Clearing Up Confusion
by Natalie Mulligan, ND
In a world where ideas about healthy eating and “fit” bodies are inundating the public constantly, it feels like it has become important to distinguish between a true, diagnosable eating disorder and a normal, societal consumption with thoughts of food and body—because they are not the same. What would be considered “normal” within a culture that has become incredibly abnormal around food/body is a topic for another day!
In this article, I am going to help you understand what an eating disorder is by explaining what it is not.
First, let’s define “eating disorder.” The Mayo Clinic defines eating disorders as “serious conditions related to persistent eating behaviors that negatively impact your health, your emotions and your ability to function in important areas of life.” It further qualifies them by saying that “[m]ost eating disorders involve focusing too much on your weight, body shape and food, leading to dangerous eating behaviors.” This is merely a helpful starting place, because it really doesn’t give any insight into the experience of living with an eating disorder, which again is a topic for another day!
What an Eating Disorder Is Not
An eating disorder is not something that the average man or woman can understand unless having personally gone through it or having personally watched a close loved one go through it. This means it’s not a relatable life experience like heartbreak. It is far beyond what “relatable” issues with bodies would include—such as wishing a certain body part looked different or wanting to lose weight. These are experiences that most people have experienced. This is not what an eating disorder feels like.
2. A Phase
An eating disorder is not a short-lived reaction to a life event and is not something someone will grow out of. It would be “normal” to have weight fluctuations following a breakup, a job loss, or any major upheaval in life, because temporary appetite changes accompany these life events. An eating disorder is significantly more severe than this and will not resolve itself when the dust settles following the life change.
3. A Desire to Lose Weight
Eating disorders don’t start by a rational thought of wanting to lose weight, regardless of the weight an individual was at when the eating disorder started. Obsession with body weight is a symptom of an eating disorder—it begins after the eating disorder already exists. Eating disorders begin more or less by accident, and the person with the eating disorder stumbles upon food as the expression of the emotional turmoil they are experiencing. As the ED progresses, more and more emphasis is put on weight loss and body shape, but this is not what initiated it.
Another important distinction is the word “desire”—for someone with an ED, weight loss is a compulsion, which has a completely different flavour than “wanting to lose 5 of 10 pounds.”
4. Characterized by a Particular Body Type or Body Weight
It is a myth that someone with an eating disorder will look like they have an eating disorder. Eating disorders come in literally all shapes and sizes, and most actually aren’t obvious, because the person will look totally normal. The textbook image that comes to mind when someone thinks of an eating disorder is the look of an emaciated body of someone suffering from anorexia. Most patients do not look like this, and the shape or size of someone’s body is not a reliable indicator of how unwell they are. Some of the most high-risk eating-disorder patients (meaning the most likely to have a fatal outcome) look totally normal from a weight perspective. Patients with bulimia often have normal body weights but are extremely at risk of fatal outcomes (heart failure, esophageal rupture, gastric rupture, etc.).
5. Being Sensitive or Insecure
About Your Body as a Whole or Parts of Your Body
This would fall in the category of a normal human experience—something we can all relate to. This, by default, makes it not an eating disorder. Someone with an ED will definitely feel insecure about their body, but the impact of that insecurity extends far beyond their body. The insecurity accompanying an eating disorder is crippling and it involves all areas of life that would be seemingly totally unrelated to body.
6. “About Control”
Many people who have done preliminary research about eating disorders will think they are about control. This is a very basic understanding and would be true as a catch term only—but this is much too simplistic to explain what an eating disorder is actually “about.” An ED is about a loss of self, an absence of self-worth or self-love, a desperate and misguided attempt to be acceptable or likeable, an inability to tolerate distress, and an illusion of helplessness to a devastatingly powerful tyrant—the eating disorder. Illusion is an important word here, because the person with the ED isn’t powerless to it; they just have to find their power against it. An ED begins when a series of the wrong life circumstances happen at the wrong time when someone doesn’t have the coping skills to make it through—and to reduce it to being “about control” is, to put it not so lightly, insulting.
7. Attention-Seeking Behaviour
When someone is actively engaging in their eating disorder, the absolute last thing they want is attention. EDs provide a terribly insulating space where a person can completely detach from the world and the pressures of their life, and essentially hibernate. Attention to the eating disorder threatens the existence of the eating disorder, which is the opposite of what someone wants when they are deep in the ED.
8. Is Not Something to Take Lightly and Is Not a Choice
Someone with an ED is probably not going to just snap out of it. They are going to need some amount of professional help, and the longer the ED exists, the harder it becomes to move away from—so it needs to be taken seriously right from the onset. Eating disorders are serious medical conditions, and just like physical health conditions, no one asks for them. When a person begins eating disorder behaviours, he/she is oblivious to what he/she is doing and what he/she is setting in motion. Fast-forward, however, many years, and everyone would tell you that they wish they could go back to their younger self and never have turned down that path in the first place. They’re serious and they need a lot of help to move away from.
Hopefully, those are some helpful pieces of information about what an eating disorder is not that can help shed light on what living with an eating disorder feels like.
For more information, consider the National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC), which is a Canadian nonprofit that provides resources on eating disorders and weight preoccupation. Additionally, it is recommended that you consider seeking the services of a qualified health-care practitioner, such as a naturopathic doctor. A thorough assessment and treatment plan can be extremely beneficial, including running the appropriate tests and working with the mental and emotional aspects of the underlying condition.