Eating disorders are illnesses that cause an irregular eating pattern, or disturbances in eating behavior. Scientists are still unsure what exactly causes them; in general, most experts agree that they are caused not by a single factor, but by a combination of biological, environmental, and psychological factors. Eating disorders often occur with mental health issues, such as depression or anxiety.
Society, and even a few health professionals, however, tend to blame eating disorders on shallow factors like the media or bad parenting. But research has shown that these longtime scapegoats do not cause eating disorders, at least not directly.
Also, eating disorders aren't characterized by an intense diet alone. There are four common types of eating disorders: anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, and purging disorder. Each type has different characteristics, and more importantly, not everyone who has an eating disorder is underweight.
Among a group of people, it's not easy to tell who has an eating disorder, unless the signs are rather obvious. Some sufferers hide their condition really well or exhibit it in subtle ways. They are most likely aware that they need treatment, but backhanded or passive advice won't help them. Your positive comments about their bodies won't help either. In fact, it may cause more harm.
Triggers of Eating Disorders
Environmental triggers are the situations, cultures, and events that affect someone's life. With regard to eating disorders, these include the diet culture, the media, and sometimes, socio-cultural factors.
The diet culture is a particularly huge trigger since you see it all over the media. It is the most threatening during the New Year, when resolutions are thrown here and there, usually involving getting fit. Despite its good intentions, the diet culture tends to cause harm as much as it causes benefits. That's because the culture reduces your worth into the size and shape of your body. It also touches on your moral virtue, making you question yourself before eating something. For example, if you're craving pasta, you'd pause and think, “This isn't a low-carbfood”, or “How many calories are in this?”
The notion that thinness equals good health pushed for the birth of the diet culture. While it has encouraged many people to get in shape, it also normalized body-shaming, fat phobia, and discrimination against heavier people.
Whether you're on a diet or not, chances are you're subconsciously part of the diet culture. How? When you say things like “I need to hit the gym” after finishing a huge meal, or commenting on your body parts that seem to have gained fat because of an indulgent food you ate. The diet culture planted the idea in your mind that you have to be thin in order to be accepted or healthy. Hence, try to amend your words about food and your weight, especially when you're with someone who might be suffering from an eating disorder or negative body image.
Before social media users called for the end of commenting about people's bodies, you're probably guilty of the behavior too. After all, you grew up thinking that it's normal and harmless.
Even if you mean to compliment someone's body, you should still hold back your comments. Praising someone for their weight loss may seem motivational, but if they have an eating disorder, they can take your words as a sign to continue dieting. In addition, people with eating disorders may be using unhealthy eating behaviors as a way to cope with a difficult situation, like the pandemic. Hence, commenting about their weight will trigger yet another episode. Your words, no matter how positive, will cause them to regard their self-worth as something that's measured by their weight and appearance.
It's only natural to worry about someone who eats so little. Likewise, it's normal to feel concerned when someone doesn't seem to want to stop eating. But uttering comments, especially in a joking manner, will just worsen their eating behaviors.
Subtle or direct comments about their eating, like “you look unhealthy” or “please eat more” hurt their already fragile sense of worth. Despite the concern in those words, people with eating disorders see it as proof that you're watching them while they eat, which they fear. Questions without malice, but sound malicious anyway, such as “Why do you keep throwing up?” or “What diet are you on?” are even worse. Someone with bulimia is already ashamed of their frequent vomiting, while someone with anorexia may become more determined to lose weight if you notice their “diet.”
People with eating disorders need treatment, not to eat more or eat less. The type of treatment will depend on their exact eating disorder. If someone intentionally throws up to purge out their food, they need bulimia treatment.
f someone refuses to eat, they need anorexia treatment. Express your concern without targeting their bodies and eating behavior. Instead, address their overall well-being. That way, you can help them seek treatment successfully.