02/25/2008 05:39 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Let's Give Eating Disorders a New Name

As Eating Disorders Awareness Week 2008 gets underway, I'd like to
propose that we all consider giving eating disorders a new name.

There is now ample scientific evidence that these disorders are
biologically based mental illnesses. Anorexia nervosa has a higher
mortality rate than alcoholism or schizophrenia, and the cause of death is
not always directly related to food intake or starvation. We know that DNA
determines who is most likely to develop an eating disorder and who is not.
We know that eating disorders are distress signals -- symptoms -- of much
deeper and more complex patterns of personality, anxiety, and behavior.

So why does the media trivialize and marginalize an issue that
affects more than 10 million people? Why do many insurance companies refuse
cover these illnesses as they would, say, drug addiction or depression? I
think the term "eating disorder" bears some of the blame, as it suggests the
problem begins and ends with food.

As one woman recently wrote to me:

I hear young girls through grown women say, 'I wish I was anorexic
- just for a week.' I remember being an adolescent and being obsessed with
eating disorders. I would read everything about them at the library (we did
not have the Internet), I would secretly read the ED section in our health
books, and would read any magazine that had something about them on the
cover. I wanted people to think I didn't eat (I did), and I thought it was
symbolic of being good, in control. I wanted to be anorexic. Eventually it
grabbed a hold of me and has not let go. Let's stop making it so glamorous.

I couldn't agree more. That's why, as an experiment, I invited
readers of my blogs and newsletter to send me ideas for a term that might
reposition the syndromes of bulimia, anorexia, and binge eating disorder in
the public consciousness -- a term that would command the attention,
respect, and concern these conditions deserve.

The sheer diversity of ideas I received shows how complex these
problems are - and what a grave disservice it is to pigeonhole them as "food
and weight" issues. It also reflects the difficulty of coming up with one
label that applies to the full range of these conditions, especially when we
consider factoids such as 1) most people who die of eating disorders do not
die directly of starvation or obesity, but suicide; 2) weight is not always
an indicator of an eating disorder; and 3) eating disorder behavior and
thoughts often have nothing to do with food.

Suggested names included:
  • Empty self syndrome
  • Self-awareness escape condition
  • "Undeserving" complex
  • Sustenance Deprivation
  • Maladaptive coping syndrome
  • Dis-kinethesia syndromes (Dis-, meaning to undo, do the opposite, remove or free from, to deprive. Kinethesia meaning one's PERCEPTION of motion, weight, position, etc.)
  • Genetic identity syndrome
  • Self evaluated anxiety syndrome "S.E.A.S."
  • Food-focused Disempowerment Disorders

I shared the full list with several friends, both in and out of the
eating disorders field. We all agreed that it is likely impossible to find
a single term to meaningfully encompass conditions as different as anorexia
and bulimia and binge eating disorders. But, that said, we did find several
that came close to describing the underlying reality and internal experience
of all eating disorders, whatever their shape, size, or duration. That
reality almost always involves a deeply distorted and disturbed sense of

These names do not wildly overlap with other broad conditions such
as depression, anxiety, and personality disorders, and yet they also do not
fasten on abnormal eating as the sole common denominator. Consider:

1. Metabolic Manipulation Dis-order (MMD)

2. Starved Self Syndrome (SSS)

3. "Undeserving" complex

4. Deprivation addiction

5. Feast or Famine Defense

These phrases truly represent "food for thought." I hope, at the
very least, they will prompt you to think twice, or better yet speak up, the
next time you hear someone joke about eating disorders. And feel free to
share these alternative names with the next person you hear wondering why
people with eating disorders don't just "gain (or lose) a little weight"!

Have a healthy, pro-active, and power-full Eating Disorders
Awareness Week!