You won’t hear much talk of this on ER, but it seems the public fascination with anorexia and bulimia has encouraged a whole rash of newly diagnosed food pathologies.
Or that’s the idea you get reading media reports of such behaviours as drunkorexia, the tendency to forgo food calories for the sake of alcoholic ones, and orthorexia, an obsession with eating too well.
Then there’s wannarexia, the desire to have an eating disorder.
Is it just that celebrity gossip rags have made everyone hungry for some form of digestive disease, or are alimentary ailments ravaging society?
And how can you tell if you really have a problem or if you’re just being a weirdo?
What the experts say
“Orthorexics are people who are extremely concerned that everything they eat is healthy. Conforming to such rigid food options can be as harmful as any clinical eating disorder and may be part of a larger one. It limits the person’s capacity to look beyond food as something to fuel the body and see it as a pleasurable and important engagement. We admire people who appear to have stringent control, but that just buys into our societal perception that self-control, particularly for women over their bodies and food, is highly desirable.”
MERRYL BEAR, director, National Eating Disorder Information Centre, Toronto
“These words describe patterns of disordered eating that have not been officially labelled by any medical organization. Alcoholism and bulimia occur together a lot. Bulimia occurs with all sorts of substance abuse. These disorders typically affect teenage girls and young women, but incidence among males is on the rise. Wannarexia is not a diagnosis, but people say to me all the time, ‘I wish I could become eating-disordered for three weeks to lose weight.’ People with anorexia learn to hide it so they won’t get caught. Someone who starts out wanting the disorder could wind up with a real one.”
SUSAN BARTELL, psychologist, New York
“I am less convinced than others that media emphasis on thinness causes eating disorders. Eating disorders don’t just occur. They involve personality deficits. Susceptible individuals are possibly influenced by the media or social pressure, but these are young girls already at risk. They were going to have a disorder – it could have been depression or something else, but the media said, ‘Be anorexic, it’s cool.’ Drunkorexia is a buzzword. It’s only a disorder if there’s an underlying psychopathology and an impairment of functioning. If people are drinking all the time, that’s alcohol abuse, and that disorder already has a name.”
JANET POLIVY, professor of psychology, U of T at Mississauga
“Substance abuse and eating disorders are glamourized in the popular press in ways that belie the seriousness of these illnesses. Most people are not aware that anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric diagnosis. The reality is very much messier than you would gather from the popular press. These other terms are clever media words. Most of these behaviours can be part and parcel of a real disorder, but also may not be. None of these in and of themselves is going to lead someone to an eating disorder if there isn’t already something else in action, a genetic predisposition or psychiatric illness.”
DOUGLAS BUNNELL, director of clinical outpatient services, Renfrew Center, Philadelphia
“Our culture puts everybody, especially women, at risk. Places that don’t have the media or the pressure to be thin don’t have these levels of eating disorders, if at all. They can be caused by personal stress; family issues, teasing, bullying or comments about weight can contribute. These factors could lead to any mental illness. There is a fascination [with these disorders]. Almost everyone can relate and has had an experience with trying to control food or feeling overweight. About 50 per cent of people engage in binge eating (different from bulimia in that it doesn’t involve purging).”
LAUREN GOLDHAMER, eating disorders specialist, Bellwood Health Services, Toronto