It’s Not About the Food!!

by Charlotte on April 26, 2008 · 15 comments

In an effort to keep up my All Eating Disorders, All the Time round-the-clock coverage for you (kidding – I swear this is the last post on this for a while), I bring you Charlotte’s List of Why People Have Eating Disorders.

When I tell people about my eating-disordered past, and even more so since the 20/20 & FOX interviews, someone inevitably says, “Oh, I could never have an eating disorder! I just love food too much!”

If I had a nickel for every time I have heard this then believe me, I would not be grading SAT essays for a living. The thing is, a LOT of women have disordered eating patterns so before you get all that-could-never-happen-to-me about it, check out this new research from Self Magazine and the University of North Carolina.

The Survey
Thousands of women were asked detailed questions about their eating habits. Here’s the main finding:

Fully 75% of American women reported disordered eating behaviors or a full-blown eating disorder.

In addition to this, as was found in the “contagious eating disorder” study (it’s contagious! Panic!!), eating disorders cluster because we learn the behaviors from those who are closest to us: our friends and family.

Another interesting finding from the study is that 67% of respondents (excluding those with active eating disorders) are trying to lose weight. 53% of dieters are already at a healthy weight and are still trying to lose weight. That is a recipe for an eating disorder if I’ve ever heard one.

Why People Have Eating Disorders
1. Genetics. It’s hard to tease apart the effects of nature versus nurture in something so basic to our survival as food but I believe there is a strong genetic component. As the saying goes, “Genetics load the gun, environment pulls the trigger.” Disordered eating has been passed down through my family from generation to generation, just like our recipe for “goop rolls” and our distinctive “Hilton squint.”

2. Control. And I do not mean self control. People always say to me “oh, you must have had so much self control as an anorexic!” It’s fear, people. It’s about controlling the one thing you have absolute control over – what goes in your mouth – in a society that can feel very out of control. Every major flare up of my disordered eating has occurred around a great stressor in my life. It’s a coping technique. A bad one, but still a coping strategy.

3. Perfectionism. I’m a perfectionist. Always have been. My mother will tell you that I cried when I came out of the womb because I only got a 9 on my APGAR. I’ve never got anything less than an “A” in school (seriously). I’ll get sick or faint rather than drop out of a race. If I’m going to do something, I’m going to do in 100%. In some areas of life, this perfectionistic drive is a bonus but in a society that values thinness over almost anything else? Disaster.

4. Black and White Thinking. Despite all of my husband’s attempts to train it out of me, I’m still a notoriously black-and-white thinker. I understand the world is nuanced but when it comes to myself, well, I’m either good or bad. And food is either good or bad. When I hear advice like “trans fats are bad for you” I take out all transfats from my diet. I don’t think “well, they’re not great for me but I’m not going to die if I eat a ding dong.” It was this kind of thinking that led to my orthorexia.

5. Endorphins. The starvation cycle is self-reinforcing. Once you deprive yourself long enough, the body kicks in some extra energy which, if you were truly in an environment with no food, would give you an extra boost to go find some food. However, in an anorexic who is surrounded by food this hollow feeling can be rather addictive.

6. Self punishment. This probably goes along with black and white thinking but I’m very hard on myself and I think a lot of eating disordered people are too. So yes, sometimes I would use food as a reward for being good or take it away as a punishment for being bad.

7. Depression. When you are severely depressed, you may think “What’s the point of eating anyhow?” Some depressed people overeat, some undereat but changes in eating patterns are often one of the first and best signs of depression.

8. The desire to be thin. Thin is greatly rewarded in our society. I’m not saying it’s right – in fact, I think it’s a travesty that is wreaking havoc in the souls of our daughters – but it is the truth. And those of us who are perfectionistic people-pleasers will do our best to be what society deems acceptable. Even more so when many of our friends and/or family members are doing it.

Other Reasons
Did you notice that not a single reason listed was about food? It’s not about the food. Some of the anorexics I have known have been the most passionate people I’ve ever met about food. They spend hours combing through recipes and baking and serving and planning and cooking. They love food. They just don’t love themselves.

So please, please stop saying “Oh, I could never have an eating disorder!” Because you could. And if you truly don’t (and remember there are lots of ways to have an unhealthy relationship with food – binge eating, overeating, undereating, taking out whole food groups and so on) then be grateful. And then help the rest of us get to where you are – by lifting us up – not by shunting us into some subgroup of psycho.

I know that some of you can think of reasons that I missed! Please share with me how (or if) your eating is disordered and what you think your reasons are. Don’t forget you can post anonymously!

