Understanding Eating Disorders

Carmen BryceBlog posts

As #EDAW2016 comes to a close, we share this blog post about how eating disorders can originate and ways in which they can be prevented.

According to the Department of Health, up to 200,000 people in Ireland are affected by eating disorders. This high number sheds light on the importance of identifying the factors that lead to the development of eating disorders in order to establish methods of preventing them.

Eating disorders often do a great deal of harm to those affected by them. Recognising the ways in which psychology, culture and environment can contribute to the development of eating disorders could be a stepping stone in helping to reduce the high rates of these mental illnesses in Ireland.

There is no single reason behind the origin of all eating disorders. Many elements can play a part in the development of an eating disorder, including genetics, biochemical factors, psychological factors, cultural factors and environmental factors (Polivy & Herman, 2002).

Research has found that eating disorders tend to run in families and genetics may predispose people to eating disorders. Biochemistry may also play a role as those with eating disorders could have abnormal levels of certain chemicals in the brain that regulate appetite, mood, sleep and stress.

Although these factors cannot be changed, it is possible to make lifestyle choices that can reduce the adverse influence of other factors in order to help to prevent eating disorders.

Environment can also heavily influence a person’s risk of developing an eating disorder. Engaging in activities that encourage thinness, such as gymnastics, dancing and modelling, can increase eating disorder risk. Other environmental factors such as relationship problems, peer pressure and bullying can also increase risk of developing an eating disorder. If you find yourself in an environment where you feel as though you are being devalued, there are people and organisations that you can reach out to.

Psychological factors can also contribute to the development of eating disorders. Depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, low self-esteem, perfectionism and impulsivity can all have an impact on the risk of developing an eating disorder. Going to counselling or getting help for any of these issues could help to reduce the influence that they have on eating disorder development.

There are many counselling services, including MyMind, which can provide help if you are faced with any of these issues.

Another huge influence on the risk of developing eating disorders is culture. Culture and fashion often give us the idea that being thin means being happy. It can be easy to buy into this idea – who hasn’t told themselves “I’d be happy if I lost 5 pounds,” “I’d be happy if I fit into this dress,” “I’d be happy if I joined the gym”? It can be dangerous to believe that thinness is the key to happiness.

As a young woman, I have personally felt pressured by the thin ideal upheld by society. It is almost impossible to open a magazine without being bombarded with photoshopped images of extraordinarily slim models, delivering the message that this is the perfect body shape. How can anyone be expected to ignore this message when it’s reiterated by all aspects of our culture?

Body dissatisfaction, dieting and desiring thinness are all factors, encouraged by our society, that increase the risk of disordered eating. Other aspects of our culture that contribute to eating disorders include an over-emphasis on appearance, an association between thinness and attractiveness and societal beauty standards that promote an unrealistically thin body shape.

Choosing to challenge the widely-held belief that thinness is desirable and weight gain is shameful can reduce the impact of cultural factors on the risk of developing an eating disorder. There are ways to prevent the development of eating disorders. Research has shown that methods of preventing disordered eating can have a significant impact on pathological eating habits (Stice & Shaw, 2004).

As mentioned above, counselling for psychological issues and challenging the societal ideas surrounding thinness can reduce the risk of developing an eating disorder. Other methods of prevention against eating disorders include educating yourself about eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder in order to understand and recognise disordered eating habits, and thinking of yourself with respect and appreciation. Embrace the natural uniqueness of human bodies and celebrate the shape and size of your body.

Raising awareness of eating disorders and taking steps to prevent them should lead to lower rates of eating disorders in Ireland. While identifying the factors that lead to eating disorders and establishing methods of preventing them may help some individuals, others may already struggle with eating disorders.

If you or somebody you know is suffering from an eating disorder, help is available and you are not alone. It is possible to fully recover from an eating disorder. Counselling for eating disorders is available at MyMind and organisations such as Bodywhys.ie are also there to help.

By Fiona Kerrigan