Binge-eating disorder is getting a new makeover today. It has finally been included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) as a psychological illness, which will help patients receive insurance money for treatment as well as the medical rights that come along with having a mental disorder. Assistant professor of psychology Dr. Jennifer Thomas is also attempting to widen the definition of eating disorders by including something she calls “almost anorexia,” a condition characterized by an unhealthy obsession with food but not the extreme weight or psychological problems that normally accompany a full-blown disorder. Patients previously called “normal-weight anorexics”–those who restrict and obsess about food but don’t meet the criteria for a diagnosis–would be included in this new category. Dr. Thomas estimates that the number of people suffering from “almost anorexia” is about one in 20, many times higher than the known rate of anorexia nervosa itself.
These two changes will expand the diagnosable eating disorder population enough to include over 10% of the entire American population, which is more than the amount of people who have heart disease, and, interestingly, the same amount of Americans who admit they are addicts to either alcohol or drugs. If eating disorders and the huge number of individuals who have them weren’t on the national stage before, they probably will be now.
Michael Pollan, a researcher and professor of journalism from UC Berkeley, has famously reported that the U.S. has a “national eating disorder”–a culture of “unhealthy people who are obsessed with eating healthfully.” Pollan attributes this problem not to U.S. citizens themselves but to the industrialization and bureaucratization of the food industry, and he’s not alone. Michael Moss, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter at The New York Times, recently suggested the same thing in his 2013 exposé on big-business food production. Americans have addictive and disordered relationships with foods, he says, precisely because the processed foods they eat are designed to create just that: addictions, disorders and withdrawal. Moss’ book, “Salt, Sugar, Fat” catalogs the intentional addition of huge amounts of addictive ingredients to children’s cereals, frozen dinners, snack foods and bakery items–all with the goal of getting Americans to eat more, regardless of the health consequences or implications for future psychosocial well-being.
Despite these findings, American society has long attributed problems with food to the people who have them rather than to the foods themselves. Anorexia and bulimia nervosa have been ascribed to people’s inability to deal with everything from family trauma to patriarchy to MTV music videos, but none of the treatments based on these theories has yet to produce any results. Ideas about western psychology and society’s influence on these disorders have slowly begun to lose credibility as more and more eating disorders pop up in non-western nations like Hong Kong and India, but the trend of diagnosing people with eating disorders rather than examining national or even individual eating habits still continues today.
As the list of recognized eating disorders expands to include diagnoses like “drunkorexia,” “almost anorexia” and food addiction, Pollan and Moss encourage scientists and doctors alike to revisit their ideas about food and mental health in a way that blames individuals less and re-examines our society more. These new diagnoses on the part of the American Psychological Association and well-known universities fail to take these biologically-based views into account, but if ten percent of Americans are suffering from a food-related disorder, wouldn’t it make sense to examine the food?