Are Eating Disorders Actually About Food?

As awareness about eating disorders gains popularity in the media and popular culture, more and more people are familiar with the symptoms of anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder and that fact that eating disorders are life threatening mental illnesses has started to become public knowledge. However there is still a lot of confusion about what drives eating disorders. As an eating disorder counsellor, people often ask me: are eating disorders actually about food?

The answer to that is both yes and no.

It is has become common knowledge that eating disorders are more than just extreme diets. In fact eating disorders serve an important function for those who struggle with them.  One of the main functions of eating disorders is emotional regulation. Both restricting and bingeing on food are often used as way of controlling powerful emotions and numbing feelings. In our culture and family of origin experiences, we often don’t learn how to bring awareness to and connect with our emotions. Emotions are powerful messengers which provide us with useful information.  However we aren’t encouraged to be vulnerable in front of others and thus showing emotions is often still seen as a sign of weakness. We don’t know to cope with our feelings of anger, sadness, loneliness, shame, or fear. We try to control them in an effort not to feel them but they keep showing up, stronger and stronger. The more we ignore them, the stronger the push back so we often we are driven to extreme measures to keep them under control.

In addition to becoming the outlet for controlling our emotions, eating disorders also gives us a larger sense of control in our lives. Emotions that have not been processed are often tied to emotional events which also have not been processed. These could be from specific traumatic events or due to long standing attachment patterns with loved ones throughout our lives. If our parents were controlling or critical, we may have had very little power as children/adolescents and one of the things that we could control may have been our eating. Additionally, many people who’ve experienced trauma have trouble being present and connected to their bodies. This is because both the emotional pain of being hurt by caregivers and the physical pain that incurred in trauma is felt in the body.  Emotional pain may be experienced in the body in the form of tightness in the throat, bodily tension, increased heart rate, or achiness in the chest. When the sensations of physical and emotional pain are overwhelming, we disconnect from our bodies both as a way to not experience the pain and as a way of distancing ourselves while remaining physically present. When we are disconnected from our bodies, we also disconnect from other bodily needs such as needs for hunger, fullness, thirst, rest, pleasure, etc.. Our experiences of trauma doesn’t allow us to feel safe or to trust our bodies. Therefore controlled eating becomes a powerful mechanism for coping with strong emotions that we haven’t been able to process and also serves as a mechanism of keeping us disconnected from our bodies as a survival mechanism for the trauma that we endured.

These are just a few examples of the origins of eating disorders but it is evident through this exploration that eating disorders are about so much more than food. But yet eating disorders also are about food. Almost every story of an eating disorder starts off with a diet and 1 in 4 people who diet will go on to develop an eating disorder. The diet starts with a desire to lose some weight or change one’s body. Nobody has the intention of wanting an eating disorder. But the reason that we to turn to food as a coping mechanism is culturally reinforced. We live in a culture that elevates thinness as the ultimate way of being (both in terms of beauty and health).  A culture in which we are continually congratulated and admired when we lose weight even when it’s at the expense of our mental health. A culture so wrought with fat phobia and weight stigma that those in larger bodies are continually told that their bodies are not acceptable and need to change. A culture in which anyone who gains weight or notices their body changing feels like the ultimate failure. A culture in which healthy eating has become an obsession and wellness has become solely tied to nutrition and exercise while ignoring the role of mental health, social relationships, self care, and spirituality in overall health and well-being. Who wouldn’t turn to food to cope in one way or another? In fact unless you consciously make and intent to not control your eating, it’s almost impossible not to.

So what I would say is - yes eating disorders are about so much more than food and we definitely minimize the experience of those with eating disorders when we say they are only about food.  However we also run the risk of minimizing the normalization of disordered eating in our culture when we say that eating disorders aren’t about food. The reason that people are turning to food is a cultural problem. Many of the behaviors that people with eating disorders engage in are the same behaviors that other people engage in but just to a greater extent. The role of trauma, family of origin, attachment etc. certainly play a role in pushing someone past disordered eating (restricting, food rules, bingeing, emotional eating etc.) and into more extreme eating disorder behaviors (severe food restriction, extreme bingeing, purging, etc.). However it’s also important to recognize that the reason that we are turning to food, the reason that we want to change our bodies, and the reason that eating disorder behaviors are often reinforced is a cultural problem. Additionally, when restrict our eating there are biological survival mechanisms that come into play and so the biology of how food impacts our body needs to also be understood when we are healing from eating disorders. Therefore healing needs to address both our relationship with food as well as other experiences which are driving the eating disorder.  If you or someone you know struggles with an eating disorder or other types of disordered eating (restricting, bingeing, dieting etc.), I encourage you (or them) to reach out for counselling or intuitive eating coaching or to seek help from another provider.

I’m a registered clinical counsellor and eating disorder therapist in Vancouver, BC and I offer eating disorder counselling and intuitive eating coaching to help people reclaim their relationship with food and their body.

Lorilee Keller