Your body knows how to stay healthy all on its own. If you're hungry, you eat. If you're not, you don't. Eat a pound of veggies, feel one way. Eat a pound of McDonald's, experience another feeling. Incredibly simple, but incredibly difficult to obey, especially in our present society, explains Dr. Judith Brisman, psychologist and founder of the Eating Disorder Resource Center.
Just about everyone has a pattern of disordered eating (not to be confused with an eating disorder), says Brisman. When we talk about what we "should" eat, we've already left our bodily cues behind. Rapidly changing what kinds of food we ingest based on tenuous health claims, e.g., eating carbs some days but avoiding them on others, is a psychological approach to regulating what we eat, not a natural or scientific one.
Why don't we just listen to our body? Because our mind is often louder. Assuaging our negative emotions with food is actually a very effective (short-term) way of dealing with stress. Regulating your emotional life with food is "a quick Band-Aid to deal with feelings," says Brisman. Of course, some emotional wounds need bigger Band-Aids than others.
Depending on the severity of your discomfort, plus some genetic predisposition, disordered eating can take the form of an eating disorder. More than a behavior pattern, eating disorders are pathologies. Brisman explains the three components of an eating disorder:
Some people will always feel hungrier than others because of their genetics, so it's normal for there to be a spectrum of healthy weights. Listening to your body doesn't mean fitting an exact profile. And because certain personalities are more given to needing to control their circumstances, those personalities are more likely to develop an eating disorder, all other things being equal. Brisman explains, for example, that anorexics tend to be more perfectionistic.
Individuals who are brought up in stressful households or other stressful environments are more likely to need to cope with negative emotions. Given how effective food is at coping with such feelings, it's no surprise that eating disorders affect this subset of the population more frequently than individuals who know a normal amount of discomfort growing up.
As if personal stress weren't enough to cope with, our present society both pressures individuals to meet certain weight parameters and prescribes looking thin as a path to self-confidence and self-actualization. "People individually have the bullets. The culture shoots the gun," says Brisman.
This piece originally launched the Big Thinkers on Mental Health series - which is dedicated to open discussion of anxiety, depression, and the many other psychological disorders that affect millions worldwide.