• Alexa Shank, MS, LPC

Why Eating Disorders Aren't Just About the Food

If you struggle with or have struggled with an eating disorder you’ve probably gotten the question “why can’t you just eat a (insert specific food here) and get over it?”


What people don’t understand about eating disorders is that it’s not just about the food. That’s why recovery is not that simple and straightforward. Although a big part of recovery is of course achieving a normal relationship with food, and your eating disorder might have started off as a way to control or manipulate your weight or body, there are many other complex factors that contribute to and maintain the eating disorder.


Some of these factors include but are not limited to the following:

  • Low self-esteem (E.g. “People will like me better if I’m thinner, more muscular,” etc.)

  • Loneliness or difficulty maintaining interpersonal connections (E.g. “If I’m not sick anymore, people won’t worry or care about me and I’ll be alone.”)

  • Need to be in control (E.g. “I feel like I can’t control other aspects of my life but I can control my food intake or my weight.”)

  • Difficulty expressing emotions (E.g. “I feel like it’s not okay to express anger so I use my eating disorder to deal with these emotions instead.”)

  • Lack of coping mechanisms (E.g. “I experienced a traumatic event and don’t know how to cope with, so I use eating disorder behaviors.”)

  • Genetic predisposition combined with environmental factors (E.g Your grandmother struggled with an eating disorder and all of your friends are currently dieting to get ready for Prom. You go on a diet too and are more likely to develop an eating disorder because of your genetic predisposition).

  • Need for distraction (E.g. “If I focus on the eating disorder behaviors or trying to change my body, I don’t have to deal with feeling depressed, or the fact that my parents are separating.”)

  • High achievement oriented/perfectionism (E.g. “If I can’t be the best athlete, I’ll be the thinnest.”)

  • Desire to be special or have a specific identity (E.g. “I don’t know who I am without the eating disorder. I’m known for being the one in my friend group who always eats ‘healthy’.”)

However, it’s never just any one of these things that leads to an eating disorder.

Combine any of the above factors with a possible genetic predisposition, certain personality styles, a culture that is obsessed with thinness and dieting, a negative body image, or a psychological stressor, and you can see how a “the perfect storm” of factors come together to lead to an eating disorder. This is why getting treatment that includes psychotherapy in addition to the dietary aspects is crucial!


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