Monday, February 17, 2014

Eating Disorders and the "Obesity Crisis"

Yep, they’re related.

First let’s define this obesity “epidemic.” The words “epidemic” and “crisis” hinge upon the belief that if you are obese, then you are on your deathbed. You will develop any combination of a plethora of deadly diseases, directly caused by obesity.

Let’s ignore the fact that obesity rates have actually held steady for several years now.

All right. Take diabetes as an example. (Because isn’t that the first thing you think of when you see a fat person? ...of course it is, thank you very much mainstream media.) There are diabetic people who are within the normal BMI range, and diabetic people who are obese, and diabetic people in between.

There are people who are optimally healthy at an obese BMI and people who are optimally healthy at a normal BMI, and people who are optimally healthy in between.

Weight is a genetically inherited trait. Remember the set point theory, which says that every body has its optimal weight range, which it will maintain with no diet, no exercise regime, no conscious effort. (This is a horribly oversimplified definition, but it will do for now.) Contrary to popular belief, the theory in set point theory is not whether this “set point” exists, but how the body maintains it.

Height is also a genetically inherited trait. And guess what, we’re getting taller on average. OH NO GUYS THERE IS A HEIGHT EPIDEMIC!!!! We better start squashing ourselves under huge boulders and see if it will make us shorter. And if it doesn’t, well, that is pretty much the long-term outlook for any diet.

So I’d like to redefine the “obesity crisis” as people making a huge deal out of something that is not in itself deadly, and consequently obsessing endlessly over diets.

If you look at the increase in obesity and the increase in eating disorders, the eating disorders win by a mile. The number of hospitalizations for eating disorders in children under 12 increased 119% between 1999 and 2006. That’s only children under 12, and eating disorders are far more common in teenagers. And only those hospitalized; so many never are. That is far more disturbing than obesity rates staying the same for most of those same years.

Eating disorders are genetically based. We react differently to restriction than someone without that gene. Calorie deficit makes neurotransmitters start misfiring, food becomes misidentified as a threat, and BAM. Eating disorder.

So all it takes in some cases is a calorie deficit to trigger the dormant gene. What do I see when I turn on the TV? What does a teenager see? About a billion diet ads, especially after the new year. And exercise equipment. People bragging about how much weight they lost. Because, duh, smaller is always better.

You’ve got a group of friends -- I don’t care what age. One of them is bound to try a diet because of this ever-present message pitched to us by diet companies that there is something wrong with you the way you are. You need to be skinnier. If you are skinnier, you will be happier and everyone will love you and your life will be amazing!

Peer pressure. How many of those friends will try that diet? Or any sort of food restriction, just because they saw their friend become more “socially acceptable” and they wanted that, too. That’s every person who diets potentially exposed to an eating disorder, and whether or not one surfaces basically depends on genes. Imagine, if we weren’t so obsessed with depriving ourselves of food, how many people wouldn’t be hospitalized with eating disorders.

Food is misidentified at a threat, and we become afraid to eat, but our logical, conscious brains can’t “define” that, much like extreme hunger during recovery. Our digestion is slow and our stomach feels full before our body gets all the energy (calories) it needs, so we eat even though we feel full. Our brain rationalizes this as eating because we are bored, have BED, whatever -- because those are ingrained into us by our culture’s thinxiety. Similarly, “I’m afraid to eat” just doesn’t make enough sense; it becomes “I’m afraid to gain weight.” The classic mark of an eating disorder.

The thing is, people were starving themselves in the Middle Ages, too. There is actually a name for it: anorexia mirabilis, or “miraculous lack of appetite.” And it’s similar to anorexia nervosa, except that these people did not starve themselves to be thin, they starved themselves for religious reasons, to be holier. That’s the reason their logical brain came up with.

That article states that “Joan Jacobs Brumberg, (Fasting Girls: The History of Anorexia Nervosa) suggests that anorexia mirabilis no longer exists not because the motives of those who starve themselves have changed, but because the paradigms for coding these behaviors have shifted. If a young woman were to make the decision to self-starve as a means to communicate with Christ, healthcare professionals would code her as anorexia nervosa regardless of her motives.” So, basically, today we recognize wanting to be skinny as a legitimate reason and condone it.

And if that’s the environment we are trying to recover in? Where someone who starved for religious reasons got treated more readily than someone who was afraid to gain weight, even though they had the same underlying disease -- fear/refusal of food, malnutrition as a result? What are your odds of getting over your fear of gaining weight when the world is saying “Don’t gain weight! Don’t get fat! Don’t eat this and that!”

According to ANRED, the recovery rate is 60%, for people who get treatment. (For those who don’t get treatment, 20% die.) They define “recovered” as “They maintain healthy weight. They eat a varied diet of normal foods and do not choose exclusively low-cal and non-fat items.” I infer two things from this definition: they do sometimes purposefully choose low-cal and non-fat items, which I would consider disordered in anyone who has such a history; and they eat a normal diet according to the standards of our previously mentioned thin-obsessed society. The number that I would consider fully recovered -- in remission -- is probably even less. And then, if are one of these 60%, your relapse rate is 35-60%.

So your odds? Not so great.
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