When Should Advice Columnists Just Shut Up?

BrianCuban  10313386_10203712699568284_9077630497438978776_nIn her July 12, 2014 column, syndicated advice columnist “Ask Amy”, Amy gave advice to a teen who was worried both about her father having anorexia and her own increasing unhealthy thoughts about her weight. (Ask Amy: Daughter worries about dad’s unhealthy eating), Frequently, when a young person “Asks Amy”, or another columnist, for advice on a complicated medical topic, he/she is encouraged to seek further counsel and disclose the concern to a trusted adult. Instead, the response to this letter left the teen with no more information than when she wrote in (other than advice to protect the family’s pets from the food restriction which is a symptom of the father’s illness) and a directive to share her concerns with her parents then move on.

It is appropriate for any advice columnist to consult an expert when faced with a question that is outside his/her scope of knowledge, as this question seems to have been for Amy. Most people, not just advice columnists, assume they know what causes eating disorders. The research in the field of eating disorders is ever changing and has exploded in the past decade with the advent of new technologies such as functional MRIs and conventional wisdom has been turned on its head. It is unlikely that any layperson would be able to offer solid advice in this situation.  This is not the first time an eating disorder related question has been posed to Amy.  In a June 18th column, “Parents Undermine Eating Disorder Recovery” Amy did in fact reach out to someone with specialized knowledge in in the Eating Disorder field as part of her answer.  Why not this time before giving dismissive, and frankly ridiculous input about the effect on the pets.

If this daughter is correct, her father has anorexia, a biological, brain-based mental illness with a mortality rate in the neighborhood of 20%.  Eating disorders in themselves, have the highest mortality rate of any psychological illness. Not something in which advice should be given dismissively or without a specialized background. Sadly, eating disorders are often accompanied by anosonogsia, a medical term which means the sufferer doesn’t recognize that he/she is ill. Additionally, these illnesses have a strong genetic and psychosocial interface, so both her genetics and a childhood spent in an environment of disordered eating and other symptoms of anorexia increase her risk of developing an eating disorder exponentially.

In order to prevent giving out medical advice which is off the mark or potentially damaging to the point of terminal, standard practice for any advice columnist should be to consult an expert and disclose who they contacted.  If no expert is available, they should just shut up.


Brian Cuban

Eating Disorder Activist and survivor

Author: Shattered Image: My Triumph Over Body Dysmorphic Disorder


Jennifer Denise Ouellette

Mothers Against Eating Disorders

UCSD Eating Disorder Treatment Program Parent Advisory Committee


One Response

  1. Thank you x a million, Brian and Denise for addressing the ignorance of Amy's response. Maybe it wasn't purposeful or meant to be dismissive, but it certainly has the potential to send messages of "ho-hum" "oh, well" or "why worry"…when in reality, this daughter may have a lot of valid reasons to worry if her dad is anorexic. When it comes to a disease as deadly and serious as anorexia, only those schooled and knowledgeable about it need reply!

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