Eating Disorders and What Triggers Them with Dr. Sarah Cantu

Eating disorders are a common issue in the United States, affecting about nine percent of Americans in their lifetime. While these conditions can take on a myriad of different forms and affect each person differently, understanding what eating disorders are, what may cause them, and what resources are available for help is important. Today Recovery Out Loud host Noelle Carmen speaks with Dr. Sarah Cantu on the topic of how eating disorders form, their effect on the mind and body, and how to seek help if you are in need.

About Our Guest: Dr. Sarah Cantu holds a PhD in Philosophy and has worked in the eating disorder treatment industry for more than 10 years. She is also a Certified Eating Disorder Specialist Supervisor, Licensed Professional Counselor Supervisor, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Registered Play Therapist Supervisor, and Certified Infant Massage Instructor.

How Do Eating Disorders Develop? 

Pinpointing an exact cause for an eating disorder isn’t as simple as it may seem. While some health conditions have definite and easy to trace causes and sources, eating disorders and other behavioral health conditions are deeply complex and individualized experiences. 

“There are so many factors that can lead to an eating disorder,” Dr. Cantu explains, “It can include genetic factors, social factors like your peers, who you’re spending time with, the things that you’re exposed to on TV, your environment around you and different situations.”

That’s not to say everyone who is exposed to these social factors or with genetic predisposition to eating disorders will develop one. 

“You might have two kids in the same home, experiencing the same family growing up [but] they experience that family differently and they’re reaction is different. So one child might have an eating disorder and the other child might not.”

The most important factor in eating disorder treatment and recovery is being able to recognize potential signs of trouble and respond appropriately. When we spend less time trying to fit eating disorders into a neat little box, we have more time to dedicate to mindfulness, self-acceptance, and self-love.

The Difference Between Disordered Eating and an Eating Disorder

Though about nine percent of Americans will have a diagnosable in their lifetime, the percentage of people who experience disordered eating is far higher. So much so that we often don’t even realize our habits are disordered or potentially harmful.

“All of us have some disordered eating. We all do things with food or think about food and our bodies that isn’t a part of taking care of our nutritional needs. Thanksgiving: we all completely overeat on Thanksgiving and we know we’re going to do it. That’s in a way disordered eating, so we all are involved in some of those things some of the time. But the difference between disordered eating and an eating disorder is the level of impact it has on your life.” 

“You now have an eating disorder when it’s become disruptive to the things that are important to you in your life. If it’s negatively affecting your body. If it’s negatively affecting your important relationships. If it’s getting in the way of goals that you have that are really important to you, it’s now become an eating disorder.”

How Can Families Help?

The effects of an eating disorder ripple far beyond the person experiencing its symptoms. For family members and close friends, watching your loved one struggle causes fear, feelings of helplessness, frustration, and sorrow. It’s difficult to know what to do when faced with these complex and challenging disorders, even when you’re not the person living with it directly. So what can families do to help? Dr. Cantu explains that families of all types are integral to eating disorder recovery.

“I look at eating disorders as both a genetic concern and a social concern. So the answer will be a social answer: families are definitely an important part [of recovery]. And when I say family I’m considering families that you’re born into as well as the families that you create for yourself. It’s definitely an important part of how people work through an eating disorder.”

She goes on to explain that the best way loved ones can support someone in eating disorder recovery.

“Some things that you might do to support someone you love with an eating disorder is creating opportunities to try new foods, making food available, not limiting food in any way, talking about yourself and the other person in a positive way. Rather than using praise which has to do with an accomplishment and sometimes physical appearance, you can instead provide encouragement and support effort, hard work, their attempt and inner qualities rather than outward qualities.”

Dr. Cantu also emphasizes the importance of being kind to yourself during this process. Try as we might, none of us will ever prevent our loved ones from experiencing trials or predict their responses to life’s traumas.

“You cannot expect yourself to catch every red flag. It’s impossible. So putting that pressure on yourself is really unreasonable.” 

If you do suspect someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, knowing the common signs to look for can help you intervene before it’s too late. These include:

  • Changes in routine: skipping meals and snacks, only eating when alone, creating new, strict rules around eating behaviors and exercise
  • Changes in what someone will or won’t eat: avoiding or only eating from certain food groups, designating foods as ‘bad’
  • Changes in food situations: No longer wanting to eat at restaurants or with family
  • Discomfort or distress around eating

Perhaps the most important and effective way to help create a more food and body positive space is through example. Embracing and loving your own body unapologetically and letting others see that example goes a long way in challenging negative self-image in others. We must also acknowledge and appreciate bodies of all shapes and sizes and remember that every body is amazing.

What if you’re not in a space for loving your own body? That’s okay; shifting from hate and disdain to love is a significant undertaking. When it comes to eating disorder treatment through Eating Disorder Solutions, the goal is learning to appreciate and acknowledge our bodies as a first step of acceptance.

In the home, families can start by making food situations warm, welcoming, and inviting. Focus on connecting with each other, sharing your day and positivity rather than just the food. When discussing your meal, avoid speaking about any foods in a negative light. Seemingly harmless comments like ‘this is good, but so bad for you’ or ‘I shouldn’t be eating this’ may come out without a second thought, but these sentiments only serve to reinforce disordered thinking and habits. 

“I would recommend any parent noticing any concern would address that concern with their child focusing on what they saw. Not necessarily labelling anything, because you don’t know if there is a label yet. If you notice your child who typically loves to come home after school and have a snack before getting down to work doesn’t want a snack anymore, rather than saying ‘is this an eating disorder? Do you have disordered eating? Are you restricting your food?’ you might say ‘I noticed that you always wanted a snack before, and now you don’t feel like having a snack. I wonder what’s different.’”

Myths Around Eating Disorders

Just as with all invisible illnesses, trying to determine who may or may not have an eating disorder by appearance alone is a dangerous game. These potentially life-threatening conditions do not have a specific look, and assuming someone is well and unaffected by an eating disorder because they are not obviously ill can prove disastrous.

“There have certainly been so many confusing messages about what is an eating disorder and what does someone who has an eating disorder look like. And the answer is they look like everybody else.People with eating disorders can be a person of any age, gender [or non-bionary identity], or culture or ethical background. It can be anyone. It can be a person in any size or shaped body. I think because there are those myths that a person with an eating disorder looks one way or acts one way, we miss the opportunity to support all of the people who have eating disorders who don’t necessarily fit into those categories.”

Those within the medical industry are especially obligated to challenge their own biases and myths surrounding eating disorders. As professionals on the frontlines of eating disorder intervention and treatment, being able to recognize signs and symptoms in people who may not fit stereotypical expectations can open the door to greater ability to help. 

If you or someone you love are experiencing an eating disorder, Eating Disorder Solutions can help. Visit for more information.


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