In the early 1980s singer Karen Carpenter died of anorexia nervosa, and the media began to focus attention on this growing problem among American women. Today eating disorders—anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, food addiction, and binge eating disorder—have reached alarming proportions in all segments of the population. To what can we attribute this epidemic, and, more important, what can we do about it?
The reasons for eating disorders are not clear, in part because research in this field is new—less than two decades old—and in part because of the way investigations have been conducted in the past. Kelly Brownell, Ph.D., director of the Yale Center for Eating and Weight Disorders and coauthor of Eating Disorders and Obesity: A Comprehensive Handbook, notes that up until recently, eating disorder researchers have worked apart from scientists investigating obesity, and the two groups have not communicated. Brownell explains, "The issue of what governs hunger and satiety, for example, would he very important to know in the eating disorders field, but almost all of the study on that goes on in die obesity field. There's a lot of important work on body image that goes on in the eating disorders field, and the obesity field doesn't study it very much."
Fortunately, more sharing is starting to take place, and our understanding of these issues is becoming enriched. Current thinking attributes eating disorders to a combination of physiological, psychological, and sociological factors. There is also a genetic component: New re-search—specifically, investigations of identical twins raised apart—supports the hypothesis that eating disorders are, to an extent, inherited. While such studies may seem to take the emphasis off cultural factors, our culture obviously plays a large role in the development of eating disorders, as evidenced by the increasing incidences of anorexia and bulimia in the past ten years.