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Preventing eating disorders

Posted Sep 22 2008 10:11am
This past weekend was the Stand Up 2 Cancer event, where celebrities raised money to try and "eliminate" cancer. I believe the catchphrase was "This is where the end of cancer begins."

As I biochemist, I find the idea of "eliminating" cancer quite absurd. Cancer is simply a byproduct of evolution. If genes couldn't mutate, we would still be pond scum, or living near the vents at the bottom of the ocean. But genes can mutate, and if you have a mutation in the wrong genes, then you have cancer. You can no more "eliminate" cancer than you can gravity. You just...can't.

I'm not saying we shouldn't do what we can to prevent the illnesses we can. I'm not cold-hearted (well, not all the time).

It's quite the same with eating disorders.

Call me cynical, but I think we're going to find it hard to prevent all eating disorders. It's a biologically-based mental illness; the genes that cause anorexia (which may have been evolutionarily useful to early humans in withstanding famine) and bulimia and binge eating disorder aren't going to "purge" themselves from the human race. Ergo, there will still be cases of eating disorders no matter how hard we try.

And I have some issue with a lot of the prevention efforts out there. Raising the self-esteem of girls is a good thing. So is media literacy. And building better body image. After all, our culture isn't exactly the most healthy.

But is this really going to prevent eating disorders?

Why not focus on the dangers of some of the "healthy eating" and "wellness" initiatives out there? Why not focus on the importance of full nutrition- the need for fats, the dangers of dieting, the benefits of eating when you're hungry and stopping when you're full? Why not focus on not skipping meals? Or the dangers of over-exercise? The futility of dieting? The dangers of perfectionism?

A lot of the people I know with an eating disorder started off by trying to "eat healthy" or "get fit" or even just "lose five pounds." An eating disorder evolves then, takes on a life of its own.

I never gave a hoot about models and magazines until I was sick. And then I was frighteningly drawn to them, must look must look. I fixated on skinny people. To an extent, I still do. I thought that if I ate the right foods, looked the right way, then I could calm the chaos in my head.

Would hearing messages that I looked just fine the way I was have helped? Perhaps. But likely, given my perfectionistic personality, I would have ignored them anyway. My parents did and said all of the right things. They never told me to diet. They never pressured me to get all A's in school.

What will prevent so much suffering is emphasizing the importance of early aggressive treatment. The importance of eating properly. But the oddities of current models? Not so much.
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