You Can't Give Someone an Eating Disorder

Watching a loved one struggle with eating disorders is frightening. They are dangerous disorders, affecting every aspect of your loved one’s life: physical, psychological, spiritual, emotional, familial, social, vocational, and more. Eating disorders are also baffling, dishonest, manipulative, cunning, unjust, and powerful.

When facing such a major threat to our loved one’s life, many of us want desperately to know why this happened to someone we love (and us).

We also ask: “Why did I do (or not do) to make it happen?”

To answer that question, I always start with this essential FACT: An eating disorder is a complex (and still not fully understood) illness—not a choice.

In some ways, it acts like other illnesses. In other ways, it doesn’t. I frequently ask folks to compare eating disorders to two other, well-known illnesses.

The common cold

The cold is usually caused by one of 160 contagious rhinoviruses. The viruses spread through air droplets when someone who already has a cold exhales, coughs, sneezes or talks. But not everyone nearby will catch a cold.

We might say “I gave my spouse/child/co-worker a cold.” But it’s more accurate to say, “My spouse/child/co-worker caught a cold—probably from the virus I had.”

We didn’t intentionally make the virus enter our loved one’s nose; the virus entered the air because we have to breathe. And no one intentionally gave us the virus we caught to begin with. For all we know, it was a stranger on the bus or in the grocery store.


Cancers are incredibly complex (and still not fully-understood) illnesses with many possible causes, including age, genetics, environment, and habits. Many cancers are very difficult to treat and take multiple methods over long periods to cure. And, some cancers cannot be cured. However, they are not contagious.

We can’t give someone else cancer. “But I passed my genes down to my child!” you might object. True, but remember this:

  1. You have no control over who your parents are—or the genes you inherited.
  2. Your genes make up only part of your child’s heredity.
  3. Most all cancers are caused by gene mutations that happen after birth.
  4. In a family with a history of cancer, one, some, or none of the children may develop cancer.

Eating Disorders

Eating disorders have a nothing in common with a common cold. For instance, they’re not contagious.

However, there’s lots to learn from the parallels between cancer and eating disorders. Both are serious and often fatal illnesses. They both require treatment; often a variety of treatments.

There’s one big difference. Some people believe that they are responsible for, or caused another person’s eating disorder. Most people don’t believe that about cancer; and they’re correct.

Eating disorders are caused by complex (and still not fully-understood) interactions of genetic, psychological, biological, behavioral, and social factors. Genetic studies indicate that (like cancer) eating disorders can (but don’t always) run in families. As with cancer, a family history of eating disorders does not mean you are fated to get one.

Why does all this matter?

Because you cannot give someone else an eating disorder.

Worrying and/or feeling guilty about “giving” someone an eating disorder is spending time and energy that does nothing to help your loved one heal. 

It may also hinder your ability to be a useful ally in your loved one’s recovery. That requires understanding the influence we have to support or inhibit recovery…and understanding that we can’t do recovery for the other person.

So, please consider letting go of worry and guilt over “making” someone have the illness.

Nothing you did (or didn’t) say, do, or think can cause another person’s eating disorder. None of us is that powerful.

Fortunately, we DO have the power to be a recovery ally. If we use it well.