04/26/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Eating Disorders: What's In A Name

Eating disorders are so named because the habit of eating is out of the ordinary. In the most well known of these, people either eat too little (anorexia nervosa) or too much (bulimia nervosa) to live a healthy life. There are other eating disorders as well, but these are less well known. Sometimes the cause of eating disorders is known (eating too much as in Kluver Bucy Syndrome) but most of the time, the cause is more obscure. Certainly, in the case of anorexia or bulimia, the causes are usually multiple and difficult to distinguish from associations. Yet, we continue to call these disorders "eating disorders" as though the primary deficit was "eating". That would be like calling a pneumonia caused by Streptococcus "coughing disorder" or a brain tumor causing weakness "weakness disorder'. To really address the problems with eating disorders, perhaps we should investigate a few other names. Below are some suggestions:

Social Habit Disorder: The eating disorders could fall into this category, so that the appropriate attention could be drawn to society's fascination with thinness. The desire to comply with the "right social image" derives from what that social image is in the first place, and if we changed that, we might change the face of eating disorders altogether. What if it were really cool to look "normal" rather than waify-thin to the point of disintegration. (40 percent of nine and 10-year-old girls trying to lose weight generally did so with the urging of their mothers.)

Neglect Disorder: When eating disorders fall into this category, it may be because people are suffering from not receiving quality attention, thereby feeling devalued and unnoticed in society. If we used this name, we might "treat" the neglect by getting adolescents the appropriate amount of attention from their caregivers, thereby postponing the need to express this neglect through abnormal eating.

Abuse Disorder: If we called eating disorders abuse disorders, we could see the eating disorder as a consequence of abuse and treat it that way. Aside from removing the abuser, we could also help the victim recover from this abuse. Abnormal eating habits may be a symptom of abuse. (Studies have reported sexual abuse rates as high as 35 percent in women with bulimia).

My Parent Has An Addiction Disorder: It has been found that people with eating disorders are more likely to have a parent who has alcoholism or a substance abuse disorder. To the extent that this contributes to the eating disordered behavior, drawing attention to this in a name may help focus the attention to the problem appropriately.

The list of alternative names for this disorder are endless (Hypothalamic disorder, Thyroid disorder) but I am pointing out the seemingly absurd possibility of giving this disorder alternative names to emphasize that whether this is genetic or biological, social attitudes play a major role in shaping the idea of how we should look. I write this, not as a social reprimand, but as a genuine examination of whether we have a social disorder that is worth taking a look at as a social problem.

This focus on the body as such an important attribute as to deserve extreme measures is an interesting phenomenon. While understandable to some extent, thinness, for example, is not a cross-cultural obsession, so it cannot be a fundamental human trait. The extent of disgust that obesity generates in our culture is rather astounding. I can see concern or aesthetic preference, but high-intensity disgust raises questions about the fundamental origins of this distaste. Does it boil down to a fear of mortality in that obese people are more likely to die early and remind people of this possibility? Or is this a "survival of the fittest" response in that obese people, for example, do not fit in to a society because they are likely not to survive? What could cause such an immense interest in thinness in our society?

Religious and dietary restrictions aside, I have thought of names for related disorders as well: salad-eating disorder (the obsession to eat more salads than is possible to truly enjoy); low carb-disorder (anyone who leaves fried rice or noodles off of their order at a Chinese restaurant; absent potato syndrome (when there is no potato on someone's dinner plate); fresh fruit syndrome (someone who has convinced themselves that fresh fruit taste much better than donuts, bacon, sausage or a waffle for breakfast). If we perpetuated names of disorders like this, perhaps it would balance out the obsession we have with creating the current eating disorders and making children with a genuine love of all of the good things in life feel as though they have to switch to all the bad things. The middle road here is probably best traveled, although I have wondered about a "middle road disorder" as well.