Cambridge dictionary definition says that eating disorders are mental illnesses. I, though, don’t see it this way. I mostly see them as emotional distress.
First of all, we eat so we can survive. Lack of proper food leads to diseases and malnutrition. Yet, food meets more than this particular need in many people.
One of the needs food meets is the need for variety. We saw it very clear during corona times when people were not allowed to go out for entertaining. Therefore, many people picked up baking and cooking so they could have fun with it.
Another need met by food is that of comfort. In movies where children get upset, we often see that someone older and wiser gives them some cookies and milk, ice cream, and cake, so little ones would forget their troubles and find comfort in the food. We, adults, are no different.
If we look around a little, we’ll see that many people use food for comfort.
For instance, if someone is alone and misses company, something to eat will make things better. This is also something that often happens with people who decided to live in another country than their own, and they may lack the support network.
If one does not speak the language and it is not easy to find friends, food can be a good ally. Or, food can easily be used as emotional support if someone is surrounded by too many people or only one partner that is not the perfect fit.
If someone is a single parent, and there is no one else there to share the burdens and the joys of bringing up children, food will always be there.
Many people eat when they are stressed as well. It is interesting to see what kind of foods people choose. The use of crunchy food increases since chewing something that meets resistance is also a good stress releaser. In eating because of stress, one may also notice that if it is not crunchy or chewy enough, the food is swallowed without chewing or feeling the taste, and one can suddenly eat way too much without even realizing it. Just at the edge of overeating if it happens from time to time. If this behavior happens excessively or every day, it is definitely overeating and getting under “eating disorder” category.
Stress, anger, or discomfort can also make food be rejected. People may refuse to eat out for the same reasons as eat too much. There is no one else they can trough their frustration at, and they punished themselves by starving themselves (anorexia), or even if they eat, they through it up (bulimia). Anorexia and bulimia are also used as weight control. For some people shows up in childhood, teenagers most often, and has to do with severe stress (trauma).
Family members mainly cause this stress, and I know that some parents may protest while reading this. At the same time, think about it. Who is that we are dependent on for many years at the beginning of our lives. No parent wants to harm their children, yet much harm can be done without intention and unwillingly. When children do not have any control over their surroundings at home or school or both, the only thing they have control over is their own body. A good example can also be the potty training children have when that time comes. That is the only thing they can still control, and they are using it to put boundaries between them and their parents.
The same with food, when they grow a little bit older. Parents cannot control how much their children keep their food. Some go to the bathroom immediately after a meal and through up, and nobody notices anything. I am not mentioning that there is also little control over that when children are in school. Therefore, we have another need met by food—the need of control children/young adults need.
Under the weight control cames also counting the calories—the amount in and the amount out. And the amount out one is counting it by working out excessively. This one is called orthorexia and came on the game a bit later.
When people are not aware of their eating patterns, they can easily say that they have no problem. And there is no need to be either. No matter where you go, your eating patterns will follow you and take different shapes and sizes according to the emotional state at certain phases in your life. Even as an adult, when the world around is difficult to control, the only thing one can control is own body and weight. Therefore, we see many diets and many people who work out excessively. It may be the only thing one person owns and can have control over.
Moving countries can sometimes make it harder for some than for others, especially when one is having issues with food and cannot read labels because one does not know the language. It makes it difficult to read the content of the products or the number of calories. It can also be difficult in social gatherings which implies food. Especially when people do not want to eat. For some, it can be difficult to justify “the lack” of appetite, especially when the biggest honor for the host is to eat their food.
When you’re new in a new country, it is also difficult to control many things, at least for a while, and by the time things get settled. The need for comfort as well as the amount of stress is playing a part in eating habits.
I argued here that eating disorders are not necessarily mental disorders, yet only ways many people choose to meet their various needs. If you have other ideas about how food is helping or not, please let me know by commenting here, or let me know in confidence by signing up here.
I wish you build balance in your life!