Do I Have an Eating Disorder? When Food Causes Distress

Empty yellow bowl on top of white plate with fork, knife, and spoon set alongside on top of wooden tableFor many of us, food is a source of comfort. We tend to feel good when we are eating, especially when we are eating food that is both filling and emotionally satisfying. Many of our fondest memories might revolve around meals with family members and loved ones. And when our bellies are full, we usually feel nourished and satisfied. However, food has the potential to become problematic when we begin to reach for it as a way to feel better and when doing so causes distress.

Occasional emotional eating happens to most of us at one time or another. We might reach for sweets when stressed or overwhelmed, for example, or have several helpings of our favorite comfort food after a difficult day. While this is generally recognized to be fairly typical behavior, we may find it concerning when emotional eating becomes part of a weekly or daily routine and we want to change that routine but struggle to do so.

As March is National Nutrition Month, it may be a good time to examine any eating patterns that are causing distress and consider healthy methods of change—such as mindful eating—that might lead to improved well-being.

The following are some signs that may indicate an eating pattern is cause for concern and might be worth discussing with a therapist and/or health care professional:

  • Frequent thoughts about food. If you tend to spend a lot of your time thinking about food and are constantly tempted to snack throughout the day, you may be eating as a way to self-soothe. Emotional eating is a often used as a method of coping to try to reduce stress and feel better in the moment, but it often has the opposite effect over the long term.
  • Excessive or extreme dieting. Many believe a diet is the way to break a pattern of emotional eating, but research has increasingly shown that not only do diets not work, dieting frequently and/or regaining and losing weight repeatedly can have negative effects on overall health. While many people follow a diet that works well for them, it may be a good idea to discuss any diet or dieting pattern that leads to a decrease in energy, disrupted sleep, or frequent and abrupt changes in mood with a doctor or nutritionist.
  • Binge eating. If you eat large amounts of food on a frequent basis, feel unable to control your eating, experience a sense of guilt and shame surrounding your eating habits, and try to hide your excessive food intake from others, you might be binge eating. This condition, which is recognized in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, can often lead to obesity, as well as a number of health issues, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, and gastrointestinal problems.
  • Bingeing and purging. If you binge eat and also purge after meals, you may have what is known as bulimia nervosa. According to the DSM, individuals with this eating disorder may try to compensate for eating large quantities of food by exercising extensively, using laxatives, and/or vomiting after eating in order to try to avoid gaining weight.
  • Restricting food intake. Another type of eating disorder, anorexia nervosa, is characterized by severe calorie restriction, an intense fear of gaining weight, and a distorted body image. Individuals with anorexia may have a body weight that is considered lower than average for their frame but still consider themselves overweight and/or fear weight gain. They may eat as little as possible out of the desire for a sense of control they may not have over other aspects of life. This condition can be very dangerous, as in some cases an individual’s weight may drop so low as to lead to death.

Many people feel ashamed or are embarrassed to open up and discuss their struggles with disordered eating or other eating and food issues. Not addressing them, however, can often have an impact on physical and emotional health. Finding an empathetic therapist who specializes in working with individuals with eating disorders can be a helpful first step.

Those who are concerned by their use of food to cope may find it helpful to begin exploring some reasons behind this with the help of a compassionate counselor. Therapists are often able to help people develop better coping strategies. Those who wish to develop healthy eating plans and discuss eating habits more extensively might also find it beneficial to seek the assistance of a nutritionist.


  1. Aamodt, S. (2016, May 6). Why you can’t lose weight on a diet. The New York Times. Retrieved from
  2. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-5. (5th ed.). (2013). Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association.
  3. Ferdman, R. (2015, May 4). Why diets don’t actually work, according to a researcher who has studied them for decades. The Washington Post. Retrieved from

© Copyright 2017 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Wendy Salazar, MFT, Topic Expert

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Valerie

    February 21st, 2017 at 2:51 PM

    I am afraid that if were really honest with myself I would see that the relationship that I have with food now and have had for a long time has been a pretty ambivalent one. I can’t ever seem to find that right balance of just being happy with where I am in terms of weight and I am either restricting to the point of starving or gorging myself because I just can’t take the hunger. I would love for there to be a happy medium but as of yet I haven’t found that.

  • Meda

    February 22nd, 2017 at 7:49 AM

    I will purposely avoid outings that include going out to dinner or having to eat

  • marcia

    February 23rd, 2017 at 7:34 AM

    I had an overbearing mother who was determined that I was not going to be fat. Great mom, way to go, now I can’t even stand to look at myself in the mirror because you have made me so adverse to my own reflection.
    I know that I have a very complicated relationship with eating and with food, and even though I know that I am not what I see, she has branded me in a way internally that I don’t think that I can ever escape.

  • Nance A

    February 23rd, 2017 at 12:15 PM

    The challenge for most of us comes when we have to face up the reality that this is either going on in our own lives or in that of a loved one and then the feelings of helplessness that we then have as a result.

    We think that we know what is going on and the root cause of the problem when most of the time it is probably way far off base from what you think that it actually is.

    There are so many great programs out there doing quite wonderful things for those who are brave and have admitted that they have an issue with disordered eating but many times the challenge is getting someone to actually see that yes, there is a problem there.

  • ashe

    February 26th, 2017 at 1:37 PM

    For me it all started when my parents got a divorce and I was looking for something, anything that I felt like I could control.
    I couldn’t make them stay together, my grades were terrible, there was always yelling and fighting at home
    but I knew that I could control what I ate and how much and ultimately what I looked like physically.
    I wasn’t aware when I was going through this kind of internal struggle that this would literally wreak havoc with my health for years to come. That wouldn’t have mattered at that point anyway because all I needed right then and there was to be able to feel grounded in something that I had control over.

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