Dieting: A Gateway Drug to Eating Disorders

I probably read too much about eating disorders. Whenever an article related to them pops across my Facebook feed or shows up on Twitter, I click. And there’s a frustrating element of these articles that has begun to grate on me more and more. Every single time someone writes about eating disorders, they have to bring up those “terrifying statistics” about dieting and body dissatisfaction in girls and women. In one article I read last night, the author even went so far as to suggest that “dieting is a gateway drug to eating disorders”.

Now these are of course important concerns. Dieting isn’t a particularly healthy practice most of the time. Women thinking that they should or must be thin is not exactly an ideal state. But where I run into problems is this: a diet is not an eating disorder. Dieting does not lead to developing an eating disorder because an eating disorder is not just an extreme version of a diet or a choice or a lifestyle change. It is a disease. You can’t catch the eating disorders from a diet.

So what is the relationship between diets and eating disorders? Why do people keep throwing into the same sentences as if everyone knows the clear link between them? I can’t help but come from my own perspective and my first thought is that diets and eating disorders belong nowhere near each other. I have never in my life been on a diet. Up until my eating disorder came bearing down full force I had never even imagined restricting my food intake. And when my eating disorder happened, it was never anything like a diet. There may have been a couple of weeks during which I wasn’t aware that I was making destructive choices, but it became quite clear quite quickly.

I get the feeling that I’m not the typical case and that many people experiment with dieting before they fall into a full blown eating disorder. But it is the case that there are many, many people who diet and never develop and eating disorder, and I am evidence that the opposite can be true as well. The deep link that most people seem to assume between the two can be questioned.

And then there’s the evidence. Do we have any evidence that dieting leads to eating disorders, or even that dieting can predict eating disorders? There is evidence that those who diet are about six times more likely to develop eating disorders. We don’t however know whether those who are already predisposed to having an eating disorder are more likely to diet, or whether diets lead to eating disorders. The vast majority of dieters never develop an eating disorder, so there is no certain way to determine whether an increase in dieting will lead to an increase in eating disorders.

“Recent research indicates that 50-80% of the risk of developing AN is genetic (Kaye, 2007).  Patients with AN typically demonstrate high levels of anxiety, harm avoidance, and behavioral inhibition (Shaw et al. 1997) – all traits which are heavily influenced by genetics (Cloninger, 1986, 1987, 1988).  Perfectionism, obsessionality, and cognitive rigidity, which are also highly heritable, have been identified as risk factors for AN (Kaye et al., 2009).  Most patients with AN have exhibited one or more of these traits since early childhood, long before the development of an eating disorder.  These traits tend to be exacerbated during bouts of malnutrition and persist long after recovery, albeit to a lesser degree (Kaye, 2007).” Source

There are chemical changes in the brain when we deprive ourselves of food and for those who have the predisposition for an eating disorder, a diet can be the moment that flips the switch as it were. So while there is a relationship between diets and eating disorders, an increase in dieting does not necessarily imply that there will be an increase in eating disorders (unless there were a whole lot of predisposed people running around who never hit any level of nutrition deprivation or stressful circumstances that would have precipitated the illness). It is possible that an increase in dieting would trigger an illness in those with a smaller predisposition, but that’s all speculation.

So we have evidence that dieting does correlate with eating disorders. We have no evidence that it causes eating disorders. There are however many problems with talking about dieting as if it caused eating disorders (beyond the fact that it’s probably not accurate). Especially when the connection is drawn in a sloppy fashion, it implies that eating disorders are on a spectrum with diets and that one can slip from one into the other with ease. The further implication is that eating disorders are a choice, obscuring the reality of the genetic components of eating disorders, as well as the psychosocial aspects (which tend to be less about diet culture and more about individual stresses in someone’s life).