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Sagan Morrow April 27, 2008 at 12:11 am

I haven’t had a full-out eating disorder, but I’ve struggled a bit with disordered eating (it’s kind of amazing how many skeptical looks I’ve gotten when I confess that to friends… as though I’m using the almost-eating disorder as some kind of a way to get attention. Even though it is a SERIOUS PROBLEM and can be very hard to break from). Anyhow, you’ve got it exactly right. For me, the control, perfectionism, endorphins, and depression were all key reasons. Control is the word I use when I try to explain it to others. Thank you so much for this post. You’ve laid it out so plainly and clearly… and I’ve got to admit, before I went through my first bout of disordered eating, my claim was always “I could never be anorexic because I love food too much!”. Irony, indeed.


Judy April 27, 2008 at 1:42 am

I don’t know what the actual definitions or criteria for eating disorders are, and I suspect it would have to be over a longer period of time than I have ever suffered, so I don’t think I qualify. I can see some of those tendencies in me, though.

Mine was during times of real emotional stress – during my divorce, for example, and then after my first post-divorce breakup – I wouldn’t eat any more than I absolutely had to – one slice of pizza and a few sodas over a 3 day period. It was a control issue for me, I think – I had no control over what else was happening to me, but I did control what I put in my mouth. Plus, it was taking the emotional pain, which was hard to deal with, and turning it into a physical discomfort (empty belly), which was much more easier to handle. I’ll take physical pain over emotional any day! (Um, natural birth of a 9 pound baby, partly because the thought of an epidural is SCARY!!!)

When I first heard the term orthorexia, I realized that could almost fit me, at least at times. Except my perfectionist moments present themselves as very brief periods of desiring to be perfect, followed by realizing it’s unattainable and giving up. So, I probably have days, maybe a week, where I strive to eat a “perfect” diet (whatever that is, right?), and then have a bowl of ice cream or some fries.

I do have a bit of an obsession with health, especially diet and health (but if I didn’t I would have found you – LOL), but my husband now just considers it my hobby, and we’re not really sure it’s unhealthy. Especially after spending a week with my mom and realizing that I’ve spent the last 5 years unlearning all the habits I learned from her, like that it’s perfectly okay to have a quarter pound of fudge for breakfast, or that you can have a milkshake with your meal and then dessert after.

I guess my disorder is trying to be as unlike my mother in my eating habits as possibe. And everyone thinks the rebellious phase is over with the teen years – I’ll be 30 in 2 months, and it’s still going.


hungry waif April 27, 2008 at 5:51 am

I was always a strange case, i still struggle. You see, when i was 14 my mom died a year before and in within a year after her death i gained about 20 lbs. Sure it was a combo of emotional eating and that little thing called puberty but i spurred me to loose it all one summer and i plummeted 25 lbs in two and a half months. The thing is, i have not gained a lot of that back. I never really starved myself, i was a big combination of strict healthy eating but a lot of exercise. My dad freaked out when i was still very thin in high school, but every ed specialist said that although i fit the criteria (low weight, no menstration) they can’t “diagnose me” because i was actually eating. This is really hard to admit but i think i wasan exercise bulemic if anything really. Am i better today? i’d like to think so, but i still go through brief bouts of body loathing and the urges to keep running on the tredmill. In college, i was banned from the university gym because they saw me their A LOT. then a local gym i joined that afternoon i was kicked out of the univeristy gym threatened to cancel unless i brought a doctors note about two months after i joined. Partially, it was control, partially just missing my mother, and partially, i think i was just unhappy and the endorphin rush seemed better than the zoloft i was prescribed. I see a nutritionist now once a week, to keep me semi-sane and going to culinary school has defiently changes my relationship to food. I totally understand where to guys are coming from, i feel most people have a skewed view of disordered eating.


My Ice Cream Diary April 28, 2008 at 1:09 am

I remember watching several afterschool or made for TV dramas about bulemia and recognizing that I could so very easily become bulemic. The looks on the faces of the women as they would go into a binge, the way they ate when binging, the self loathing after the binge, I was familiar with it all and have to focus not to eat that way. Because of this I trained myself not to throw up and very very rarely do (even when pregnant), which in turn forces me to be responsible in the way I eat so I don’t do damage.

Other reasons for eating disorders:
Fullfilment (eating to fill that emptiness)
Peer Pressure (or family pressure)
Rebellion (I think this falls under control)


MizFit April 28, 2008 at 10:31 am

Ive been thinking about this ALOT since I started MizFit….wondering if, since I have a LOT OF ISSUES :) but eating just isnt one of that, there’s a place for my words on the net.

if I dont come from a place of recovery.

as always youve started/kept me pondering.

love your posts.



Charlotte April 28, 2008 at 12:54 pm

Sagan – I think a lot of women fall into your category and I really appreciate you talking about it. A lot of people think that unless they’re in the hospital with an NG-tube up their nose then it’s not serious. But it starts affecting our quality of life long before it affects our health. Thank you SO MUCH for your comment, girl:)

Judy – are you my long-lost twin? Everything you just wrote, I easily could have written (including being 30 in two months!! My b-day’s June 28th!). I especially appreciate what you wrote about finding a balance between not following your mother’s example and being near orthorexic. Thank you for sharing a piece of your story with me!!

