It is largely understood that eating disorders are not always just about food. Eating disorders are complex, and are often manifestations of dissonance in other areas of a person’s life. To make a lasting and permanent recovery and find freedom from the bondage to an eating disorder or pattern of disordered eating, a person must first identify the underlying cause or causes of the eating disorder. Below are three commonly overlooked causes for eating disorders, which may help you understand the cause of disordered eating patterns in your life or the life of your loved one.
Attention Deficit Disorder
In The Link Between A.D.D. and Addiction, author Wendy Richardson draws a parallel between attention deficit disorder (A.D.D.) and the propensity for addictive behavior, including eating disorders. She states, “A.D.D. is frequently accompanied by other conditions and problems. This is especially true in adults. Few people with untreated A.D.D. make it through adulthood without developing other problems, such as substance abuse, eating disorders, anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, or compulsive behaviors.” The author goes on to explain A.D.D. is organic or biological in nature, resulting from brain functioning, specifically neurotransmitters.
Much of the work done in treating eating disorders, and addictions in general, has been in the area of behavior modification, while organic causes have been downplayed. It is important to recognize that there are many factors contributing to an eating disorder, both physiological and psychological.
According to the National Institute of Medical Health, children who have been abused are more likely to develop posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). One of the symptoms of PTSD is gastrointestinal discomfort or distress. It is intriguing to consider the possibility that this very symptom of PTSD might actually influence or support a decision to use an eating disorder or pattern of disordered eating as a coping mechanism. Take, for example, a child caught in the midst of a marital breakup. The child’s anguish could manifest itself in gastrointestinal distress, making it literally painful to eat. The child might decide that, while she cannot stop her parents from fighting, she can decide whether or not to incur any additional pain by eating. The physical pain of hunger might even be interpreted as better than the unpleasant side effects of eating with an upset stomach.
Or consider a child who is physically abused by a parent. The stress involved with the uncertainty of when the next blow will fall could manifest itself in a nine, rumbling digestive tract. The child could interpret this rolling stomach mistakenly as a sign of hunger. He might then determined that the way to settle his stomach, and his other worries, is to eat and to keep eating as long as his distress continues.
A child who is convinced of her own unworthiness may decide that a severe restriction of all pleasure, including the enjoyment of eating, is a way to buy penance for her imperfection. Digestion becomes a link to self-love and self-acceptance. By denying the body’s basic needs, the soul is punished.
The Safe Sin
For many people, Christians especially, food is a “safe” addiction. Fire and brimstone are rarely used in reference to gluttony, allowing compulsive overeating to avoid direct pulpit confrontation. Fasting can be seen as a spiritual virtue, producing false pride in someone who is anorexic. The sinful nature of the flesh is all too well understood by the bulimic, who views purging as a way to rid the body of the sin of consumption. For the person turning repeatedly for comfort, calming, or distraction, food can appear to hold the position of the lesser of two evils when compared to adultery, sexual promiscuity, gambling, drunkenness, or other scriptural prohibitions.
With alcohol, drugs, sex, and even material consumption being frowned upon and openly preached against, some Christians will migrate to food as their safe protection of choice. This is especially true when fellow brothers and sisters in the faith meet regularly to fellowship, accompanied by an overabundance of food. Or when the generous hospitality believers show to one another takes the form of multiple dishes and third helpings. Meals define Christian fellowship in many circles, even down to the partaking of the Lord’s Supper. Is it any wonder food can become the Christian’s addiction of choice?
Religion at its best leads people to an understanding of the grace and mercy of God. Religion at its worst browbeats people with the inevitability of their own sins. Perfectionism, rigidity, a lack of self worth, and a distrust of compassion are all breeding grounds for both religious toxicity and eating disorders. Is it any wonder these can go hand in hand?
One of the false realities perpetuated by a dysfunctional relationship with food is the dread that something catastrophic will occur if you confront the cause of your struggle. Recognizing and reconciling the cause of your eating disorder, however, is an important step on the road to recovery. If you or a loved one is struggling with one of the aforementioned issues, The Center • A Place Of HOPE can help. Call 1-888-771-5166 / 425-771-5166 or fill out our contact form and someone will be in touch with you soon.
Excerpts taken from Gregory L. Jantz, Hope, Help & Healing From Eating Disorders: A Whole-Person Approach To Treatment of Anorexia, Bulimia, and Disordered Eating, WaterBrook 2010.