrients, synthesising vitamin K, and digesting dietary fibres among other things—but some may impact how quickly the body removes sugar from the blood after a meal. The longer glucose stays in the blood, the greater the risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, kidney disease and weight gain.

Eran Elinav an immunologist at Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, tells us that non-nutritive sweeteners are not inert in humans.

Every human hosts a unique bouquet of microbes—bacteria, viruses, and fungi—that live naturally in and on our bodies; in the intestine, nose, mouth and on the skin and eye. The number of cells that make up this vast microbial community is about as many as all the rest of cells we have in the body. This community we c all the microbiome, is seeded at birth, and not only helps digestion but also protects against pathogens and supports the immune system.

Non sugar sweeteners disrupt the microbiome because even though they have no calories for humans, they serve as nutrients for some microbes, which then proliferate. This causes an imbalance in microbial populations that can cause chronic intestinal inflammation or colon cancer. The Israeli study confirms that non-nutrition sweeteners can disrupt the gut microbiome within two weeks of exposure and suggest their effects on sugar metabolism can vary from person to person.

Michael Goran, a professor of paediatrics and program director for Nutrition and Obesity at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles says, that what isn’t food for us can still be food for our gut bacteria. Different sweeteners have different chemical properties but can have similar effects in our gut.

David Katz, a nutrition specialist, and the founder of Yale University’s Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center, agrees. “This is an elegant, elaborate, and powerful study which establishes decisively that non-nutritional sweeteners impair glucose metabolism by causing specific damage to the microbiome.”

The Bitter History of Sweeteners

Humans have a natural preference for sweet foods that over the millenia prove that the food is safe and it is also  an evolutionary adaptation that drove us to high-energy foods at a time when nutritious foods were scarce. Natural sugars, such as glucose, fructose, cane, or milk sugars, are digested to produce energy—measured in calories—that helps our organs function. 

Sweeteners, which can be hundreds to thousands of times sweeter than cane sugar, have been created to provide no or few calories.

Saccharin, the first commercialised non-nutritive sweetener, was discovered in 1879 in coal-tar derivatives at Johns Hopkins University. Thanks to President Roosevelt who thought that sweeteners are a guilt-free way to lose weight, saccharin dodged a ban by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). In 1977, when the FDA tried again to ban saccharine because of the suspected risk of causing cancer in rats, Americans fought back. They sent millions of letters to Congress, the FDA and President Carter in protest.

Ultimately, only a cancer earning label was required on saccharin products. But this was dropped too in 2000 when scientists found that humans metabolise saccharin differently from rats, and it didn’t pose a cancer risk for humans.

Low or zero calorie sugar substitutes are in thousands of beverages and foods worldwide and generated £18 billion in 2021. This number is expected to rise as demand for these sweeteners—particularly in low- and middle-income countries—continues to expand. 

In the USA a survey in 2017 showed that 80 percent of children and more than half of adults consumed low-calorie sweeteners once daily. Obese adults used low-calorie sweeteners more frequently. Eating disorder and obesity experts have noted for decades  that sugar substitutes are linked to increased hungers and increased desires for fat-rich foods but we have never known why, until now.

Most eating disorder and obesity treatment programmes now require patients or clients to stop having drinks laden with sweeteners. It is not a good way to prevent weight gain and it is not a good way to cheat your hunger. We are not suggesting that it is better to have high sugar drinks and foods either. Sugar is still a very well proven health risk for obesity, diabetes and other health problems but the impacts from sweeteners also means a healthy caution should be observed.      There is no getting away from the truth – that drinking water, eating natural foods, and having a little bit of what you fancy is the safest way to live.

The Actual Study (If you want more of the science)

Elinav has been interested in uncovering the links between nutrition, gut microbes, and the risk of developing common diseases, such as obesity and diabetes, with the hope of devising microbiome-based personalised medicine.

In 2014, Elinav and colleagues that saccharin, sucralose, and aspartame each raised blood glucose of mice to levels that were significantly higher than those of mice that were fed sugar. When gut microbes collected from mice fed with artificial sweeteners were added to mice that had no gut bacteria of their own and had never been given artificial sweeteners, their blood-glucose levels shot-up as if they were consuming artificial sweeteners themselves.

