Eating Disorders are undoubtedly horrid and quite often life-threatening but pushing too many problem eaters and hardcore dieters towards definitive Eating Disorder status may be causing harm. There is the beginning of an Eating Disorders bandwagon on a dangerous roll.
Problem eaters and dieters are being placed into medical categorizations, limiting abilities for self-help and recovery.
Exaggerated claims about the extent of eating disorders, born of over-zealous diagnoses, are fanning the flames of food distress; let it be clear, though, that this is not pointing a finger at mainstream advocacy and support groups.
Yet becoming quite commonplace are predictions that 30-50% of women will experience an eating disorder at some stage within their lifetime.
The author does not for one minute believe that up to half of women will suffer an eating disorder. But what isolated individuals believe matters not at all; if people expect themselves to be at risk in such contexts, then risk automatically increases and if that risk is quasi-medical, it assumes a certain inevitability.
This is pathologizing on a grand scale – the categorization of problems or conditions into diseases. Once issues have become concretized like this, the focus of remedy changes. It goes from being voluntary habit change to becoming treatment only by expert third parties.
Beyond this there is a credibility issue. It is incredibly easy to be condemned as reactionary or uncaring when criticizing the voices of any minority. However, history shows that any overstatement or inaccuracy risks damaging the core cause. One only needs to look back at the Gay Rights movement of the 1970's and 1980's to remember how perhaps over-enthusiastic estimates of the population's gay percentage led to opponents shifting the field of argument. With this one area of accuracy challenged, the otherwise overpowering case for equality and decency was less clearly advanced.
Until recently, definitions of Eating Disorders have generally comprised Anorexia and Bulimia. Whilst there are various earlier references to self-starvation, particularly amongst young women, going back in to classical antiquity, it was not until the latter part of the 19th Century that a medical typology of Anorexia was constructed. Bulimia was first formally noted at the end of the 1970's.
The research community has for some time been provisionally exploring 'Binge Eating Disorder' to capture the notion of repeated and out of control overeating. BED as a concept is ring-fenced with a considerable array of necessary behaviors, anxieties and obsessions to differentiate it from lesser overeating.
Despite the cautious progress of researchers in testing the boundaries, there is a less sophisticated eating disorders bandwagon creating a disruptive momentum. As ever in all matters eating problem related, the media is an avid recipient, presenter and sometimes creator of sensationalism.
Individual issues of self-image anxieties, overeating, continual dieting and obesity worries are being conflated into broad ranging and quasi-medical identities.
This is not in any way to downplay the dangers and distress caused by full-blown eating disorders, serious binge eating included. But people can exercise far more control over what is personal and cultural than they can over what is seen as endemic and medical. Wherever the serious debate finally settles with some certainty in these areas, it is absolutely clear that there is too much hype seeping in at present.
The more that people are over-hastily pushed down the road of disease labeling, the lower their chances of establishing and maintaining a natural and relaxed relationship with food.