People With Eating Disorders: Our Cultural Canaries in the Coal Mine

By :Carolyn Costin, MFT FAED CEDS, Chief Clinical Officer, Monte Nido & Affiliates

Regardless of whether or not a female college student is overweight, 83% of this population report that they diet. [1] This is a problem in and of itself as it reveals the deeply rooted body dissatisfaction and obsession with thinness that exists in our culture. Studies indicate 35% of normal dieters progress to pathological dieting, 20 - 30 % of pathological dieters progress to partial syndrome eating disorders and approximately 15% progress to full syndrome eating disorders, making college and university campuses hot spots for the development of both partial and full-blown eating disorders. [2]

Even though only some dieters develop eating disorders, many others seriously suffer physically and psychologically from dieting. Anti-dieting campaigns that expose the utter failure, and in fact risks, of dieting are important health messages for our campus health centers to portray. Furthermore, since eating disorders can end college careers and lives, it is important to understand how a diet turns into a disorder. What causes vulnerability in one individual versus another?

A simple way of explaining the development of an eating disorder is: “Genes load the gun and environment pulls the trigger.” Our genes influence our traits such as anxiety, perfectionism, or obsessiveness, all of which are common in individuals with anorexia and bulimia. The environment includes culture, family and other relationships and life experiences. Combine a trait such as perfectionism with a cultural milieu that reveres thinness and promotes dieting, add a psychological stressor such as parental divorce, and you have the makings of a ‘perfect storm’, or the creation of an eating disorder.

In many ways we can view individuals who develop eating disorders as our cultural “canaries in the coal mine.” Before more advanced alert systems existed, coal miners would take canaries down into the mines to serve as warning signals. If the canaries died or became ill this signaled to the miners, long before they would have detected a problem, that the environment was toxic and they needed to get out. Like the canaries, individuals who develop eating disorders may be our songbirds, warning us that our current environment is toxic and we need to all take heed. Not everyone exposed to the cultural obsession with appearance will develop an eating disorder (not everyone who smokes will get lung cancer either) but for every person who does, there are hundreds more who hate their bodies, destructively diet, engage in disordered eating and lead unfulfilled lives. There are those who think that dealing with the cultural aspect of the etiology of an eating disorder is old news, and we need to move on to improving our brain scans or blood tests. But it’s not old news until we fix it, and we are far from that. Body image dissatisfaction is a better predictor of eating attitudes, eating behaviors, dieting pathology than other variables like depression or self esteem.

In the meantime, we have to learn how to better detect and treat those with eating disorders. We have to work hard to make our canaries, as well as the rest of us, more resilient and resistant to the forces, both internally and externally, that act upon us.

Monte Nido & Affiliates is renown for its unique programs treating eating and exercise disorders. Founded in 1996 by Carolyn Costin, MFT, after her own recovery, Monte Nido, became the first residential treatment center in a home, surrounded by nature, yet offering all the services normally available only in a hospital setting. Monte Nido has an impressive peer reviewed, published, one to ten year outcome study showing a 89% success rate for anorexia and 75% for bulimia. The Monte Nido philosophy is a client-centered, individualized approach using evidenced based treatment, enhanced with mindfulness practices and the use of some “recovered” staff members. The goal for each client is not only the absence of symptoms, but overall healing of any underlying issues and a reconnection to what is truly sacred and meaningful in life.

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[1]Malinauskas, B. M., Raedeke, T.mD., Aeby, V. G., Smith, J. L. & Dallas, M. B. (2006). Dieting practices, weight perceptions, and body composition: A comparison of normal weight, overweight, and obese college females. Nutrition Journal, 5(11). doi: 10.1186/1475- 2891-5-11

[2] Shisslak, C. M., Crago, M., & Estes, L. S. (1995). The spectrum of eating disturbances. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 18(3), 209-219.


© 2010 Screening for Mental Health, Inc.