Allergies And Eating Disorders – A Complex Relationship

Allergies And Eating Disorders – A Complex Relationship

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Food allergies are on the rise. According to CNN, the number of children with food allergies rose “18 percent from 1997 to 2007” [1]. That’s an absolutely enormous leap in just ten years. Although scientists aren’t entirely sure why the rise has been this great, there are several theories floating around. Some point out that we’re getting much better at diagnosing allergies, and doctors are in general more likely to look to allergies as a potential source of a problem than they were ten years ago. Others point to the ‘hygiene hypothesis’, which holds that “excessive cleanliness disrupts the normal development of the immune system, and this change leads to an increase in allergies” [2].

There are other theories doing the rounds, and entire books being written exploring the subject of allergies, how to live with them, and how to prevent your child from getting them. Whatever the reason, allergies are certainly on the rise. This rise, coincides with another food-related medical issue – the shocking rise in the number of eating disorders occurring today. While the two are probably not directly linked, it is certainly worth exploring the relationship between the two phenomena.

Eating Disorders

Eating disorders – mental health conditions like anorexia or bulimia nervosa – may cause the sufferer to experience strange and unnatural attitudes towards food. Often this results in malnutrition and poor
health through either over or under eating. Most frequently publicized are the aforementioned anorexia and bulimia, in which the sufferer limits or purges their calorie intake, often with shocking or even fatal results. The conditions can be treated, but if caught too late (or not at all) they can and do take lives. More and more people – particularly teens and children – are suffering from eating disorders. While it is unlikely that an allergy can directly cause an eating disorder, it is possible that a food allergy or intolerance can contribute to or even mask an eating disorder. For this reason, parents should pay close attention to any allergic child at mealtimes. Disordered eating is a very serious issue, and the presence of an allergy has the potential to fatally complicate the matter.

Disordered Eating

Symptoms of an eating disorder may include an unwillingness to eat, curious behavior around certain foods, and evident discomfort after eating. Many parents and allergy sufferers may recognize these as symptoms which also afflict those who have a food intolerance. As such, weight should be monitored very carefully if any of these symptoms are present. If an allergy test has eliminated any concerns about intolerances, then parents should take a deep breath and address the issue of eating disorders with their child. Sadly, an eating disorder can make someone very devious. They may invent food allergies and intolerances in order to get out of eating certain meals. As one British sufferer told the Sunday Telegraph, “By the age of ten I had…invented lies about food allergies. I had become a vegetarian and decided that I wasn’t allowed sugar” [3]. If a child who is losing weight claims to have a food allergy, it may be a good idea to try and get to the truth of the matter somehow. Eating disorders are mental health problems – it is not necessarily the fault of the sufferer that they are lying to you. It is symptomatic of the illness.

Cause And Effect

On the other end of the scale, allergies and intolerances may contribute towards a hesitancy regarding eating which could potentially morph into an eating disorder if conditions are right. A child who grows up learning to associate mealtimes and eating with the discomfort that an allergy or an intolerance brings on is likely to have something of a skewed relationship with food. Of course, this in itself cannot directly cause anorexia or bulimia, but combine it with certain other factors and a perfect storm brews. Anorexia and bulimia are often thought to be influenced by poor self-worth and a media-driven need for physical ‘perfection’. Indeed, so prominent a part does body image play in the development of such conditions that they are sometimes referred to as ‘body-image disturbances’ rather than “eating disorders”. A child which combines hesitancy regarding food with body image disturbance is more likely to develop an eating disorder than one which merely displays body-image disturbance. Of course, it goes without saying that a child who merely has allergies is unlikely to develop an eating disorder as a consequence, but it’s still worth working to make sure that your child has a healthy relationship with food, despite any allergies they may have!

Structure And Control

Many anorexics develop the disease as a result of trying to exert excessive amounts of control over their diets. Control is, indeed, a major psychological factor in the mental makeup of the average female anorexic. Scholars have identified “women’s need to establish a sense of control in their lives as a central feature of anorexia nervosa” [4]. This controlling appetite typically begins with the limitation and avoidance of certain foodstuffs. Over time, more and more is cut out until the very idea of food itself is repugnant. Many psychologists are beginning to identity a peculiarly modern nutritional disorder which they have dubbed “orthorexia nervosa”. This involves an obsession with ‘pure’ foods, which is often co-morbid with inauthentic allergies. For the typical orthorexic, fabricating (or, in fact, strongly believing in) an imaginary allergy makes them feel special, apart from the herd. It also allows them to ‘legitimise’ exerting a degree of control over their diets. It is not at all uncommon for orthorexia to develop into the deadlier anorexia, so, if you suspect that somebody is using their allergy to create an unnecessary level of dietary control, perhaps have a tactful word with them on the topic. Not only is it bad for them, but such allergy fabrication makes it harder for people suffering from genuine allergies and intolerances to be taken seriously in the world at large.

[1] Elizabeth Landau, “Why are food allergies on the rise?”, CNN, August 2010

[2] UCLA, “Why are allergies increasing?”

[3] Sarah Rainey, “Secretly starving: Inside the world of anorexia blogging”, Sunday Telegraph

[4] Catrina Brown, “The Control Paradox: Understanding and Working With
Anorexia and Bulimia”, NEDIC, 1990

This is a freelance article and guest contribution by Helen Butler.