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Cracking the Code: Understanding the Language of Disordered Eating

Cranberry sauce streaks slices of roasted turkey on a plate.
 

Disordered eating is a metaphorical expression of an internal condition.

Think about food. You may be a foodie, one who appreciates well-prepared, high-quality food and relishes a lengthy meal with good companionship and conversation. You may be more utilitarian, viewing food simply as something necessary to your health and well-being. Or, perhaps, you relish the sensory pleasures of  savory, fragrant, foods and aren’t interested in the fanfare that surrounds eating them.

Your eating habits may reflect your values when it comes to the consumption of animals, of refined and processed foods, or of foods produced locally versus shipped from afar. Regardless of your personal preferences when it comes to food, a relaxed, yet conscious relationship with food is healthy. A conflicted one is not.

People who come to me struggling with food-related problems are not relaxed about food. For them, eating is fraught with guilt, shame, and self-recrimination. The goal of eating, they believe, is not to nourish one’s body, support one’s health, or strengthen connection to others by breaking bread with friends, but something else entirely—which operates according to the rules of disordered eating. These rules include being good with food. That is, eating only things that are low in fat, or carbohydrates, or calories (the rules vary from person to person). Disordered eaters fundamentally believe that eating good or bad foods, or being good or being bad with food, determines whether they are good or bad people.

Food is a fundamental survival need. When we are infants, one of the first ways we know we are loved and considered valuable enough to care for is that we get hungry, we squirm or whimper, and we’re picked up and put to the breast. We experience relief and contentment and know that we are loved and all is right with the world. Eating is inextricably entwined with being fed, nurtured, protected, and loved.

This is true for everyone. But for those who are vulnerable to developing a disordered relationship with food, this fundamental experience of being fed and feeding can morph into something sinister. As life gets more complicated, if our caregivers are unable to adequately meet other developmental needs, we might remember on some primal level what being fed did for us.

Food can become a substitute for and a symbol of what we need. Thus, we may reach for food or recoil from it, depending on our genetics, our inborn temperament, the dynamics in our families, and the circumstances of our lives. We might infer that our needs don’t matter, that it is safer not to need, or selfish to need. In this case, we are likely to deny ourselves food we need. We may figure out that we get attention when we look pretty, get good grades, or excel at athletics, and decide that our not-so-excellent qualities are signs of a flaw at the core of our being and that our acceptance by others depends on our hiding that that flaw.

Our hidden side, crying out for nurturance, drives a tremendous appetite, so we take in huge quantities of food, feel anxious, fearful, ashamed, and vomit to return to the right place: empty, pretty, thin, capable, nice. Or, driven by those unmet emotional and psychological needs, we eat too much. The pit is bottomless—because the need isn’t physical there isn’t enough food on the planet. Not knowing this, we can only interpret our increasingly large bodies as evidence of our fundamental flaw.

Thus, for example, in disordered-eating-speak, the words “I feel fat” mean:

  • “I feel inadequate.”
  • “I’m gross or unloveable.”
  • “I’m afraid people will be repelled by me and reject me.”

“I don’t need this _______[food item]” means:

  • “I shouldn’t need things; that’s selfish.”
  • “I’m afraid people will perceive me as needy and not want me around.”
  • “I want to feel strong and in control.”
  • “I’m afraid I want so much that there’s not enough in the world for me.”

“I was bad today because I ate _______[food item].” translates to:

  • “I am unworthy.”
  • “At my core, I’m gross and I’m afraid people will find out.”
  • “I want and need too much.”
  • “I’m imperfect and therefore a failure.”

Conflict about food is an indicator of conflict surrounding emotional and psychological needs: for acceptance, love, safety, validation, and more. Disordered eaters focus on behavior and appearance as indicators of their worth because their childhood circumstances and environment were such that they did not receive what they needed to develop a solid inner sense of self and self-worth.

Healing from a disordered relationship with food involves recognizing belief’s about one’s needs, learning that one deserves what one needs, and learning how to get one’s needs met. This essential aspect of the recovery process leads not only out of the clutches of an eating disorder, but also to awareness of one’s innate worth and value. This can’t be done without understanding what beliefs and fears about food and body mean. Translating eating-disordered language is key to this work.

© Copyright 2009 by Deborah Klinger, MA, LMFT, CEDS, therapist in Durham, NC. All Rights Reserved.

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Comments
  • Pauline December 16th, 2009 at 4:33 PM #1

    For years I struggled to get control of my weight and it just never has happened for me. I have finally come to terms that I was tired of feeling like a bad person just because I enjoyed an extra slice of pie. Now I am not saying that it was easy to come to terms with this but I do have to say that I have been a whole lot happier since I have been able to let go of all of those negative feelings about food that I carried around with me for years.

  • alec stewart December 17th, 2009 at 5:18 AM #2

    My mom is in her late 40s and has been overweight for the past decade at least… she keep worrying about it but never listens when I ask her not to have her meals in front of the TV… I have observed that she eats too much and that she does not chew her food enough. In addition to the health hazard that it is causing, we also miss her when all the others are having a ‘family meal’

  • JEMma/ December 17th, 2009 at 2:13 PM #3

    I’m quite surprized to know that there are people out there who actually have feelings of being flawed, depending on the food that they eat…But it may be something very normal to a lot of people. Nevertheless, my theory is-eat what you want,when you want and how you want, just workout enough to stay in shape :)

  • Deborah Klinger, M.A., LMFT, CEDS January 5th, 2010 at 6:58 AM #4

    Thank you all for your comments!

    Pauline, good for you! Self-acceptance is crucial to well-being, as are peaceful relationships with food and body.

    Alec, if your mom is eating in front of the TV when the rest of the family is sitting at the table enjoying a family meal, she could be suffering from something other than just poor eating habits, such as depression or anxiety. Off-kilter eating habits are often signs of an underlying problem. She may benefit from counseling.

    Jemma, separating a sense of worth and value as a person from one’s eating behaviors, weight, shape or size is surprisingly difficult for some people. The key is learning to recognize one’s innate worth and value, and to eat and exercise for the purpose of taking good care of that worthwhile, valuable person!

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