Eating Disorders: Down the Rabbit Hole

Line drawing of an elephantI am fond of prefacing conversations about eating disorders with: “If, everything you know about eating disorders you learned from an ABC Afterschool Special or Lifetime TV movie, you don’t know anything.” A frightening aspect of this disease is that most people—including doctors and other clinicians—wrongly assume full authority on the topic.

Many people don’t remember that until Rain Man came out in 1988, society largely thought autism was caused by cold, unfeeling “refrigerator” mothers. Eating disorders need a blockbuster movie — if you’re a movie producer, call me!

Just How Thin Was She?

My daughter was very sick and that’s sufficient.  Numbers and photos serve no purpose beyond to shock and fascinate. You can’t tell by looking at someone the state of his/her physical or mental health. One thing I will say: ours is the only case I know of where both parents and pediatrician recognized the problem almost immediately and access to top-notch treatment was both readily available and utilized.

Everyone Knows You Can’t Make Someone with Eating Disorders Want Help

If you have the misfortune of suffering from a misunderstood disease, it sure helps if you have a mother who reads widely on and is teasingly called “Google Mom” for her research abilities.  Even before the diagnosis “anorexia” came from the pediatrician, I was online searching for information about a treatment I’d read about that was showing promise.

Thankfully, in our case, unlike most others, our doctor both knew of Maudsley aka Family Based Treatment, and supported the treatment model; additionally, one of the world’s leading research and treatment centers was at University of California at San Diego just 20 minutes from our home. The final blessing was we had both good insurance and resources for out-of-pocket expenses.

The Underlying Cause

This is where I hit you with some facts and a great big truth: Eating disorders don’t need an “underlying cause” to develop—one happened to my child and one can happen to yours.

  • Eating disorders are biological brain-based illnesses and up to 80% of their cause is genetics.
  • What are commonly thought to be causes of eating disorders are symptoms of eating disorders.
  • Eating disorders are triggered by a period of malnutrition and or weight/loss. This can be through illness, increased exercise or diet.
  • Diets/disordered eating are related to eating disorders only in that, for those genetically vulnerable, a diet will trigger the eating disorder.
  • To reiterate bullet point number 2, need for control is a symptom of an eating disorder, not a cause.
  • Eating disorders are not a choice and are unrelated to vanity.
  • Eating disorders strike females, males, people of color, and even poor people in Africa (I include this preemptively as there is always one commenter telling me that if I’d just have sent my daughter to Africa to see people who were starving, this would cure her anorexia).

Does reading this make you wonder what misconceptions you might have? I’d love to offer some clarification or answers to your questions.

Jennifer Denise Ouellette

Jennifer Denise Ouellette is the author of the blog Juggling Life, which is also her two-word autobiography. She is the mother of four, an Allied Health Program Director for a vocational school, and an activist who uses social media to draw attention to the needs of those with eating disorders and their families.

Note: This Perspectives Blog post is written by a guest blogger of The opinions expressed on this post do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Dr. Greene or, and as such we are not responsible for the accuracy of the information supplied. View the license for this post.

  1. Trudy

    I am concerned about our 12 year old granddaughter. She is outgoing and likeable and wears a back brace since age 9 because of juvenile scoliosis. She may have to have surgery at some point in time. Since about the age of 5, she can eat a good meal and then a little later be hungry. This hasn’t changed but she has been binge eating large amounts of food. She is 5 ft tall , not really athletic but nicely shaped and developing but not overweight. She eats quickly with large amounts on her utensil. No menstruation yet. The family is very busy with church and dance classes and now she has started in track and field. Oh, at the age of 8 she had an adenoidectomy and tonsillectomy. There is thyroid disease in my side of family both sides and I believe undiagnosed on the other side. Plus, our son diagnosed Bipolar disorder last year(he’s 31 now and on meds). Now that I have more awareness of mental illness I believe not only mental illness on this side of family but also the other side(her father’s)! My husband’s grandmother and her daughter both schizophrenic from very young. On my side of family, alcohol abuse grandfather and mother suffered depression when my sister died age 2. Her bowel movements past year also have had a foul odor. My daughter and son-in-law think she is growing and that’s why she needs large amounts of food. But I don’ think two 12 inch subs is normal. Thanks for any input.


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