Myths & Meanings: The Why Behind Eating Disorders | Darling Magazine

This is continued from Myths & Meanings: Eating Disorders And The Eating Disorder Spectrum

The Why behind eating disorders is a complex and hotly contested question within my tribe of eating disorder treatment specialists and researchers. While one factor has not been identified as the cause of eating disorders, much has been discovered as to the Why behind the various genetic, biochemical, cultural, psychological and family of origin factors that increase an individual’s vulnerability to developing serious food and body issues. It is important we scale the truth behind these myths so we can help people struggling get specialized help as soon as possible. Early intervention is absolutely crucial for the best outcomes in the treatment of eating disorders.

MYTH: Eating Disorders are caused by vanity.

MEANING: While many are motivated by our culture’s unrealistic ideal of beauty, health and worthiness to take extreme measures to achieve these standards, it is too reductive to state eating disorders and the disordered eating spectrum are motivated only by a desire to be a certain size or look a certain way. Eating disorders are much more complex. Beneath the surface of the preoccupations with looks is someone suffering with deep emotional pain. Using dieting and restrictive behavior, obsessing about certain foods, binging and purging in a variety of very unsafe means help individuals manage their intense and negative emotions. These unsafe ways to cope fade into their initial efficacy to relieve the pain, leading to more serious struggles with obsessions as well as emotional and physical complications.

MYTH: Eating disorders are a result of poor parenting.

MEANING: Blaming does nothing to help a struggling individual or their loved ones as they seek support during a stressful and confusing time. Blame keeps people stuck in anger, resentments and other toxic emotions that keep their identity and worth tied to their eating disorder and toxic emotional patterns. As a trained systems therapist, I do believe assessing dynamics in my client’s family of origin is crucial in developing a solid plan for healing and growth. Family of origin experiences that can increase vulnerability to developing an eating disorder include:

  • Chaotic/highly conflictual childhood or a family’s low tolerance for conflict
  • Neglect, abuse (physical, emotional or sexual)
  • Sports or activities with an intense focus on food and weight (i.e. acting, dancing, gymnastics, swimming, modeling, track, cheerleading)
  • Teasing and bullying, especially because of weight or appearance
  • Family “rules” around food and exercise (i.e. dieting, using food as a reward, required activity levels, critical talk around looks and/or food)

Understanding roles, boundaries and responsibility is very important, especially when trauma and distressing life events are a part of my client’s story.

MYTH: Eating Disorders are a choice.

MEANING: Sadly, this is one of the most damaging myths around eating disorders. Many make choices to manage their pain that keeps them stuck in the crazy-making of an eating disorder but they never choose to have an eating disorder. Genetics and biochemistry are major influences behind someone developing an eating disorder. Certain chemical imbalances can negatively impact the regulation of appetite, mood, sleep and stress leaving individuals more vulnerable to end up struggling on the eating disorder spectrum. Groundbreaking twin studies have shown that eating disorders and related temperament issues (low sense of worth, perfectionism, obsessive compulsive tendencies) run in families. Because of these findings, the choices for treatment and support have become more specialized and effective.

MYTH: Eating Disorders are caused by an addiction to food.

MEANING: Many people think eating disorders are just about food—fix the food, fix the eating disorder. In the throes of an eating disorder, it may look and feel like a food addiction. I realized early in my training there is a difference between other addictions and food issues. For example, you can live without drugs and alcohol, but you cannot live without food. So, it is important to expand the addictions lens when understanding the causes of eating disorders.

The diet industry wants you to believe that your eating issues are all about food, and that you can cure your woes by going on their “prescription for health.” Following a rigid plan that does not meet your body’s needs nor allows for individual food preferences actually keeps people in bondage to their eating disorder. Eliminating a food group to avoid being triggered keeps people in a “white-knuckled” state—not enjoying life, but living in fear of and disconnected from their body’s needs.

Weight loss obsession, calorie counting and a whole lot of food and body shame can engulf someone who thinks they are powerless around food. For many, holding on to the myth they are addicted to food contributes to their vulnerability to culture’s messages that perpetuate a fear of fat and food; viewing fat as undesirable or foods as “good,” “bad” or “sinful.” To be clear, there are seasons in recovery where my clients have needed higher levels of care because they were not able to safely feed or care for themselves. For as many as possible, long term healing involves nourishing and honoring individual food preferences without fear or rigid limits/rules.

Stay tuned for part three of this series, which will address the myths and meanings around recognizing when someone is struggling with an eating disorder and what you can do to help…

Image via Modern Hepburn



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  2. Amanda – Thanks so much for your positive feedback and for reading. Erin – I really appreciate your kinds words and feedback, too. Thanks for reading and sharing this important information.

  3. This is one of the best, clearest, easiest to understand articles I have read on the Why Behind eating disorders. Thanks so much for sharing your wisdom with so many!

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