Hungry Waif – That is so interesting you’ve been kicked out of one gym and almost out of another! I’ve been overexercising on and off for years and no one has ever asked me to leave! So interesting. I’m glad you are in a healthy place now though and can recognize the unhealthy thoughts when they come and not give into them! Thanks for your comment:)

Ice Cream – I so know what you mean about watching those after-school specials. The bulimia ones didn’t resonate as much with me but the anorexia ones sure did! I remember being horrified and intrigued that they knew me so well;) I’m glad that you figured out a way to deal with your uncomfortable feelings. Occasionally I get the urge to purge too and I do what you do – make myself live with the discomfort because puking isn’t worth it. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this!

MizFit – Now I am curious as to what you mean by “a lot of issues.” You seem like the perfect picture of health! But please don’t worry about having to be perfect to make a worthwhile contribution to the discussion. I think it’s better when I can see people’s imperfections – I love them all the more for their humanity:)


MizFit April 28, 2008 at 3:45 pm

it’s simple.
my issue? I obsess that I do not make enough money even though Im working all the time.


(and writing pays so poorly)

I fret about bringing home the bacon—not whether or not I should eat it.

but it is frettage just the same!



WeightingGame April 28, 2008 at 4:46 pm

looking at your list…
1? Check
2? Check
3? Check
4? Check
5? Check
6? Check
7? Check
8? Check

I mean, in the PAST…I most certainly am not depressed right now (though it is sleeting outside, which makes me incredibly sad.) But you hit the nail on the lollipop head – these characteristics are all SO common in women with EDs. I think that’s why, when I meet someone who has had an eating disorder, we almost always get along – because we automatically have a number of things in common (outgoing, hard-working, interested in fitness and nutrition, etc.)


Gena April 28, 2008 at 6:51 pm

I come from the other side of the coin. I don’t fit most of the “criteria” you listed, but I have had periods of severely disordered eating. Mine manifested after moving 1500 miles away from home, the death of my father, and the deployment of my new husband to Iraq all within the span of 7 months. I binged on anything and everything, mostly junk, and gained about 20 lbs. That was 3 years ago, and I developed such a habit to bury my emotions in food that I’ve only recently (within the last year) beaten the habit.

I think loads of people suffer as I did, but are less prone to diagnose it as disordered eating. But this can still have serious effects on a person spiritually, emotionally, and physically.


Judy April 28, 2008 at 9:31 pm

Well, Charlotte, I guess we’re almost long-lost twins – I’ll be 30 on June 27!!

Seriously, my mom was here for a week, she is a total sugar addict, and my husband and I feel like we’re having to “detox” after eating with her for a week. And to think I used to eat like that all the time!


Kelly T April 29, 2008 at 1:39 am

I had an eating disorder for years, and i loved food, i was just scared to death of it. I was obsessed, counting and recounting calories, planning what i oculd eat and what i couldnt. It was all i thought about. Its not about food, its about depriving yourself of something for punishment, which in turn makes you feel strong that you denied it to yourself.


katieo April 29, 2008 at 6:13 am

great great great post.

love reading the comments too.

I’m fascinated.


Stephanie Quilao April 29, 2008 at 7:36 am

You pretty much nailed it on the head. This would probably fit into one of the other categories, but for me there was also a huge feeling of unworthiness. I was not worthy of self love because I was flawed. I was not perfect. I did not fit in. Other girls get to be lovable but not me. I am not worthy of a happy and healthy life because everyone is better & prettier than me. I was the opposite of the Loreal commercial, “Because I’m Not Worth It.”

That was some serious negativity I had to work on for years. I look back now from where I was in those days and geez I am a rockstar in healing. This I can be proud of myself, and this I can use to help others feel less stigmatized. Not trying to toot my horn here, but I want people to know that you can over come anything if you want it and are committed to your growth and evolution as a person. And no matter what you have been through or done, you are worth it. Everyone is worthy of self love.


SeaBreeze April 30, 2008 at 5:07 pm

You summorize everything in such a matter of fact way, its really quite remarkable. I have a picture on my mirror from when I was at my thinnest. On good days I can “re-frame it” and realize how “skelator” I looked, but on bad days I quietly want to be back in that size because it was when I was “in control” of how I looked more than any other time. I fight with this, its like a shadow lurking in my peripherial vision. I was scared when I started my food log that I would become OCD about it, but it forced me to make healthy choice. I stopped four days ago and have probably consumed far less than I should have ever since. I recognize it, but I woke up this morning with the emptiness. Wow… I really need to get a handle on this…sorry.


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