Myths About Disordered Eating That May Hold You Back From Healing

Food is life, literally. Critical to our survival and often a cornerstone of our recreation, eating tends to take up more space in our lives than anything else. While some people love food and consider it a source of joy, for others, food can cause immense stress.

According to Chelsea Psychology Clinic, it's believed that between 50 and 70% of women experience disordered eating habits as a result of an unhealthy relationship with food. The signs of disordered eating are so common and normalized in our society that you might not have realized that you (or someone you care about) fall into this category. Using food to deal with tough emotions, avoiding social situations because of food (for reasons not related to health, ethics, or religion), and believing there are "good" and "bad" foods can all indicate disordered eating habits, and if left unchecked, these habits can start to impact your life.

Seeking help is an essential part of recovering from disordered eating, but buying into the common myths surrounding the topic may hinder your healing. Refusing to take disordered eating habits seriously because they haven't escalated into an eating disorder, blaming yourself, and expecting a speedy, simple recovery can all hold you back from mending your relationship with food.

If you need help with an eating disorder, or know someone who does, help is available. Visit the National Eating Disorders Association website or contact NEDA's Live Helpline at 1-800-931-2237. You can also receive 24/7 Crisis Support via text (send NEDA to 741-741).

Disordered eating and eating disorders are the same

People often use the terms "disordered eating" and "eating disorder" interchangeably, but the two are not exactly the same.

An eating disorder is a medically recognized mental health condition. According to Eating Disorders Victoria, it occurs when a person experiences "disturbances to thoughts, behaviours and attitudes to food and eating." This often leads to an obsession with food, exercise, and body image. Eating disorders are typically classified into six categories, as explained by the Anxiety & Depression Association of America: anorexia nervosa, binge eating disorder, other specified feeding and eating disorders (OSFED), avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID), rumination disorder, and unspecified feeding or eating disorder (UFED).

On the other hand, disordered eating habits are abnormal eating patterns. These include feeling guilt or shame in relation to eating, enforcing strict rules about when and what you eat, and "making up" for eating "bad foods" with rigorous exercise or deprivation, per Chelsea Psychology Clinic.

They can lead to the development of full-blown eating disorders, and eating disorders do involve disordered eating habits, but the two are still different. Having disordered eating habits does not necessarily mean that you have developed a diagnosable eating disorder. Similarly, you might not have a diagnosed eating disorder, but you can still have disordered habits. If you imagine that eating exists on a spectrum, an eating disorder would sit on the far end, while disordered eating sits somewhere in the middle.

There's no need to address disordered eating

Some people might not take disordered eating seriously because it hasn't been diagnosed by a doctor or associated with specific labels that society does treat seriously, such as anorexia or bulimia. However, this is another myth that can definitely hold you back from healing.

Disordered eating may escalate into an eating disorder, but that doesn't mean that it's not causing you harm at the moment. Abnormal eating patterns and an unhealthy relationship with food can lead to a lot of consequences, including the development of binge eating, depression, and anxiety (via National Eating Disorders Collaboration). While disordered eating tends not to be as severe as an eating disorder, it can still prevent a person from getting the nutrients they need to stay healthy. For example, a common disordered eating habit is cutting out whole food groups, which can leave you deficient in essential vitamins and minerals.

From a mental health perspective, Eating Disorder Hope explains that disordered eating habits can come about as a means of dealing with pain. Rather than addressing challenging emotions during tough times, some might try to take back control by closely monitoring their diet. Or they might turn to food for comfort instead of finding healthier ways to get through a particular situation.

Whatever the case may be, disordered eating needs to be addressed to ensure physical and emotional well-being, and also to avoid these habits advancing into an eating disorder.

Disordered eating is your fault

On the surface, it appears that disordered eating habits are a choice that you make and are responsible for. Most adults are in charge of what they eat, so it seems like you're at fault for avoiding certain food groups or excessively comfort eating. But because an unhealthy relationship with food is often at the root of these habits, it can be incredibly difficult to make sound choices when it comes to eating.

It's important not to blame yourself for your disordered eating habits, because there have likely been a lot of factors beyond your control that led you to make those choices. Thanks to everything from society's constant harmful messages about body image to certain foods reminding you of traumatic experiences in your past, it can feel incredibly easy and natural to adopt unhealthy eating behaviors.

You may start to feel guilty when you recognize that your eating habits are unhealthy, but remember that you're just doing the best you can. Looking into why these habits developed and showing yourself love and care rather than judgment will help you to heal in the long run.

Disordered eating habits are easy to recognize

Like eating disorders, disordered eating habits tend to follow recognizable patterns. There are several common disordered eating tendencies that may indicate that a person has an unhealthy relationship with food. But that doesn't mean you can always identify when someone has disordered eating habits.

We tend to hold images of what we think people with unhealthy food relationships look like, but those are just stereotypes. Body size, in particular, isn't necessarily indicative of someone's health. A person can binge-eat foods with harmful ingredients that could be affecting their heart health, for example, but they might be an average body weight. Similarly, someone might be overweight and nutrient deficient. If you buy into the myth that people with disordered eating habits look a certain way, you may deny yourself the help you need because you don't fit the physical criteria.

Additionally, disordered eating can be hard to notice — both in yourself and in others — because so many of the associated behaviors are normalized. You probably wouldn't think twice if someone told you they were "cutting out carbs" or eating a dessert because they "earned it." Several popular and widely accepted diets, including cleanses and the keto diet, even encourage behaviors that lean into disordered eating, per Healthline

Dieticians can cure all disordered eating issues

With so much misinformation out there, it may be true that some people have disordered eating habits because they're genuinely confused about what's healthy and what's not. If this is the case, seeing a dietician can be super helpful in correcting unhealthy behaviors when it comes to food. But a lot of the time, people maintain unhealthy eating habits even if they know that they're unhealthy. In situations like this, a dietician or nutritionist alone probably won't be much help.

As mentioned, disordered habits can often come about as a result of other struggles that are simultaneously taking place in a person's life. They may also develop as secondary symptoms to other mental health conditions. So often, healing from disordered eating habits will require more in-depth work than just having a dietician draw up a healthy eating plan for you.

Of course, dieticians can be a vital part of the process to getting someone on the path to healthy eating, and some dieticians are also trained to offer advice on emotional eating or the psychological aspects of food consumption. But depending on your unique situation, you might also benefit from seeking advice from other professionals, including counsellors and clinical psychologists.

The road to recovery is clear and linear

Whether you're recovering from an eating disorder or disordered eating habits, the road to recovery will likely be a complex one. Food-related symptoms of mental health conditions can be especially difficult to deal with because we have to eat every day, so it's a problem you're constantly facing and may have developed some strong emotions in relation to.

Don't feel that experiencing setbacks means that you're not progressing with your recovery. Along the same lines, don't think that because it's taking you a long time to see results, that you're not getting better or making any improvements. Recovery from disordered eating usually encompasses psychological work along with the physical work, so it can be a long and taxing process with a few delays along the way.

Eating is necessary, and for some, it can also be scary, triggering, and stressful. Relationships with food are never simple, so don't beat yourself up for not healing quickly enough. Identifying disordered habits is the biggest step to take, and from there, every person's healing journey will be different.