Disordered Eating’s Broad Reach
Diets, intermittent fasting, Whole30, keto, gluten-free, dairy-free, plant-based, vegan … it seems like every day there’s a new way to eat to look your best, feel your best, or be your best self. But with all the ever-changing food fads, it’s worth asking where the line is between healthy eating and disordered eating. No matter how “good” your diet is, it’s not healthy to be overly concerned about what you’re eating, as diets and restrictive eating can often lead to bad habits surrounding food.
What is Healthy Eating?
According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), healthy eating is mindfully eating when you’re hungry and being able to stop when you’re full. A healthy diet is full of variety and doesn’t restrict certain foods. And while most people probably stray from this standard from time to time — eating when we’re bored, cutting out dairy or gluten, eating the same lunch every day — in general, a good relationship with food looks like this, with no unnecessary preoccupation with food intake or weight.
What is an Eating Disorder?
On the opposite end of the spectrum of healthy eating is an eating disorder. The most common eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder. Diagnosis of these disorders is based on a narrow range of criteria from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).
Eating disorders are typically characterized by obsessive thoughts about food and eating, nearly all the time. Hours are spent thinking about calories, planning meals, exercising, and engaging in bingeing or purging. These activities occur daily and disrupt everyday life. Extreme weight loss or weight gain are common, along with a host of other health issues.
Disordered Eating vs. Eating Disorder
While less than 10% of the population worldwide deals with an eating disorder, according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD), there is another part of the population that often goes unnoticed who struggle with disordered eating patterns.
Disordered eating is used to describe a range of irregular eating patterns similar to those found in eating disorders. They just may not be severe enough or warrant diagnosis of a specific eating disorder. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, someone with disordered eating behaviors may be diagnosed with Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS). But even that diagnosis has a narrow set of criteria that not everyone will meet.
Regardless of whether disordered eating patterns meet the criteria for an official diagnosis, they can be distressing and even dangerous, and they deserve attention and treatment.
So, what are some signs of disordered eating? They include, but are not limited to:
- Frequent dieting, skipping meals, or restricting food intake
- Anxiety surrounding food or weight
- Significant fluctuations in weight
- Preoccupation with weight, food, diet, body image, body size
- Occasional bingeing and/or purging
- Performing food rituals
- Withdrawal from social settings or friends and family
- Feeling loss of control around food; compulsive eating
- Guilt and shame about food or eating
- Stomach pains, gastrointestinal issues, changes in menstrual cycle
Unfortunately, disordered eating behaviors have become normalized over the years, whether in the form of restrictive diets, “cleanses,” or binge eating as a way of coping with stress or enjoying ourselves. There’s always a new food group to avoid, and the list of popular diets is dizzying. But these behaviors are not normal and can in fact be detrimental to your health.
What Are the Risks of Disordered Eating?
Disordered eating behaviors, even if not enough to warrant a diagnosis, come with their own set of risks. Along with physical risks such as bone loss, gastrointestinal disturbances, low heart rate, anxiety, and depression, disordered eating can evolve into a true eating disorder. That’s why it’s important to be proactive if you notice any of these patterns. It’s never too early to make the necessary changes to have a healthier mindset around food.
So, what can you do if you struggle with disordered eating? You may be able to correct some of your habits simply by learning how to better care for yourself and practice self-love. These habits often come from perfectionist tendencies and a desire to control your life, manage distress, or conform to a certain image or standard. The Meadows Ranch offers four simple self-care tips to battle perfectionism and self-criticism when it comes to eating:
If you can learn to observe yourself without passing judgment, you’ll open the door to more self-compassion.
Name Your Inner Critic
Try giving a name to that voice in your head to help separate it from your identity and make it easier to ignore.
Identify and Confront Extreme Thinking
When you find yourself thinking “always” or “never” thoughts, step back and ask yourself if those thoughts are true, or if you’re drawing extreme, false conclusions that lead you to be hard on yourself.
Try Radical Acceptance
By learning to accept your circumstances and embrace hard things that happen to you, you can start to let go of your unhealthy-habit-driving need for control.
If you feel that your disordered eating has become a problem, there’s no reason to handle it on your own. You don’t need a diagnosis to begin getting the help you need. We, at Willow House at The Meadows, offer a variety of treatments for a wide range of mental health issues, and we are ready to help you get started on the road to healing.