Eating disorders: we’ve all heard of them.
Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa are two of the most common eating disorders, and also the two that we know most about.
Individuals with eating disorders have disturbances in body image, and experience abnormal preoccupations with body weight and weight restrictive behaviors, such as binging (overeating in a short amount of time), purging (usually self-induced vomiting), and extremely restricted calorie intake.
Most times, the individual’s maladaptive thinking or the environment they are in (media, advertising, thin ideal) are blamed for exacerbating eating disorders.
But can other factors such as climate influence eating disorders as well?
I’ve lived all over the U.S., from sunny California and the dry deserts of Nevada on the West to the rainier states on the East Coast.
Speaking from personal experience, I’ve always felt more self-conscious of my weight when I was in warmer weather.
I was obese as a child, and I hated baring skin. Colder weather meant I could hide under layers of clothes, whereas an abundance of sunny, humid, and hot days meant that I had to wear thinner clothes that revealed more of my body shape.
When I moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, I developed an eating disorder during the summer between my middle school graduation and my move to a new, unfamiliar neighborhood and high school.
That summer was the hottest I had ever experienced, and the new neighborhood I moved into had a brand new swimming pool.
I couldn’t go outside and be in sweatpants and baggy jackets when the weather was almost always higher than 90 degrees Fahrenheit, so I was always conflicted between constantly being sweaty and uncomfortable while hiding my body, or feeling cooler but constantly being guilty and self-conscious of my body. Wearing shorts, let alone a swimsuit? I shuddered just contemplating it.
During the summer days, I remember trying to skip meals to see if they would have any results.
When I dropped a few pounds from excessive “dieting” (as I called it), I began to regularly skip meals and exercise, until I was working out over three hours a day and consuming less than 500 calories per day. After half a year, I had dropped over 20kg (about 44 pounds).
When my “habits” became so maladaptive that I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa (after dropping almost 30 kg, about 66 lbs, in less than one year), I began to slowly recover after confronting my obsessions and distorted views of my body– even after I had hit 34 kg (74 lbs).
It wasn’t until I moved to Seoul, South Korea (in the middle of the coldest winter they had had in 30 years) that I completely quit my habits of skipping meals and obsessing about starving myself cold turkey. The constant anxiety and paranoia I felt about having to go without my thicker, baggy clothing dulled over time.
For some reason, the anxiety of being in an area that was warm almost all year round hindered my complete recovery.
I always felt so nervous and felt a need to constantly keep my weight in check, just in case I would have to go out during the day and wear shorts or form-fitting pants rather than my loose, thick sweatpants.
For this reason, I’ve always been fascinated with the science behind eating disorders, and exactly what factors can predispose/trigger the onset of/exacerbate them.
While looking at some studies trying to answer these questions, I stumbled across one published by Dr. Denise Sloan in 2002 with the title: Does Warm Weather Affect Eating Disorder Pathology?
Initially, the study predicted that there would be increases in binge eating, appetite, and weight change during winter months.
However, the study, which observed college females from the southeastern and northeastern region of the U.S., found that “women residing in the southeastern United States evidenced significantly greater concern about their body shape than the women residing in the northeastern United States”.
It was also mentioned that average temperatures in the two areas differed by about 20 degrees Fahrenheit, with the northeastern region averaging 52 degrees throughout the year and the southeastern region averaging 73 degrees.
Additionally, when body mass index (BMI) was measured and compared, 19% of the females from the Southeast had a below average BMI range, compared to just 1% in the Northeast,…
…and 20% of the women in the Southeastern group could have been diagnosed on the spot with an eating disorder after consultations with the psychiatrists involved in the study, compared to 0% in the Northeastern group.
20% means that 1 out of 5 women involved in this study from the Southeastern group were diagnosable for an eating disorder.
All of the participants were from a nonclinical population, which means that they were not undergoing treatment or therapy for any mental disorder or health problem, including eating disorders.
However, the women in the hotter Southeast frequently cited stress over a “need to wear more revealing clothing”, and had lower BMI, engagement in binging and other eating disorder behaviors, and higher concern and focus on their body shape and weight.
Although we need to consider other factors that could have affected the results, considering weather seems to be very important, especially when this specific factor was brought up by the majority of individuals that met criteria for diagnosis of an eating disorder.
What do you think? Does the imagined pressure to reveal more have the power to put us at greater risk for developing eating disorders?
(Our brains are pretty powerful, after all.)
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Feeding and Eating Disorders. In Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.).
Gordon, K. H., Sitnikov, L., Castro, Y. et al. (2010). Cultural body shape ideals and eating disorder symptoms among white, latina, and black college women. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 16(2), 135-143.
Sloan, D. M. (2002). Does warm weather affect eating disorder pathology? Wiley InterScience. doi: 10.1002/eat.10077
Stein, K. F., & Corte, C. (2008). The identity impairment model: A longitudinal study of self-schemas as predictors of disordered eating behaviors. Nursing Research, 57(3), 182-190.