Spoiler alert: You probably do have disordered eating, in some way, shape, or form. Make no mistake, we’re not talking about the common eating disorders (anorexia, bulimia) that everyone is familiar with. Disordered eating behaviors may not be diagnosable, but can be extremely detrimental to both your physical and mental health. “We live in a society where there’s so much pressure put on looks and weight and maintaining that thin ideal,” says psychologist and body image specialist Shari Fine Sheppird, PhD. “A vast majority of people have body image dissatisfaction and engage in unhealthy behaviors to control their weight, even if they don’t meet the criteria for a clinical diagnosis.” So, what exactly are we talking about? And how can you start to break out of these types of behaviors? Here is everything you need to know about disordered eating.
There are lots of different types
“The idea behind normal eating is that you eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full, and allow yourself a full range of food options,” explains Sheppird. So, technically, any kind of behavior associated with food and eating that differs from this may be disordered. This includes not only the symptoms of traditional eating disorders, like binging or extreme calorie restriction, but also any kind of rigid rules and guilt and stress about eating that impact your life. Think eating whatever you want all weekend, feeling “gross” come Monday morning, then totally changing your diet. Deeming carbs the devil or stressing over that late-night brownie. Let’s face it, all things that most women do on the regular.
Why isn’t this considered an eating disorder?
The criteria for eating disorders is based on the intensity and duration of symptoms, but there’s often a fine line between a full-on eating disorder and disordered behaviors, points out Sheppird. Take binging and purging: “For it to be considered an eating disorder, you have to be doing so a certain number of times weekly. Still, anyone who purges falls into the category of disordered eating behavior,” she explains.
A diet is often the first step down this path
While there can be many other factors at play, according to Sheppird, dieting is often the first step to both eating disorders and disordered behavior; 35 percent of ‘normal’ dieters progress to pathological dieting, and of those, 20-25 percent go on to develop an eating disorder. “It can start with a crash diet where you want to lose 10 pounds to fit into a dress, which lends itself to disordered and risky behavior,” she says. “Then you develop this mindset that in order to maintain the weight loss, you have to engage in this unhealthy behavior.”
There are early signs of disordered eating
To the point of dieting, restrictive diets—vegan, paleo, gluten-free—may be an indication of something deeper. “Often times lumping yourself into certain diet categories can be a smoke screen to hide disordered behavior and cut calories,” Sheppird says. Of course, there are many people who just prefer to—or have to—eat this way, but if someone is crazy rigid in their thinking, that can be problematic. Other telltale signs: Excessive preoccupation with weight, planning out meals very far in advance, and avoiding social interactions that center around food.
This kind of behavior can have serious repercussions
Along with the obvious consequences, these skewed attitudes around food and eating can have serious impact on your physical health (whether or not they ever develop into a clinical eating disorder). But it all takes a toll on your mental state, too. More specifically, in the form of increased anxiety and stress, notes Sheppird.
Here’s what you can do
If this is all hitting a little too close to home (TBH, it did for us), the most important thing to keep in mind is to try and get back to the ‘normal’ way of eating Sheppird referenced earlier. Eat when you’re hungry. Stop when you’re full. Easiest diet ever, right? Also key: Stop labeling foods as “good” or “bad.” “Most of the time these labels are culturally assigned. There’s not a lot of reasoning behind these lists,” says Sheppird. While that doesn’t mean you should eat fast food three times a day, almost any kind of food is perfectly fine in moderation, she adds. The ultimate goal is to reshape your thinking around and about food. Easier said than done, of course, so if it’s something you feel like you can’t get a handle on by yourself, it’s worth seeking some professional help.