In a world where billions are dying of hunger it is sometimes difficult to have sympathy for people with eating disorders. But like Drew discovered in his post “Decisions. Decisions?” there is much more to this story than bad personal choices.

Our food system is disordered, and it is making us sick. There is an overabundance of cheap, processed, fattening food and a depreciation of fresh food prepared at home. Most of us are getting fatter, but our cultures worship of thinness continues to rise.  I’d like you to think about all the advertisements you see in a day. How many are advertising food and how many are advertising beauty and/or weight loss products?

from: http://www.dumb.com

I’d also argue that our disordered agricultural practices are contributing to the problem because this is the source of our access to massive quantities of cheap “food like substances” (to quote my man Michael Pollan). In all of human history we have never been able to obtain so much food with so little exertion, and now we are dealing with consequences that we could not have anticipated.

What was going on with agriculture between the mid-19th century and now? Industrialization changed our world and our people in ways we could not have predicted. Suddenly we were out of the fields and working in factories and cities. Life expectancy increased and our access to food improved, but it seems we lost our connection to that food with each passing generation. Check out this information I found from the U.S. census: U.S. rural labor was 60% of the total workforce in 1850, reduced to less than 40% in 1900, 15% in 1950, and 2% since 1975. I learned in school that correlation is not necessarily causation, but I can’t help but think that this “disconnect” from our sources of food has played a bigger role in the eating disorder epidemic than it has been given credit for.

Anorexia, Bulimia, and Binge eating are not new phenomenon, but their significance and causes have changed over time. In the 12th and 13th century there are accounts of religious women fasting, the most notable being Catherine of Siena who was later canonized. This self-control of her body gave her a sense of purity, and she felt that yielding to food, was akin to yielding to sin and ultimately a deception to God. There are accounts that she stuck twigs down her throat to make herself vomit, but that is not confirmed. In the 19th century women who starved themselves were labeled as “hysterical” and this is when the term anorexia nervosa (nervous loss of appetite) is coined. It seems that the disease was relatively rare until the 1960s and became fairly common by the late 1970s when bulimia nervosa is put on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV).


So, if it is a general disconnect from our food system, why are women ten times more likely to develop a problem with food?  One theory and the theory I tend to agree with is that in a world that has seriously marginalized women, eating is something that offers control. Women have been told for centuries that they must be submissive, pretty, play things for men, and even though we have gained much ground in this area the message is still: Your value comes from what you look like.  Increasingly, young men are also hearing this message, which explains why we are seeing higher incidences of eating disorder in males.

My sincere hope is that as people are becoming more aware and involved with their food system that the incidence of eating disorders will go down. I also think that eating disorder units in hospitals should implement community gardens as a therapeutic measure. I can only speak from personal experience, but I find very few things as therapeutic as picking, eating, and sharing food I grew myself.


4 Comments Add yours

  1. I think it’s important to look at *why* are food system is as screwed up as it is. And the answer is not strictly “industrialization.” You definitely touched on the importance of industrialization – the economies of scale it produces and the higher standard of living that comes as a consequence.

    But other areas of industrialized production are no where near as “disordered” as our food system. Look at technology, for instance – it has advanced rapidly because of industrialization and has resulted in great gains in terms of standard of living and human well-being. So what’s the difference between our screwy food system and our successful technologic sector? One hint: look at which field is more regulated. Technology still enjoys a relatively free market – free of government intervention, that is. The food industry, on the other hand, has been closely related to government since the beginning of industrialization. Farm bills, subsidies to large corporations which have kept prices of corn and soybean-based products artificially low, and the big food corporations that snuggle up to the boys in Washington all contribute to the paradoxical system that feeds us.

  2. You are definately correct, but this post would be three or four times as long if I did that.I would have also loved to explore some more feminist theory, but I was already over my word limit. The issue is really complex, and I am glad you brought it up in the comments. I hope this encourages people to research more on the issue.

    I’m not sure that I agree that we need to deregulate agriculture further. Even with all the “regulations” we have now farmers are spraying tons of pesticides, underpaying and mistreating workers, polluting the environment, and eroding what pressure little is left of our top soils. It is too much of a public health risk to just leave agriculture, especially at the scale we are working with now, to the hands of the free market. Food production is an issue of national securtiy and should be treated as such.

    Free trade has also hurt a lot of small scale farmers in the developed and developing world. When NAFTA was passed over 1 million peasant farmers were displaced and the prices of tortillas rose dramatically. Countries started to import our food because it was cheaper (or we were sending it as aid), rendering their farmers useless.

    I agree that the crops that are being susidized are a joke, and the efforts we have made in public health to combat obesity are just a band-aid as long as we continue to subsidize corn, wheat and soy. That doesn’t mean we should get rid of farm bills, it just means we need to tweak them. The current farm bill helps commodity farmers by paying them based on how much they can grow and harvest, rather than, supporting prices and limiting production, like it did in the past. I’m not saying we turn back time, but that we asses the situation with the information we have now. Our farm bills have been catering to agribusiness for too long, and I am hoping that with enough public outcry we can change that.

    Thanks for commenting! You really got my brain working early this morning! I have been enjoying reading your entries and looking at things from a different perspective.

  3. mchllt says:

    This is a really interesting post that describes factors contributing to eating disorders I feel aren’t immediately thought of – at least, I know personally, that I have always associated eating disorders to psychiatric/psychological pathology and societal pressure more than a disconnect from the food system….I’m learning so much already!

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