The Dark Side of Food

Image Courtesy of The Prince Arthur Herald

This article first appeared in the Prince Arthur Herald on June 4, 2011.

Although food is often understood simply as a necessity for survival, an individual’s relationship with it can be more complex than meets the eye. For many Canadians, the idea of a home-cooked meal is comforting. The different flavours and aromas conjure up positive memories, usually of childhood holidays spent with family and friends. However, for those who struggle with eating disorders, this image instead creates anxiety and fear. This fear usually hinges on how consuming food will alter how their body looks, or on the social pressure that surrounds public eating- fears that a person without disordered eating often simply cannot comprehend.

There are four clinical eating disorders that are recognized as medical conditions: anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge-eating disorder and eating disorders not otherwise specified (ED-NOS). This last category is vague, but reflects the true nature of the condition: each sufferer has his or her own distinct battle with food and it can be difficult to diagnose. This is further antagonized by the secrecy surrounding the disease in our families, society and media. According to the National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC), 1.5 per cent of Canadian women and 0.3 per cent of adolescents (male and female) overall suffer with a diagnosable eating disorder, with roughly 90 per cent of sufferers being women. While these numbers may seem miniscule and gendered, many more adolescents and young adults feel social pressure to conform to the ‘ideal’ body stereotypes- the first step in developing an eating disorder.

Eating disorders are serious psychological disorders stemming from a mixture of genetic predisposition, cultural/social environment, and internal and external pressure. Why, then, is this issue so often ignored? One clear reason is the old adage that only women struggle with body image issues; thus classifying eating disorders as a ‘women’s’ issue. However, social pressures also affect males, in particular young men, who are expected to be macho body building demi-gods. Part of this stereotype involves not asking for help, creating an even more secretive atmosphere surrounding male disordered eating. The recent ‘spike’ in male eating disorder rates is also misleading. Men have not waited until the 21st century to jump on the eating disorder bandwagon; but with public awareness campaigns and studies focused on women, men were left on the margins until about 5 years ago.

Another reason why this issue is ignored in mainstream media is because society idolizes those who are thin. While the clearest problems are in the fashion industry, an industry that pushes models-whether male or female- to fit into the ever-smaller sample sizes produced by designers, problems exist in many trades that require “attractive” people to sell products. Consumers are seduced by images of emaciated humans that have been photo shopped and airbrushed until they resemble nothing like the model who posed in front of the camera. There is big money to be made in advertising, and the media refuses to jeopardize its own interests by commenting on a huge health issue perpetuated by the advertisements they present to the public.

The Canadian public needs to increase awareness of eating disorders, and to talk about this serious medical condition in order to break with the status quo. By simply discussing this usually taboo subject, it is possible to break down the unreasonable cultural norms and stereotypes that foster and encourage unhealthy behaviour. It also allows those afflicted with eating disorders to feel more comfortable sharing their own personal story, and to continue their road towards rehabilitation.

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