“In mice, some of these non-nutritive sweeteners are sensed, and they impact the gut microbes, which have an amazing capacity to metabolise many of these compounds,” Elinav says. He decided to test whether the same held true in humans: Could altered gut microbes disturb the glucose metabolism?

Elinav’s team first screened 1,375 volunteers for any consumption of zero-calorie sweeteners in their daily lives. They identified 120 adults not previously exposed and gave them one of the four commonly used sweeteners—saccharin, sucralose, aspartame, and stevia for two weeks. The volunteers were then monitored for a third week. Scientists compared their blood-glucose responses against those who were not given artificial sweeteners.

Within 14 days after beginning any of the four tested artificial sweeteners, scientists observed significant differences in the populations of gut bacteria among volunteers. “We identified very distinct changes in the composition and function of gut microbes, and the molecules they secret in blood,” Elinav says. This suggests that gut microbes rapidly respond to artificial sweeteners.

To test how artificial sweeteners affect the body’s ability to control the surges in blood sugar after consuming sugar as part of meals, volunteers were monitored for blood glucose levels after a test glucose drink. Normally, blood glucose levels should peak in 15 to 30 minutes and then return to normal within two to three hours. If the glucose levels remain elevated, it signals that the body isn’t processing and storing excess glucose properly, a phenomenon known as glucose intolerance.

In the Israeli study, sucralose and saccharin pushed the body towards glucose intolerance, which if sustained may cause weight gain and diabetes. Aspartame and stevia did not affect the glucose tolerance at the tested ingested levels.

“The glycaemic responses that are induced by saccharin and sucralose, possibly by the gut microbiome, may be more pronounced,” Elinav says.

To confirm that disturbance in microbial populations disrupted blood glucose levels, scientists administered faecal microbes from stool of human participants to germ-free mice. The study found that microbes from the volunteers with elevated blood sugar levels also suppressed glucose control in the mice.

“The gut microbes, and the molecules they secrete into our bloodstream, are very altered in all four non-nutritive sweetener consumers,” Elinav says. “Each of the groups responded in a unique way.”

Although, the study didn’t follow the volunteers long term, this is the first study to show that the human microbiome responds to sweeteners in a highly individual manner. This can disrupt sugar metabolism in some, if not all consumers, depending on their microbes and the sweeteners they consume. It is currently unclear whether personal differences are due to genetic, epigenetic or lifestyle factors.

Children’s food, sugar tax & Government control

The children’s food campaign Sustain is urging the Government not to drop the sugar tax and any other strategy being used to try and control the increase in childhood obesity.

The say –   “Children’s Health Under Threat! Reports have emerged that the new Government is considering ripping up a number of its flagship childhood obesity strategy measures. Even the successful Soft Drinks Industry Levy is under threat, as well as plans to protect children from junk food marketing. We’ve joined the Obesity Health Alliance and 70 organisations in a joint letter to PM Liz Truss. asking her to consider the cost of reversing these measures for children’s health and the NHS”.   

Many of our readers don’t like the sugar tax, they say that this makes food more expensive for poor people who are the ones eating more sugar. We know that many poor families eat junk food because their children do not want to “eat broccolli”. So healthy food is more likely to be thrown away.

Why is an eating disorder organisation like ours interested in childhood obesity? Will the push for healthy eating drive people toward dieting and eating disorders?

Or will childhood obesity lead to eating disorders because overweight adolescents will try to lose weight in ways that could be dangerous?

I have heard it said that some supermarkets are not selling real cola and are pushing the diet colas that are also implicated in weight gain. This is because the “bad” bacterial in the gut feed off the chemicals in diet drinks.

NCFED takes a lot of calls from parents who are worried about their children’s eating habits, and also worried to interfere in case their child starts being funny with food.

Feeding children a lot of sugar over a period of years is like feeding them slow poison. The NHS IS on its knees managing weight related issues. Where do YOU stand on this very difficult issue?