Friday, August 10, 2012

Thinking It's All Your Fault?

That’s what they’re thinking, isn’t it? And likely you believe it too. Whether you’re fat or thin, healthy or unhealthy, fit or not, we need to place blame. It’s too hard for us to accept what’s not in our hands to control. We blame your weight on your eating and your diseases—even when there may be no link; we unfairly blame the parents for their child’s eating disorder; and we yearn to believe that it was your actions that caused your disease. Here are just a few examples of this I’ve recently encountered:

  • "You’re too fat and of course you must eat poorly. And you’re lazy, too. Shouldn’t you be moving that 350 plus pound body around better—faster, longer, more gracefully? Your knee problems, your reflux, your high blood pressure—they’re all caused by you, don’t you think?" It doesn’t matter that you were an overweight baby and a chunky child—cute then, but not for the adult you. No, it bothers us to see people outside the “perfect” range. 
  • The first question they ask is “Was he a smoker?” And the answer is no. Not a smoker nor a drinker yet my father died from primary lung cancer which spread to his liver. And no, there were not even asbestos or environmental factors. And my relative’s recent diagnosis of stomach cancer—rarely seen in the US but common in Japan—where they tend to be slimmer, I might add—was not caused by her weight nor her diet—those pickled, fermented and smoked foods associated with this cancer are not in her repertoire of foods regularly consumed.
  • I was sent many an internet, urban legend article on diet soda and multiple sclerosis after my diagnosis of MS. They were well-intentioned senders. They just wanted to find the answer, to find a cure. Never mind that the best research facilities still don’t have a cure, and that I can count on one finger how often I drank a diet beverage over the past months. But they thought they were being helpful. Wouldn’t it be great if I had caused my MS, and then I can equally easily undo it?
  • It’s the families, isn’t it? You know, that cause the anorexia? Wasn’t her mother always dieting? What about the home environment? Didn’t her sister also have an eating disorder?

Randomness is difficult to accept. If there’s no cause and effect, it means we can’t do anything to protect ourselves from all the bad things that may befall us. It means we have no control over the future of our health, of our survival, and of the risk to those that we care about. It leaves us feeling way too vulnerable.

We want to place blame. If her cancer was caused by her weight or her gastric bypass surgery, then it won’t happen to me. If his cancer was due to smoking or asbestos, then I am safe. Cut out the diet sodas and I’ll be free from risk of neurological disorders. If mothers cause anorexia, then I can change how I parent and prevent my child from getting it.

If only life were this simple. An eating disorder is complex, and can’t easily be caused from environmental influences. It likely involves a genetic predisposition, some triggering event, and environmental support to maintain it. Yet that doesn’t mean that parents are helpless. They may help prevent an eating disorder in a high risk individual by keeping eating on track and preventing the dieting that all too often results in an eating disorder. And they can certainly actively support their child’s recovery!

My MS and the ALS of a dear relative will not be cured with nutrition or weight change. But we can take control of our stress and maintain the health of the functioning bodies we do have. We can eat well to feel well—and yes, that includes cupcakes in addition to whole grains!

As for the myth that your weight is responsible for all evils? Reread this old post!

All hope is not lost. Even conditions we didn’t cause, we have a role in repairing. Yes, even the cancer. Getting the best treatment team and following the recommendations of your medical team is key. Reducing stress and keeping a positive attitude are critical remedies as well.

So when the conversation goes down that path of placing blame, politely educate the naïve inquisitor. And when you’re thinking it’s all your fault, think again.

On my list of "to dos"!
But don’t free yourself from the responsibility of taking action, of taking control of your health in all the ways that you can. And whether you have a terminal illness or a progressive condition or are 100% healthy, start living like you don’t know what tomorrow will bring. Because the truth is—you don’t. 

Thanks for reading. As always, I’d love you to share this if you liked it. Now there’s some action you can take!


  1. I think your last point is so vital. I initially thought not being the cause for my ED meant that I was also not able to be the solution for it. But although food and weight restoration were vital initial steps, once in a healthier place I was able to help myself in my own recovery. There is always hope :)

  2. Well written! My initial response to learning that ED was not all my fault was to assume that I was truly powerless and hence couldn't nedd not do anything about it. The pendulum had swung from one extreme where I blamed myself for everything to the other extreme where all responsibility was out of my ball park. A perfect example of all-or-nothing thinking. You reminded me that there is such a thing as grey - where responsibility and self-compassion can both exist :) Thanks!

    1. From the two comments above it's pretty clear you are not alone in your thinking! Yes, we may not have caused our illnesses, but we can act responsibly to improve our situation!

  3. This is a thought provoking post so I thank you for that! I guess I am normally someone from the other side of the fence, in that I believe ultimately we are largely responsible for our health when it comes to diet and lifestyle and diet and lifestyle related illnesses.

    I for example chose to do something about my high blood pressure and through researching and trying various diet and lifestyle modifications I lowered my blood pressure for around 160/100 to under 120/80.

    Anyway my point being that my feelings are that we should take responsibility and do things which improve our lifestyle related illnesses such as high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure, but your post has made me stop and consider perhaps how this message should be delivered, rather than just appointing blame etc.

  4. I just discovered your blog while surfing the 'net on my lunch break (oops... hope the boss doesn't notice!), and I have to say that I'm hooked. Hopelessly addicted, in fact, in much the same way that I used to be with food. It has been a struggle throughout my life, and I've swung from "it's all my fault!" to "I can't help it! Genetics be damned!"

    I suppose I discovered intuitive eating a little on my own, but never knew there was a name for it, or that it could work so WELL. I started feeling badly, not ABOUT my body, but IN my body. I teach high school color guard, and when I could no longer keep up with their training, or instruct them on certain dance moves... something had to change. I didn't exactly learn to listen to what my body wants as far as food, but I DID learn to listen to what my muscles wanted, and they wanted to be worked.

    This is mostly irrelevent to your post, so for that I apologize, but I just had to say thank you, for shedding light on so many issues, for all of the work that you do in your field, and to tell you that you have a new dedicated reader!

    1. Hi Kate,
      So glad you're finding it valuable! Please spread the word to help others find it as well--FB, reddit, Google+, Twitter--I'd really appreciate it.
      Looking forward to hearing from you in the future!