If you’re interested in the psychology of eating, you’ve probably heard about a couple of newly identified “disorders” being discussed by health professionals. You can read about this here. The first is called adult selective eating. Those who suffer from it limit their diet to a very narrow range of foods, mostly light colored foods popular among children, like chicken fingers and fries, though they don’t seem to be overly concerned with body image. Professionals speculate that it may be a manifestation of obsessive compulsive disorder.
The second “new disorder” is called orthorexia, where individuals form their eating habits around being overly concerned with healthy eating. Sufferers may limit their diets to the point that they are actually malnourished. Some professionals suspect that orthorexia may be a stepping stone to anorexia or bulimia.
So what to make of these “new disorders?” Are they actually disorders at all? If so, are they akin to anorexia, bulimia, and obesity? And for that matter, are anorexia, bulimia actually disorders, per se?
I feel that anorexia, bulimia, and obesity are not quite disorders, because it’s about the emotional and psychological state of the sufferer, not the food. Those who experience eating “disorders” have developed their habits as a response to sometimes complex emotional struggles. The eating patterns, therefore, are not causing the problem, but are a result of it. The “disorder” is a manifestation of unresolved emotional and psychological issues. We all have baggage – it’s just more intense with some people, and each individual expresses his or her baggage in a unique way.
An “eating disorder,” then, is just an expression of baggage. Furthermore, the term “disorder” implies that there’s something wrong with the sufferer, which simply isn’t true. His or her relationship with food may cause a great deal of pain and unhappiness, but it doesn’t mean there’s something wrong or disordered about that person. What it means is that the sufferer isn’t yet relating to himself or herself with true authenticity, and doesn’t yet have a genuine sense of self-worth. The path of personal growth is never easy, and when someone has an “eating disorder,” it just means that they’re experiencing a particularly difficult stage of the path. The old saying is true – life is a journey. We’re all journeying through life, and that’s what an eating disorder is – part of the journey. To be sure, eating disorders are uniquely recognizable journeys because they are dramatic and because they are closely related to such issues as control, body image, and self-worth. But just the fact that they’re unique and recognizable doesn’t necessarily make them “disorders.”
So what about adult selective eating and orthorexia? Like bulimia, anorexia, and obesity, I don’t think they’re necessarily “disorders.” Furthermore, to lump them in with previously recognized “disorders” isn’t accurate because, although they surely stem from very real emotional struggles, they’re not related to body image and self-worth in the same way.
We humans like to categorize and label things because it makes it easier for us to understand and talk about them and, ultimately, to make sense of the universe. While that may be convenient and even necessary in everyday communication, we need to recognize that many of our labels and categories are arbitrary. When we fall into the trap of thinking that our labels have a real existence independent of our use of them, then we reduce and minimize the depth and complexity of reality. Eating disorders are no exception. Of course, many sufferers of eating disorders experience similar types of emotional trauma, and resort to eating disorders as methods of coping with similar types of struggles. And it is important for doctors and mental health professionals to recognize that, in order to better understand and help their patients. But by lumping all people with particular eating habits into a group and saying they have a “disorder,” we tend to ignore the complex emotional and psychological fabric that led to those habits, and the uniqueness of each person’s experience of them. And by labeling individuals as “disordered,” we only serve to lower their self-confidence and make it even more difficult for them to establish a sense of self-worth.