Preventing eating disorders

This past weekend was the Stand Up 2 Cancer event, where celebrities raised money to try and "eliminate" cancer. I believe the catchphrase was "This is where the end of cancer begins."

As I biochemist, I find the idea of "eliminating" cancer quite absurd. Cancer is simply a byproduct of evolution. If genes couldn't mutate, we would still be pond scum, or living near the vents at the bottom of the ocean. But genes can mutate, and if you have a mutation in the wrong genes, then you have cancer. You can no more "eliminate" cancer than you can gravity. You just...can't.

I'm not saying we shouldn't do what we can to prevent the illnesses we can. I'm not cold-hearted (well, not all the time).

It's quite the same with eating disorders.

Call me cynical, but I think we're going to find it hard to prevent all eating disorders. It's a biologically-based mental illness; the genes that cause anorexia (which may have been evolutionarily useful to early humans in withstanding famine) and bulimia and binge eating disorder aren't going to "purge" themselves from the human race. Ergo, there will still be cases of eating disorders no matter how hard we try.

And I have some issue with a lot of the prevention efforts out there. Raising the self-esteem of girls is a good thing. So is media literacy. And building better body image. After all, our culture isn't exactly the most healthy.

But is this really going to prevent eating disorders?

Why not focus on the dangers of some of the "healthy eating" and "wellness" initiatives out there? Why not focus on the importance of full nutrition- the need for fats, the dangers of dieting, the benefits of eating when you're hungry and stopping when you're full? Why not focus on not skipping meals? Or the dangers of over-exercise? The futility of dieting? The dangers of perfectionism?

A lot of the people I know with an eating disorder started off by trying to "eat healthy" or "get fit" or even just "lose five pounds." An eating disorder evolves then, takes on a life of its own.

I never gave a hoot about models and magazines until I was sick. And then I was frighteningly drawn to them, must look must look. I fixated on skinny people. To an extent, I still do. I thought that if I ate the right foods, looked the right way, then I could calm the chaos in my head.

Would hearing messages that I looked just fine the way I was have helped? Perhaps. But likely, given my perfectionistic personality, I would have ignored them anyway. My parents did and said all of the right things. They never told me to diet. They never pressured me to get all A's in school.

What will prevent so much suffering is emphasizing the importance of early aggressive treatment. The importance of eating properly. But the oddities of current models? Not so much.

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kb said...

I don't think you are cynical at all, but realistic.
And I personally shrink at all of the eating disorder awareness programs/information. As a teacher, I certainly hope that my students will be healthy, sane, well-adjusted individuals who contribute to the community at large. Does that have anything to do with "preventing eating disorders"? I can't say, nor do I see myself as a crusader to prevent them. Every person has his/her own burden in life, unfortunately. Maybe I'm cynical to believe that we all suffer at times in one way or another; it's part of the human condition. But it's getting past that suffering, beyond it, transcending it or living with it that will eventually give us something more.
(Sorry about the lengthy reply!)
- Kristina

Tiptoe said...

You're right that eating disorders will probably never be eliminated. Besides the biology of genes, culturally, until the desire for thinness dies out and people all learn to cope with life issues in healthy ways, EDs won't go away.

I agree with you that there needs to be some more focus on the what happens when health initiatives are taken too far approach. Unfortunately, with all the talk of obesity and such, this gets completely lost in the shuffle.

An interesting article back in March showed one way a clinical psychologist was helping young children with mindful eating through her book. The original article was in the Detroit paper, but for some reason, it's not accessible now. Here's another link with the article:

Also, "20/20" recently did a piece on orthorexia and its dangers. I saw the piece online and (going off topics for a moment) that one guy who promotes raw foodism to me is a fruit loop. I couldn't believe the statement he said about Kate Finn's death who died of orthorexia--"My compassion reaches out to her that she took the path. Well, at least she got detoxified and clean, and moved on into another incarnation."

Harriet said...

Great post, Carrie. I agree with you 100%.

marcella said...

This looks an interesting book
The review put me off, but the description here is interesting "Drawing on the experiences of young women who have developed eating disorders and research on international school curricula and the media, the authors challenge the veracity, substance and merits of contemporary 'obesity discourse'."

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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nour·ish: (v); to sustain with food or nutriment; supply with what is necessary for life, health, and growth; to cherish, foster, keep alive; to strengthen, build up, or promote


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