Confusing causes and triggers

Most news stories on eating disorders fail to make the distinction between what causes an eating disorder and what triggers the disorder. They're two very different things. According to the latest research and thinking, eating disorders are caused by alterations in brain chemistry that register anxiety and mood, hunger and fullness. That, right there, is pretty much the root cause, though I could potentially be burned at the stake as a heretic for saying so.

I'm not a freaky reductionist, though. Environment is important, as environment triggers and maintains the disorder. Environment starts during fetal development and never stops. Your environment could be your season of birth, the magazines you read, the TV shows you watched, the food you ate, the friends you had. Although fully separating genetics and environment is impossible, I am willing to say that the cause of an eating disorder isn't the same as the trigger.

Which is why I read this article with more than a little dismay: 'Crisis In Masculinity' Leads To Eating Disorders In Straight Men

I understand that men have far different experiences of eating disorders than women, and that these stories are worth paying attention to. We can (and should!) learn from them. Although a man's experience of an eating disorder is going to be different, the illness is the same. Same cause, but there could be different triggers.

A eating disorder isn't about a crisis of masculinity or femininity. It's a disorder that started with malnutrition and snowballed out of control. It's not a choice, it's not a way to resolve problems or existential issues. The article says the following:

Images of skeletal models or men with 'six-packs', plus a plethora of choices now open to men, is at the root of body dissatisfaction, Dr [John] Morgan said.

"To be a young man is our society is a difficult thing. What you do and who you are is less straightforward. Women were challenged decades ago to consider which of the many different social roles they adopted. Now men are having to respond to the choices that society gives them.

"Suddenly younger straight men have similar pressures to gay men and women. There is a crisis of masculinity in our society. They are given all these roles and to simply decide to manipulate your body is a nice easy solution to all the complexities of life."

What part of an eating disorder is a "simple decision"? Perhaps the initial weight loss, but the actual disorder is far more complex and this kind of thinking does sufferers a great disservice. Body image woes can certainly trigger an eating disorder, and there is some evidence to suggest that people with eating disorders perceive their own bodies differently than they perceive other people's bodies. And being a young person is almost always a difficult task, and societal pressures don't help, but they don't ultimately cause an eating disorder in women or in men.

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Hypliz said...

I think the cause of an eating disorder has to do with a lack of coping skills. I don't distinquish EDs from addictions of any other kind. IMO, it's a way to release tension and find comfort.

Carrie Arnold said...

I think there are definitely similarities between EDs and addictions, and I think learning better coping skills is a large part of recovery, but I don't view EDs as a coping skill per se (I wrote more about that here). The release of tension is, I think, very real and this biology drives ED behaviors, but it's not consciously sought.

Kim said...

I agree with you, Carrie. My eating disorder was malnutrition that snowballed, as you put it. I didn't even know I had anorexia when I developed it. I just knew that I didn't like bread anymore and I was suddenly into exercising. It all seemed very bizarre. You put it perfectly.

Anonymous said...

Once again a very interesting and thought-provoking post. (I read here a lot and have posted occasionally- I enjoy reading blogs that are based in actual science-a rarity).

I appreciate your distinction between "causes" and "triggers". I have been wondering whether men today are more susceptible to, or just more frequently exposed to, triggers. It does seem there are a lot more opportunities for them to be triggered- I am old enough to recall when women were so much more likely to be judged, and pre-judged, based on their appearance than men (meaning, attractive features, femininity, "good" figure according to the current fasion)- men could more easily get by with confidence or chutzpah or brains or guts. I think that has changed. I've heard men in my life say that they feel as though fashion/society/advertising/women, even- are trying to "make men into women". And just look at some of the ads: deodorants with "awesome fragrances"? Come on, it's a freaking deodorant. I don't even use deodorants with "awesome fragrances". Hairy bodies, it seems are undesirable on straight men. They should be getting waxed, lipo-sucked, hair-implanted, tanned, etc. Whether the same proportion of men have eating disorders now as 20 years ago, I cannot say but maybe you know. If so, then it seems the triggers are greater.

You mentioned one otehr thing in your post that caught my interest: that "environment" can include the season of your birth. I know, with your scientific bent, that you are NOT talking about zodiac signs, so I'd appreciate any more you can say about that.

I wish you well in your continued recovery. Yours is a much-needed voice.

Carrie Arnold said...


I was falling asleep as I was typing this post, and I forgot to link to the study:

If you go to PubMed and search "anorexia season of birth" you should pull up about 30 or so different articles.

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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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