But perhaps worse is that it gives the picture that everyone who has an eating disorder is a chronic dieter, the kind of person who is always belittling themselves, or obsessed with their looks. This leads to the distinct possibility that people won’t get proper diagnosis, treatment, or support. It continues the love/hate relationship with eating disorders that our culture has in which the anorexic does what everyone else does but just does it better, so if you aren’t a model/fashionista/weight obsessed salad eater, you don’t have an eating disorder. And that’s a problem.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t recognize that diets can predict eating disorders, but it’s not as if that’s not already in common parlance. Let’s spend some time focusing on the things no one thinks of, like a rape, or a bad breakup, or a bad family situation, or any other form of trauma that can easily precipitate a mental illness. Let’s get over the idea that an eating disorder is a part of diet culture, because it’s something else altogether and we know that.

deal with it animated GIF

 

Practically Speaking about Evidence

This is the third post in a series of posts about evidence. Here are parts 1 and 2.

 

In this post, I want to focus not on the philosophical benefits of truth or my personal experience of truth, but rather on the simple facts (that’s what skeptics like, right?).  So I’ve heard some people say things like: “All of my beliefs are based on evidence”. When I hear someone say that my first reaction is “WHOA DAMN WE HAVE A GOD HERE IN OUR MIDST”. Now I can tell just from looking at it that you haven’t taken the time to examine the evidence for that statement, because unless you are a robot and not a human being you have come to beliefs by a different route at least once. So by saying it, you’ve actually just proved yourself wrong. You’ve also essentially asserted that you’re not tripped up by petty things like human psychology.

 

I am willing to bet all the money that I own that there is not a single person on the face of this planet who does not hold a single belief tainted by faith, wishful thinking, prejudice, stereotypes, emotions, assumptions, or other non-evidence based things. I know for an absolute fact that I have TONS of beliefs like this. I know for a fact that most of the people who have said this to me have beliefs like that. Every single person I’ve met has demonstrated non-evidenced based beliefs to me.

 

As human beings we have evolved to have emotions that affect how we act. We have fight or flight instincts. We have paranoias and irrational fears. We have histories that paint how we view things. We are susceptible to societal biases and easy to manipulate based upon quirks of our minds. We may think we can verify the truth or falsity of things with our senses, but our senses are easy to fool too. We’re not made to work only on evidence and it takes a lot to overcome some of our emotional nature that asks us to come to quick conclusions to protect ourselves.

 

And you know what? THAT’S OK. It is entirely 100% acceptable and not shameful in any way to have some beliefs that aren’t perfectly based on evidence. Because it is human and we are not capable of perfection. What I strive for is to do my best, not for perfection. There’s lots of instances where I don’t have the time or the ability to find all the evidence I might need, there’s times when I’m straight up lazy because the thing isn’t important, there’s times when I am physically incapable of finding all the evidence, or there’s times when the evidence is about half and half for two different things and I just kind of have to guess, or assume or hope that I’m right. I might even just have to go on faith a bit by listening to others.

 

I realize that the word faith has a dirty connotation to a lot of atheists, but we go on faith a lot of the time. When someone tells you something and you don’t have the time to check their credentials or check for yourself, and you trust this person and then go on to act in accordance with what they’ve told you….that’s faith. I bet you every single one of you has done that at one point or another. Or at least I hope every one of you has trusted another human being at some point in your life. It’s more practical than feeling an obligation to personally check the facts for every single situation. It’s useful. It’s often necessary.

 

The MAJOR difference between this kind of faith and a religious faith is that this kind of faith is open to new evidence. It’s a temporary accepting of whatever seems most plausible at the moment, or of someone else’s evidence, or of their authority. If your boyfriend tells you he loves you and you don’t have any access to a brain scanner to make absolutely certain, you’ll probably believe him. But if you find out he’s a compulsive liar and has been cheating on you, you’re likely to adjust that belief. But you did take it at least somewhat on faith the first time around. You had some evidence, but not as much as you could have had, not enough to make it as certain as possible. You accepted it without certain. You accepted it through trust. By some people’s accounts that’s a bad thing to do, but in my mind it’s highly practical and quite rational.

