Eating Disorders: It Is not about the food’s-not-about-the-food

Article by Lea Peyton Gebhardt 

Eating Disorders do not discriminate; they are not limited by gender, age, social class, or ethnicity. Individuals suffering from Eating Disorders have severe disturbances in eating behavior (ranging from total restriction to binge eating) coupled with negative or distorted body image. Over exercise, self-induced vomiting, and misuse of laxatives or medications are behaviors typically associated with weight control in Eating Disorders.  Poorly understood by most, Eating Disorders are often oversimplified to a basic mathematical equation of eating too much or eating too little with bodyweight being the end result. This linear thinking dismisses the severity of the disease, overlooks the psychological and emotional aspects, and reinforces weight as the measurable outcome.  It is important to remember it is not about the food.  Eating Disorders are diseases that affect ones physical health, cognition and thinking, feelings and emotions, sociability as well as quality of life.  And sometimes, they are paired with anxiety, mood, adjustment or personality disorders, and substance abuse.

Unhealthy relationships with food can develop as a response to life stressors.  Food is one of the few things we can control without external interference and this is learned at a very young age. When life seems overwhelming for individuals with eating disorders, food becomes the coping mechanism.  How much, how little, what, when, and where to eat, represent an individuals’ control that may not be felt, perceived or present in other areas of life. This methodical approach to eating coupled with a fixation on weight control can be all consuming and can take up to 90 percent of waking hours; therefore leaving little time to manage any of life’s other responsibilities. Food and weight become tangible, measurable entities, yet they are merely metaphors for answers to more complex core issues including but not limited to: depression, anxiety, coping, identity, values, relationships, low self-esteem, abuse, or obsessive behavior.  We live in a culture where thinness is valued and aggressive food marketing produces conflicting information about which foods are “healthy”, creating the perfect environment to mask emotions behind food control.

Eating disorders and the resultant food behavior can ravage the body physically resulting in malnutrition, anemia, muscle wasting, compromised bone health, gastrointestinal function and immunity, and even death. Malnutrition can further compromise any underlying psychological condition and yield mood stabilizing medications ineffective. Remember it is not just about food.  Eating Disorders can only effectively be treated with a multidisciplinary team consisting of a physician, psychiatrist, therapist, and dietitian.