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Are Eating Disorders Contagious?

By May 7, 2008 - 8:51pm
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A report that came out last month states that eating disorders sometimes occur in clusters. Do you think this type of extreme behavior is contagious?

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I only have my own personal experience to share here, but it may be helpful. It may not be that eating disorders are "contagious," per se, but that the power of suggestion is so strong that it may as well be.

In my early twenties, when I was at quite a reasonable weight and hadn't ever felt the need to diet, I read an article about eating disorders. I couldn't get it out of my head, though my initial reaction was a negative one. After a few months, when I'd gained a little weight and was wishing it would come off easily, I started a binge-purge cycle that would last about five years. I have been over it for a couple of decades now, but still remember the "power" i felt in being able to control my body weight in such a way. Suggestion is powerful when given to a vulnerable person, and so many of our young girls are feeling the pressure to be super-thin that there's no question in my mind that it can make an eating disorder seem "attractive" in some diabolical way. They are too young to understand the costs to their health and their self-esteem.

My niece, at 10, who is actually tall and gangly, recently informed me that her tummy is fat. It is not, at all, and it made me so sad to know that this nastiness about body image has trickled down more than a decade in just the last generation.

September 23, 2008 - 8:46am

Yes, I believe eating disorders can be "contagious". I assume the word "contagious" here is not being used in the medical sense (like a disease being transmitted), yet in the non-technical term: a contagious laugh.

Eating disorder studies continue to suggest that there still are no concrete "causes" that can be pinpointed as to why some people develop an eating disorder, and others do not, but many "factors" are related to eating disorders.

One of these factors may be genetic. If we use the "contagion" analogy, then the question becomes one of nature/nurture: do eating disorders "run in families" from being inherited or from experiencing the behavior in the home. The answer could be BOTH; studies are suggesting that there may be an "eating disorder" gene or chemical imbalance that is inherited. Mental illnesses also occur in families, like depression, which is a contributing factor in developing an eating disorder. It also makes sense that the disordered eating behaviors may be learned in the home, as eating disorders effect the entire family.

The environment plays a large role in ALL of our behaviors, and eating issues, including eating disorders, are not excluded. Environmental and cultural factors can include such "contagions" as stressors (living environment has changed), some of our media images (airbrushed models on magazines and TV) or a "social norm" to be thin.

Girls are dieting in groups (which would not be a far leap for them to also binge-and-purge, or avoid eating, in groups). Girls are also "feeling fat" at younger and younger ages and wanting to lose weight. These are all warning signs of disordered eating patterns.

The "clustering" of behaviors isn't new. People tend to befriend like-minded people, who have similar interests, values and behaviors. Think about how many smokers "hang out" together, how many runners tend to "run in groups" (sorry for the awful pun). Same for eating behaviors: over-eating and under-eating may happen in groups. (Healthy eating also happens in groups!)

Please know: the above discusses only a few factors in how eating disorders manifest themselves. People living with anorexia, for example, tend to hide their eating and may not eat in groups. Similar to depression and many other health topics shared on this website, many of these issues make people feel shameful, guilty and embarrassed; therefore, are not disclosed to others. They are purposefully and skillfully hidden. Eating disorders are more than just about food; they are real mental illnesses that people can recover from with appropriate care from physicians, nutritionists and counselors.

For more information about eating disorders, visit the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) at www.neda.org

May 8, 2008 - 1:45pm

I can not imagine that eating disorders would be contagious, maybe if there is a history of depression, that would make more sense . Please advise

May 7, 2008 - 9:46pm
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