Making the Connection

Disordered Eating in our Communities

Heather Lumley, MA, RCC

Reprinted from "Eating Disorders" issue of Visions Journal, 2002, No. 16, pp. 6-7

There are numerous factors in a person’s life that combine to increase the chances of becoming affected with disordered eating patterns. Disordered eating is becoming a cultural epidemic that is affecting more and more individuals, crossing cultural, economic, gender and age groups. The question of how to prevent and recognize disordered eating arises when we acknowledge that this is an issue currently being witnessed in many arenas — but, individuals lack the information around what perpetuates disordered eating, and how it can be managed.

Continuum of Disordered Eating

Disordered eating can be viewed as a concern that falls along a continuum with ‘normal eating’ on one end and clinically diagnosed and treated eating disorders on the other end. The 90% of individuals that fall along the continuum in between the two ends may still have a relationship with food or with their body that is less than healthy. For example, many of these individuals use physical appearance as a tool for measuring self-worth.

Individuals move along the continuum of disordered eating depending on their life situation, stressors and social context. Disordered eating can appear in one’s life first disguised as an attempt to fit in with social standards, family pressures or individual goals; however, these efforts to meet unrealistic weights and sizes can quickly consume one’s time and energy. One becomes increasingly concerned about what one eats, what one weighs and what one’s body looks like. As body image dissatisfaction increases, we move closer towards clinical eating disorders.

In addition to those struggling with clinical eating disorders, there is a wide range of individuals that struggle with disordered eating without acknowledgement — due to the secrecy of the behaviours, and due to the lack of information and support for disordered eating. It was once believed that men did not suffer from disordered eating; however, research indicates that many more males are affected by disordered eating than was originally thought.2

The continuum of disordered eating diagram indicates the varying levels of disordered eating in and out of which people can cycle. This framework acknowledges that food is not the primary issue, but instead is the tool that one uses to cope with feelings of dissatisfaction.1,3,4,5

As society continues to influence our norms and cultural standards, we are bombarded with messages that indicate that we are not okay as we are, and if we just try harder, we will be able to look differently. It seems that the harder our culture tries to alter our bodies to fit these standards, the more individuals are affected with disordered eating/eating disorders. Anorexia nervosa is the mental health condition with the highest mortality rate. Over 4,000 females in BC between the ages of 14 – 25 are affected by anorexia nervosa and 12,000 by bulimia nervosa.6

Multidimensional Model of Disordered Eating

There are numerous factors that affect and perpetuate disordered eating. The multidimensional model consists of three comprehensive categories: family and modelling factors, individual factors and social/cultural influences.7

Family and Modelling Factors
  • poor communication

  • rigidity in dealing with problems

  • overprotectiveness and failure to recognize child’s independence

  • outward appearance of stability hiding underlying issues

  • strong need for approval from others

Individual Factors / Emotional Difficulties
  • low self-esteem

  • feeling ineffective

  • feeling out of control

  • drive for perfectionism

  • lack of sense of self and one’s individuality

Sociocultural Factors
  • pressures to be thin in society and the role of the media

  • discrimination against fat and fat phobia

  • pressures to achieve

  • individuals are taught to base self-worth on appearance

Multidimensional Model of Disordered Eating

How Can We Help Prevent Disordered Eating in Our Communities?

By increasing dialogue around feelings and emotions, we can help foster positive family environments and communities — communities where it is safe to be an individual and to be comfortable in our bodies, no matter what size we are. Disordered eating/eating disorders often stem from the desire to achieve unattainable goals and to be ‘perfect.’ Helping to recognize and honour different abilities and reinforce personal bests can promote self-esteem and increase one’s feelings of self-worth.

Ways to Help Promote Positive Body Image and Decrease Disordered Eating1
  • overcoming fat phobia and prejudice

  • modeling a healthy lifestyle of eating

  • encouraging active living

  • learning self-love so that you can model it for children and youth

  • decreasing remarks and words on one’s appearance and physical attributes

  • understanding that beauty, health, and strength come in all sizes

  • defining good health as a positive state of physical, mental, and social well-being, as wellness and wholeness achieved by:

    • eating well

    • living actively

    • feeling good about yourself and others

 
About the author
Heather is a registered clinical counsellor currently working in private practice in the Lower Mainland. She completed her Master of Arts at Antioch University in Seattle, WA and has focused most of her studies in the areas of addictions and disordered eating. She has focused her work on the complexity of disordered eating, how to recognize the signs and the sociocultural influences that perpetuate negative self-image and poor body image.
Footnotes:
  1. ANAD (Awareness & Networking Around Disordered Eating). (2001). ANAD friends and family information package. Unpublished.

  2. Andersen, A.E. (1990). Males with eating disorders. Brunner/ Mazel.

  3. Brown, C. & Jasper, K. (ed.), (1993). Consuming passions: Feminist approaches to weight preoccupation and eating disorders. Second Story Press.

  4. Friedman, S. (1997). Helping girls through adolescence. Salal.

  5. Kano, S. (1989). Making peace with food: Freeing yourself from the diet/weight obsession. Harper and Row.

  6. Eating Disorder Resource Centre of BC. (2002). Preventing disordered eating: A manual to promote best practices for working with children, youth, families and communities. Vancouver: St. Paul’s Hospital.

  7. Vancouver Richmond Health Board. (1999). Healthy Attitudes Program.

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