Information on Eating Disorders
4-part series shared on facebook
Part One | What causes an eating disorder?
There is no one factor that causes an eating disorder. In fact, the etiology of eating disorders is incredibly complex and multifaceted. A number of contributing factors in the development of eating disorders have been identified, including culture, cognitive factors, interpersonal experiences, genetics and biology, and environment.
Cultural values of the Western world emphasize the over-importance and value of a very narrow definition of “beauty”. For women, beauty is defined as thinness. For men, beauty is defined as a lean and muscular appearance. Men and women are constantly bombarded with images from the media depicting these restrictive and often unattainable standards of beauty, which can skew our view of what is normal and negatively impact our self-image. Relatedly, dieting often goes hand in hand with this Western view of beauty and is another risk factor for developing an eating disorder, particularly when it occurs at a young age.
Cognitive factors are in essence distortions or biases in the way one thinks which may increase the risk of developing an eating disorder. Cognitive factors can include obsessive thoughts, preoccupation with weight or food, distorted thinking patterns (e.g., thinking in extremes, overgeneralizing, judgmental thoughts), perfectionism, low self-esteem, and body dissatisfaction.
Highly negative interpersonal experiences can contribute to the development of an eating disorder when those experiences are traumatic (e.g., abuse) or involve repeated teasing, bullying or criticism about one’s body, weight or appearance.
Genetics have been identified as playing a role in the development of eating disorders as is evidenced by the tendency for eating disorders to aggregate in families. Environmental factors can also play a role in the development of eating disorders. For example, there are certain family dynamics and characteristics that have been linked to eating disorders including: high levels of stress, emotional chaos, criticism, and a focus on food, weight, appearance and dieting within the family. While there are familial and environmental factors that have been linked to the development of eating disorders, it is imperative to understand that families do not cause eating disorders. It is common for parents of children with eating disorders to blame themselves or to feel shame for their child’s illness. It’s important to remember that genetics and environment are only two out of a myriad of risk factors, and that the development of these disorders is more complex than can be addressed here.
For those interested in reading more about risk factors for eating disorders, below are some resources:
Part Two | What are the warning signs of an eating disorder?
This table provides a concise summary of warning signs that someone you love may be struggling with one of the three most prevalent eating disorders: anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder. It’s important to note that this list is not exhaustive, and that there is some overlap of warning signs and symptoms across these three disorders.
Linked below are websites that provide further information on the topic of warning signs:
Part Three | It is hard for men and women in our society to have a positive relationship with our bodies because of the cultural messages about how we should look (which are usually unattainable).
How can we change this?
We can start by changing the way we talk about bodies and weight – both our own bodies and those of others. Rather than expressing criticism or praise on the basis of weight or appearance, practice acceptance (and perhaps even love) for all body types. Focus on the function and abilities your body possesses and what it can do for you. Practice acceptance for the diverse spectrum of bodies that exist in the world and call out unrealistic standards or narrow definitions of what is deemed “attractive”.
Try to avoid calorie-, food-, or weight-centric discussions with friends and loved ones, particularly with children as they are more likely to internalize this narrative and experience certain foods or appearances as lesser-than. Having discussions about nutrition, balanced eating, and health are perfectly normal, keeping in mind that balanced eating can include all types of food in moderation as well as fluctuations in how much food is consumed across different contexts. For example, over-eating at holiday meals or during celebrations is culturally normative in the Western world. In having such discussions, it’s important to ensure that the term “health” is not being used interchangeably for the term “thin”. Being healthy and being thin are not the same thing; you can indeed be both thin and unhealthy, or overweight and healthy. It’s also important to consciously detach one’s worth and value from weight and appearance; these are separate and unrelated entities.
Part Four | How can I best help or support someone diagnosed with an eating disorder?
It’s normal to feel scared, confused, or sad when a loved one has an eating disorder. It is often difficult for people without these disorders to make sense of the behaviours their loved one is exhibiting. If you are supporting a child or adolescent with an eating disorder, the best way to support them is to get them connected with a mental health professional as soon as possible. In fact, when it comes to teens or children with eating disorders, family-based therapy has been shown to be the most effective mode of treatment.
If your loved one is an adult, you can ask them what kind of support they need and how you can help. You can encourage them to seek professional help, which is always recommended, but be willing to accept that they may not be ready to follow through on this. If this is the case, you may continue to offer gentle encouragement and support within your own limits.
Whether your loved one is a child, adolescent or adult, adopting a compassionate and empathic attitude is important. Eating disorders are often accompanied by elements of shame and secrecy, so if someone has shared their diagnosis with you or if the diagnosis has been found out, adopting a non-judgmental and non-critical stance is essential to providing good support. We often jump to problem-solving and offering solutions when our loved ones suffer, especially when someone is struggling with a diagnosis this serious. However, it is important to try to understand and validate your loved one’s emotions and experiences before offering problem-solving as this will allow your loved one to feel heard and understood, which in turn will make them much more receptive to your suggestions. This is true for individuals across the lifespan, from young children to adults.
You can read more about how to do this using the steps of “emotion coaching” at: click here>>.
You can also find additional tips on how to support a loved one with an eating disorder through the following resources:
Where can I seek help if I or someone I love needs help managing an eating disorder?
The health care system can be challenging to navigate, so I have listed some resources below for those seeking help with an eating disorder.
Local treatment options:
The QEII offers an eating disorder program for individuals who are 18 and older. You can reach them at 902-473-6288 to discuss their program and what they offer.
For children suffering with an eating disorder, you can contact the IWK’s central referral line (902-464-4110) to discuss your options and explore a referral to their eating disorder program.
It’s important to note that most hospital and inpatient eating disorder programs require a referral from a physician or psychiatrist, so visiting your family doctor is often a good place to start.
Eating Disorders Nova Scotia >> is a local not-for-profit organization that offers support in many forms for people suffering with an eating disorder, including online support groups, a peer support chat, nutritional counselling, mentorship, and support for loved ones (i.e., family and friends). Additionally, Eating Disorders Nova Scotia recently launched a pilot project in partnership with Lesley Hartman and Associates, Inc. to offer a 13-week skills group to facilitate recovery from an eating disorder.
The National Eating Disorder Information Center >> (NEDIC) provides ample resources and information for anyone in Canada who is struggling with an eating disorder, including support in finding a mental health provider in your area.