The Australian, 15 December

APPARENTLY, one million Australians have an eating disorder.
So screamed newspaper headlines this week, conjuring up gruesome images of a full 4 per cent of the Aussie population starving themselves or chucking up into a toilet after every meal.

There is an epidemic of eating disorders, we were told. “This is a hidden illness,” an expert told ABC News.

In the space of a few days, the idea of Australia as a nation of happy meat-eaters who don’t get too hung up about their waistlines was blown apart.

Or was it? Look a little closer at the eating-disorder claims and it quickly becomes clear that they are, if you will excuse my French, bullshit. There’s no other word for it. The figure of 913,986 sufferers - rounded up by most media outlets to one million - comes from the Butterfly Foundation, a Sydney-based outfit that works with people who suffer from eating disorders.

In its latest report, it claims these 913,986 eating-disorder sufferers are costing Australia a whopping $67.9 billion a year, in terms of days off work, drains on healthcare and so on.

Yet just a few years ago, the Australian Institute for Health and Welfare said 23,464 Australians had an eating disorder. How did this figure explode exponentially, increasing 35-fold in a matter of years? Through the Butterfly Foundation’s cynical redefinition of eating disorder to mean just about any weird relationship with food, that’s how.

The AIHW’s old figure of 23,464 was based on the number of people thought to have some form of anorexia or bulimia. The Butterfly Foundation’s estimates cover not only anorexia and bulimia but also what it calls binge eating disorder and eating disorder not otherwise specified. The vast majority of its 913,986 sufferers - 85 per cent, in fact - fall into these latter categories.

What are these new-fangled disorders?

Binge eating disorder is defined as “recurrent episodes of binge eating in the absence of regular inappropriate compensatory behaviour characteristic of bulimia”. That is, binge eating without vomiting afterwards! Otherwise known as sometimes being a bit gluttonous.
Who hasn’t done that? We all have. It’s called being greedy, not having a disorder.

Eating disorder not otherwise specified includes all sorts of things, but strikingly this: a situation where a sufferer experiences “significant weight loss (but) her current weight is in the normal range”. In other words, going on a diet, a crash diet perhaps, where you shed loads of flab and end up with a normal weight.

If that’s an eating disorder, sign me up.

What we have here is a deeply cynical inflation of the category of eating disorder, with the aim of depicting more and more Australians as disordered and thus in need of advice from the Butterfly Foundation.

This is part of today’s backward trend for pathologising everyday life. Modern-day experts love nothing more than to redefine things that were once considered normal as disorders. Our personalities, eating habits, relationships - all have been turned into disorders in recent years.

Shyness has become social anxiety disorder; anger has become intermittent explosive disorder; loving someone too much is referred to as having co-dependency issues; and now enjoying pigging out on food, or going on a super-strict diet, is described as an eating disorder.

The aim of all this pathologisation is as clear as it is creepy: it’s about convincing people they are ill or damaged and thus must be helped or saved by the new expert class.

No thanks. The problem in Australia and elsewhere is not an epidemic of eating disorders but the tendency for so-called experts to vomit nonstop nonsense into the public realm.

Read more of my articles for The Australian and other publications here.