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Eating Disorders Are Not Just About the Food

Updated on September 29, 2015

Eating Disorders Are Not So Simple

It's not really about the food. It's not about the person having a good meal or eating at McDonald's or increasing his calorie count. An eating disorder is about the person who has it and not the food. Not eating or binge eating is a form of communication; it says that something inside that person is going haywire. An eating disorder goes deeper than a pepperoni pizza. It goes beyond the surface. It goes beyond the stereotypical thinking that eating disorders are just a female disease, and that it only happens to spoiled, rich white girls.

An eating disorder goes to the very soul and core of the person. Whoever the person is--white or black or male or female. It goes into how that person feels about himself. It goes into what happens when he wakes up in the morning and what that internal voice tells him. It even goes beyond what the reflection in the mirror means to him.

It's a disorder that infiltrates her entire being. It's not simply about food or attention or trying to be skinny. It's not about paying back her parents for all the trauma they might have caused her. It's not about the family meals that may or may not be too fattening. It's about what that person feels inside and how that person distorts food and eating and how that person distorts his body image and the underlying reasons why the eating disorder came into his or her life.

So it's really not just about the food. It is more times than not, a very complicated disorder.

“To anyone who thinks eating disorders are something rich, bored white girls do to get attention, I bid you bite me. I have frequent, intense, inappropriate outbursts of anger over the lies little girls are told about what is beautiful.”

― Stacy Pershall, Loud in the House of Myself: Memoir of a Strange Girl

For some, it's about the numbers
For some, it's about the numbers | Source

Eating Disorders are About a Lot of Things.

Eating disorders are about accepting one's reality; whatever that reality means to him. The reality of his appearance; the reality of how he performs in school; the reality of his parent's divorce or the death of a sibling.

Eating disorders are about not letting go. It's about holding on so tight to the disordered way of eating and the disordered way of looking at the world and the disordered way he looks at himself. Pretty soon he begins to lose the things that he loves and cherishes; and if the eating disorder continues, he will lose himself, perhaps permanently.

Earting disorders are about all the pain she is feeling. She is filled up with pain. She feels persecuted by the pain. Pain from the past and present. Pain that might have come from a trauma, from a loss, from abuse. Pain that seems to come up by random triggers. The pain goes away temporarily when she purges or cuts herself or drinks or restricts or binges. But the pain always comes back.

Eating disorders are about feeling worthless. She has an empty hole inside her that she wants to fill up somehow but can't. She feels worthless, unattractive, unloved and unwanted. Sometimes she feels that she shouldn't be alive; she feels like a burden to others. In most cases, the opposite is true. She really is worthy, attractive, smart, loved and wanted. She just can't see it. Perhaps a trauma or a mental distortion is in the way of seeing things clearly.

Eating disorders are about getting approval from others. It's always about others. He puts others first and he's way down on the totem pole. As much as he tries to please others and do things just right, he always feels like a failure. He always feels like a major disappointment to others. All he wants is to do things perfectly so he gets the approval from the people he values.

It's about the two conflicting voices in her head. It's about the voice of ED, the eating disorder, and it's also about her healthy voice that tells her to eat so she can be healthy and have a normal life. Most of the time ED is a stronger voice and she listens to ED. Strangely, she sees ED as a friend, but others tell her that he's not a friend. She knows they are right, but she can't stop--it becomes a compulsive behavior.

It's about those terrorizing numbers. It's about that monster scale that he steps on. It's about what that scale tells him; that he can never get the number right where he wants. It's about the scale telling him that he's not good enough and to try again tomorrow, which means eating less. It's about the numbers of calories in his life that overwhelms him so much. All those number are in his head and keeps him from concentrating on school or work or friends or family.

It's about feeling exhausted all the time. It's about feeling exhausted and stressed all the time. She's so tired of trying to please people and do what's right that she never has any time for herself. She just wants things to be different, but it all seems like so much work because she is so tired of it all. She wants to give up.

It's about the secrets that he holds. It's about keeping secrets, about keeping all those things to himself because he is afraid to let them out. He doesn't want to cause trouble or hurt people and he doesn't want things to get worse. He holds onto secrets until at once point, he bursts. And there are hundreds of pieces of him spilled all over the floor.

Please note: Eating disorders don't follow a specific script. Some patients with eating disorders do not have secrets. Some patients with eating disorders are not perfectionists. Each eating disorder has it's own specific origin or cause. In a sense, no two eating disorders are alike.

“Between 10 and 20 percent of people with anorexia die from heart attacks, other complications and suicide; the disease has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness."

― Harriet Brown

“The anoretic operates under the astounding illusion that she can escape the flesh, and, by association, the realm of emotions.”
Marya Hornbacher, Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia

It's About Dealing with Scary Emotions

Emotions for the person with an eating disorder are a scary thing. They fear them and they try to avoid them at all costs. They go to great lengths to avoid painful emotions like fear, shame, depression, anger, etc. They purge it. They starve it. They restrict it. They eat it to death. They exercise it until it is too weak to talk. But people with eating disorders soon realize that none of this works. Emotions can't be destroyed. They are here to stay. There's no running from them. There's no cave or country to escape from them. The person with an eating disorder has to accept this fact. Emotions are here to stay. The person has to make friends with them and understand that emotions won't kill you. They come and go. They are normal. They can be managed.

Eating Disorders are About Recovery

Eating Disorders are about her family helping her to recover. It's about the love and support of a family that stands beside her with patience and encourages her to make changes in her life. It's about the family saying the right things and doing the right things under the guidance of the professional treatment team.

