In your understanding, what causes an eating disorder?
Linda Bacon, PhD: Eating disorders are a complex interplay of genetic inheritance, environmental exposures, and other personal experiences, and the degree to which different contributors play a role varies tremendously between individuals.
For some, the genetic contribution may be so powerful that it can override the effects of positive things like excellent parenting, social support, and media literacy skills. For others, hard lives, including challenges like childhood trauma or neglect, can lead people to absorb the idea that their only value can come from controlling their body, which leads to their eating disorder.
Understanding the cause may be helpful for some individuals. For example, if you learn that your body is less sensitive to the hormone serotonin, you may have trouble with self-soothing, which makes you vulnerable to using food to soothe yourself. In that case, it is helpful to focus on acknowledging these challenges (and lightening up on the self-blame that often accompanies!), better developing your skills to sit with emotions and to soothe yourself; some people may also find that medications that help regulate serotonin are helpful.
Regardless of the cause, most of us can benefit from improving skills to identify what we need and how best to nourish ourselves. Sometimes the drive to eat may really be a drive to distract yourself from difficult feelings, and talking to a friend is much more effective nourishment than ice cream; other times, the ice cream will do a better job of giving you what you need.
When does dieting turn into an eating disorder?
Linda Bacon, PhD: Dieting, which I’ll define here as restrictive eating with the goal of managing weight, is always a manifestation of disordered eating. I’m less interested in defining that turning point between disordered eating and a clinical eating disorder, as dieting is always unhelpful, regardless of whether it develops into a full-blown eating disorder.
A diet provides you with rules about what you’re supposed to eat or not eat. Attempts to control your food intake through willpower and control require that you drown out the internal signals. Yet, those are the very signals that can guide you to good health and satisfaction. No doctor, dietitian, or diet guru knows what you need better than that inner knowing.
That’s a scary concept for many people; they believe that they can’t be trusted. That’s why I tested in a research study whether people can reclaim the innate knowing we’re all born with. And what I found – which supports what many other researchers have found – is that even people with a long history of dieting can effectively dump dieting and reconnect with body trust and that it’s way more fun and successful at helping people achieve what they are looking for.
Incidentally, my research also found that people were able to enjoy chocolate much more after participating in the research study than ever before. Apparently, the pre-study guilt associated with eating “bad foods” contributes to an allure, a difficulty in appreciating it, and binge eating, not better self-control or eating habits.
A professor, researcher, co-author of Body Respect: What Conventional Health Books Get Wrong, Leave Out, and Just Plain Fail to Understand about Weight, author of Health At Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight, and international speaker, Dr. Linda Bacon is changing lives through her teaching, research, writing, and transformative workshops and seminars. She holds graduate degrees in physiology, psychology, and exercise science with a specialty in nutrition, and for almost two decades taught courses in social justice, health, weight, and nutrition. She has also conducted federally funded studies on health and weight and published in top scientific journals. Her years of experience as a psychotherapist specializing in eating disorders and body image add important depth to her work. Visit www.lindabacon.org for links to writings, videos, a newsletter, social media, her inspiring Body Manifesto, and more.