The role of environment

Much of the history of eating disorder research and treatment has concentrated on two aspects of the environment: family and society. As science has more clearly illuminated the biological nature of the illness, the question of "nature versus nurture" has evolved to a "nature AND nurture" and also expanded the discussion of environment to include prenatal influences, nutrition, developmental changes, hormones, over exercise,  illness, and stress.

Some environmental influences can increase the chances of a person developing an eating disorder, but probably only if that person has a biological predisposition. A person with a predisposition for an eating disorder may never develop one if certain environmental influences never appear, or do not appear at certain developmental stages.

F.E.A.S.T. believes eating disorders are treatable biologically based brain illness. While parents do not cause eating disorders by their parenting style, we do believe the family and social environment can be a powerful tool in recovery, and relapse prevention.

Family meals, a lower-stress lifestyle, open communication among family members, and avoiding unhealthy talk about appearance and food are only a few of the ways some families have chosen to create an effective environment for recovery. But just as rehabilitation from any grave illness may require caring environments and particular skills, the lack of these things should never be confused with causing the illness in the first place. Even those growing up in loving and supportive families and environments can experience eating disorders - and extremely unhealthy environments of all kinds do not often lead to eating disorders.

Family environment does not cause eating disorders, but a supportive family can be an important part of recovery.

Society also receives a lot of attention and blame in causing eating disorders. This is a topic around which there is a great deal of debate. There is little data to support the widely held belief that social pressures and the media are increasingly causing people to develop eating disorders - nor is there conclusive data to dispute it. Sadly, there is little reliable data on eating disorder prevalence and we know very little about how common eating disorders are now, or were in the past.

One influence in society, the admiration of extreme thinness, receives the most blame for causing or triggering eating disorders. A simple dietary trend toward restricting the types or volume or energy density of food - with or without increased activity through exercise or athletics - is cited as the common factor in all types of eating disorders. Research supports the hypothesis that dietary restriction sets into motion physiological, neurobiological, and emotional forces that drive eating disordered thoughts and behaviors.

Dieting, a normalized behavior in modern society, has been called a "gateway drug" to eating disorders. Despite conclusive evidence that restrictive diets are only very rarely successful at permanent weight loss in those seeking to reduce body fat, there is abundant encouragement in society to diet and to condemn those whose weights are average or above. That said, most people can risk a temporary dietary restrictive period without consequence. Others have a genetic predisposition to respond with a cascade of self-perpetuating thoughts and behaviors called an eating disorder.

Although efforts to "prevent" eating disorders are still inconclusive, many eating disorder experts believe in a zero tolerance attitude toward dieting in a family predisposed to an eating disorder. Families are enjoined to avoid labeling foods "good" and "bad" and to avoid purchasing restricted calorie foods. Whether preventive or simply compassionate in purpose, families often end up with a different attitude about our culture's over-valuing of appearance and the vilification of weight after observing the anguish and confusion of an eating disordered loved one.

The best environment for a recovering eating disorder patient is one of love, rationality, patience, and support - something families have always been trusted and are usually best-suited to provide.

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Information on this site is meant to support, not replace, professional consultation. Unless otherwise noted, content is edited by F.E.A.S.T. volunteers with assistance from our Professional Advisory Panel.

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This page was last updated: 12/14/2010 2:10:45 PM