Eating Disorders are about being in the right treatment facility. In order to recover he has to be in the right place, whether that is inpatient, intensive outpatient or residential treatment. It's having the right staff who are knowledgeable enough to make the right recommendations. And it's his family supporting these recommendations.

Eating Disorders are about not giving up. Treatment of eating disorders are both time consuming and difficult for the patient and her family. The treatment process has a lot of ups and downs and may take many years for any progress to be seen. The key for both the patient and the family is not to give up.

Eating Disorders are about finding inner strength. For many people with eating disorders, they feel weak and powerless. They come to treatment feeling that their recovery is hopeless. It is the goal for clinicians and patients to find the inner strength that is inside the person but hidden away and covered up by the dark cloud of eating disorders.

Eating Disorders are about telling the truth and revealing painful secrets. Once the person feels strong enough, she then can start to be honest about what is going on in her life and to reveal some painful secrets. These secrets, in general, are traumatic and stored in the body that translates into eating disorder behaviors. In a sense, eating disorders are a language of pain and suffering.

Learning to Love Yourself

Eating disorders are about focussing on your own needs and taking the necessary time to heal and to recover. It is about doing your affirmations, making your therapist appointments, nourishing your body with food, engaging in activities that make you happy, being gentle and forgiving of yourself, spending time with love ones and loving family members, studying things that you want to study, working at a job that makes you fulfilled, and not engaging in self-defeating or harmful behaviors. Getting better means different things to different people. But the common thread for everyone with an eating disorder is learning to love yourself.


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    • Mark Tulin profile imageAUTHOR

      Mark Tulin 

      3 years ago from Santa Barbara, California

      Yes, gsidley. It's very much control, controlling the way they feel and the distance between you and them. In the case of anorexics, it also feels like an escape, via restricting, to a place where no one can reach them and to a place where they can't feel. You talk to them but they can't hear you. Very frustrating and sad at the same time. Thanks for your comment.

    • gsidley profile image

      Dr. Gary L. Sidley 

      3 years ago from Lancashire, England

      A high quality hub about a much misunderstood problem.

      In my work in the mental health field the element that occurred most, particularly with those with anorexia nervosa, was a desperate desire to feel in control of something. Life seemed totally out of their control so they grasp one aspect - food/eating - and invest everything in controlling it. While doing so, of course, there is no space to think about anything else that has contributed to their unhappiness.

      Voted up and useful

    • Mark Tulin profile imageAUTHOR

      Mark Tulin 

      3 years ago from Santa Barbara, California

      Great insight Diana about how bullies contribute to negative feelings and the feelings in turn make one eat more. Unfortunately, insight alone doesn't change this negative eating cycle. It's managing these feelings. Which is a different Hub. Thanks for your feedback.

    • Diana Lee profile image

      Diana L Pierce 

      3 years ago from Potter County, Pa.

      This is a great topic for a hub that many can relate to. I've always been an emotional eater. It started early in life and to this day I find myself trying to eat away any problems that come up. Of course all I really did was pack on unwanted pounds I'd be healthier not having. I was a target for fat jokes which did nothing more than make me eat more. You'll find bullies behind many eating disorders. Voted up.

    • Mark Tulin profile imageAUTHOR

      Mark Tulin 

      3 years ago from Santa Barbara, California

      Thank you

    • Mark Tulin profile imageAUTHOR

      Mark Tulin 

      3 years ago from Santa Barbara, California

      Thank you

    • markjayharris profile image

      Mark Jay Harris 

      3 years ago from Smithfield, Utah

      Good job covering an important issue.

    • easylearningweb profile image

      Amelia Griggs 

      3 years ago

      This is a very important, quite informative hub. I think it will raise awareness about disorders and possible causes.

      Thank you for putting this hub together.

    • Mark Tulin profile imageAUTHOR

      Mark Tulin 

      3 years ago from Santa Barbara, California

      Thank you Ryem. Most of what I wrote was from my experience as a therapist working in the field of eating disorders.

    • Ryem profile image


      3 years ago from Maryland

      This is an excellent article, it changed the way I view eating disorders. Thank you for researching and sharing this information. :)

    • Mark Tulin profile imageAUTHOR

      Mark Tulin 

      3 years ago from Santa Barbara, California

      Thanks fellow Hubbers for you positive responses to the article. If any disorder or disease needs a heavy dose of compassion, it is this one.

    • mdscoggins profile image

      Michelle Scoggins 

      3 years ago from Fresno, CA

      Great article Mark. You really touched on some great aspects of ED. As a professional you hit it on the head as you said - "They purge it. They starve it. They restrict it. They eat it to death. They exercise it until it is too weak to talk. " Also letting people know that no two eating disorders are alike was fantastic. Great job exposing many of the misconceptions with these disorders. Voted up and shared.

    • Dr Bill Tollefson profile image

      Bill Tollefson 

      3 years ago from Southwest Florida

      Really enjoyed your HUB article. Written well, very use and interesting as a professional. Great insight in the deeper issues of ED. I am sure it will help many suffering and their family members.

      Voted Up, Useful and Interesting

      Keep writing and sharing. Dr Bill

    • janshares profile image

      Janis Leslie Evans 

      3 years ago from Washington, DC

      This is superbly done, well-written, and highly informative. Your opening paragraph gives the perfect introduction to looking at eating disorders from a different and deeper perspective. It breaks through the stereotypical view most have of what it means to have this disorder. This article can help so many people: the person suffering with an eating disorder, the family and significant others who are impacted, and the therapists who provide counseling. You've done an excellent job presenting what eating disorders are really about, Mark: emotions. Voted up, useful, and awesome.


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