 

So if we can all accept that sometimes we have flawed beliefs that aren’t based wholly and strictly on evidence, then can we look again at the people who believe in god with a little more compassion? Because honestly they’re not doing anything morally WRONG by believing in god. Their actions based upon their religion might be harmful, the specific teachings of their religion might be harmful and the actions they take because of it might be harmful, but the belief in god itself is not harmful. It’s an understandable lapse, just like all of us make understandable lapses. To perhaps reach a more compassionate view of theists let’s take a look at another false set of beliefs and see how we approach those (caveat before I continue: I am not trying to call religion a mental illness in any way. It’s a metaphor. METAPHOR).

 

So. I have a pretty firmly engrained set of false beliefs that come not just from evidence (because there is some evidence involved), but also from emotion and assumption. I believe quite firmly that I am a useless lump of fat. I can give you a list of the reasons why I think that, the evidence I believe I have, but in the end this belief and its attached conclusions and attitudes are very emotional.

 

I have never, not once in my life, had someone believe that this makes me an appropriate target for ridicule, condescension or mockery. And if they did it would be the most heinously unfeeling thing anyone has ever done to me. I’ve had these beliefs for a good 4 or 5 years now. At different times I’ve tried to shake them, but a lot of the time I have no desire to shake them because they seem like the single most important set of beliefs I’ve ever held in my life.

 

But just because I have one set of false beliefs does not make me stupid. And just because you don’t hold this particular false set of beliefs doesn’t make you better than I am, smarter than I am, a better person than I am. It means I have more work to do in one area. That’s it. And if you suddenly start to think that I’m unworthy of your compassion because I have been willing to hold on to these beliefs for this long, then I don’t think you’re worthy of my respect anymore. If you feel that the correct way to disabuse me of these notions is by condescending to me, telling me how stupid I am, telling me that my beliefs are crazy and ridiculous, or by acting like you are more intelligent than I am, I can promise you now that I will never change my beliefs and I will never have the happier life that true beliefs could bring. If you feel that the appropriate way to make yourself feel better about your life is to tell me that I’m ignoring all the evidence, that I can’t think straight, that my beliefs are destroying the world because they’re false, or that those beliefs are the worst form of oppression because they are false and I am content to keep them that way, then your life is sad indeed.

 

If instead you take an attitude of compassion and say “yeah, you have some wrong beliefs. And I have some wrong beliefs too. Let’s try to figure out what’s right and what’s wrong together so that we can all be happier” I would be far more inclined to listen.

 

So let’s apply this all to religion. When you come towards religious believers acting as if all of your attitudes and beliefs are based strictly on evidence, they see someone blowing smoke out their ass because that’s a bullshit claim, and they see you acting like you’re a lot better than they are for absolutely no reason. They see us patting ourselves on the back for being so damn enlightened. Well you know what? Atheists have a lot of shitty beliefs too. Some of them have even shittier beliefs than some Christians do. Being an atheist doesn’t make you a perfectly intelligent, fault-free person. Neither does being a skeptic. None of these attitudes rid you of the fact that you’re human and ALL of our decision making is tinged by emotions (when psychologists study people who have had damage to emotional parts of their brain and who act strictly on rationality, these people are often incapable of making decisions). And when a Christian or theist of any kind sees someone blustering up to them acting like God incarnate with no false beliefs, they’re going to shut down mighty fast. Atheists are often accused of seeing themselves as God, and I think we should do our best not to make it easier to stereotype us this way. Saying that we never are flawed in the way we come to conclusions is a really BAD way to make people realize you don’t think you’re God.

 

Look I know how fun it is to feel smarter than someone else. I KNOW how much fun it is to verbally and intellectually rip someone to pieces (I was on the debate team, I practically get high from doing that). But it’s not always the time or the place to do that, and you don’t always have a right to do that simply because another person has a mistaken belief. Imagine if we felt that because we had a right belief and someone had a wrong belief it was not only our right but also our duty to leave them in quivering pieces of destroyed self-esteem. Imagine if we did that to EVERY mistaken belief. That sounds like a damn shitty world to me, and I know that I’d end up a hermit if people did that to all of my mistaken beliefs. I know most of you would feel pretty crappy too (because you do have badly formed beliefs. Seriously, just accept it).

 

Now yes, some irrational beliefs are harmful. My irrational beliefs are harmful. And it’s great to promote the idea that we should strive for more and help each other come to better beliefs. But if we’re trying to promote a better world through truth, then shaming people for not living up to your expectations is just as bad as religions that shame people for not being able to live up to the impossible expectations of god. You end up with just as much guilt and hatred.

 

Having a bit of compassion for the fact that every human on this planet is doing their best to get by in a way that allows them to survive when things are hard and cruel is the best place to start. Adding to that that truth can help us is a good place to move next. And accepting that all of us sometimes sacrifice truth to our emotional well-being or simple practicality is crucial to coming across as human beings and to being relatable and kind individuals, as well as to having a flexible and working value system. I think it’s time that we start remembering that kindness and compassion can be part of the atheist value system as well as truth.

I Am Human

Trigger warning: suicidal ideation

So this may come as a shock to all of you but I am in fact a human being and not a robot. Because of this fact, there are certain things that I mess up on, have emotions about, and respond to in biased and sometimes irrational ways. There have been a number of people who have been pushing my buttons lately, and I apologize to people that I went off on, but there is something that I need to address, which I will try to do in a series of posts today and possibly into tomorrow to explain my reaction to a particular mindset.

This is the mindset that truth is all important and that we must never ever let ourselves be irrational or think things without evidence. I think this can be a toxic mindset for a number of reasons. The first I’m going to introduce in this post is extremely personal, and so I may end up disabling comments on this post if things get out of hand at all. This is not meant to be much by way of an argument, it is not meant to be rooted in any deep or intellectual philosophy. It is rooted strictly in my personal experience and what I perceive to be the experiences of others.

So last night after feeling frustrated about this mindset for some time, I finally realized something and I sat down and wrote this:

The temporary suspension of the need for evidence is so important to me right now that it feels like a punch in the gut when someone tells me I should always look for evidence and only believe based on evidence. Right now, I have suspended judgment on something very important: whether or not I deserve to live. I don’t think the evidence points in life’s favor, but I have decided to trust those around me when they say I do deserve it, and take it on faith for now because it’s an incredibly important conclusion and because I know that others believe I’m wrong.

I don’t have enough evidence yet, and I don’t know how to get enough evidence to prove to myself that I deserve life. I’m trying to have faith in the people who tell me that they have enough evidence, or that they can interpret the available evidence in a way that’s better than what I can do.

When someone tells me that all faith is wishful thinking, I can’t help but hear “You deserve to die and anything else is wishful thinking”.

You may not like the language of faith, but sometimes we need to recognize when we are not in a position to survey the evidence, and on occasion we might need to abdicate that responsibility to others for a while. I know that my brain cannot accurately survey the evidence around me right now, and so for the moment I am asking others to do it for me. That is faith for me. It’s trust. It’s why I’m alive, and it is far from irrational. On the contrary, it’s the best kind of rationality I can muster when my brain refuses rationality.

 

After writing this, I am certain that I’m not the only one who has to sometimes abdicate rationality to others. I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels like sometimes the only way to get through my life is to trust someone else when they say something kind, even when you firmly believe it’s not true. While I strive for rationality as an ideal, we are all human beings, and we all have emotions and difficulties that make pure rationality impossible, and sometimes harmful. Sometimes the most rational thing we can do is recognize our emotions and then trust others to help us see around them. I see that as a form of faith, and I think that it’s beautiful. If you have a problem with the word faith, then just replace it with trust, and I think it’s just as wonderful. We can’t always know the evidence for everything. We can’t always see it correctly or interpret it correctly. Oftentimes our brains or our senses work against us. We need help. We need to rely on each other to see the world as correctly as possible. This intersubjectivity is the faith that I believe atheists need.