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. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

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
  • Pauline

    December 16th, 2009 at 4:33 PM

    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

    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

    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

    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!

  • juju

    October 6th, 2014 at 6:45 PM

    It’s shocking to me that in this day there is still the idea that a child suffered some form of neglect from an uncaring parent. This was not the case with me or others that I know. I have a very good family and my parents are loving people. I was bullied in 8th grade and when I went to high school I was determined to be accepted and that meant looking thin and “accomplished.” I had help and love from my Mom the year I was bullied. I was supported but looking back it was the type of rejection from my peers that made things very hard for me, and I coulnd’t shake this rejection. My Mom and Dad were very concerned with abot my eating and about my distorted needs. I can look back and say that if it had not been for the love of my family I would have been in worse shape. I rejected any thing that countered my false ideal – I fought against everything I had been taught – which was that we are not made perfect, and envy, the desire to be “seen” – I knew my parents saw me…it was the girls in my class that seemed to ignore me and I paid attention to what they were “seeing” and that was namely thinnes and money, glamour, their values were screwed up but I can say that those were not my parent’s values. Other girls in my group have good families too. It is just plain wrong for you to state that someone gets an eating disorder because of a lack of love or nurturing….open your eyes – our generation, mine, is growing up with a barrage of media that focuses on bodies not souls or intellect.

  • Deborah Klinger

    October 7th, 2014 at 1:38 PM

    Juju, I certainly don’t mean to imply that everyone who develops an eating disorder had inadequate parenting. Environmental factors are just one “ingredient” that contributes to the development of an eating disorder, and they can be familial or external. Sometimes there are circumstances that are too big for even the most loving and supportive parents to protect their children against, and it sounds like this was so in your case. Bullying can do tremendous damage, and you were very fortunate to have such wonderful parents to guide you through such a terrible time.

Leave a Comment

By commenting you acknowledge acceptance of's Terms and Conditions of Use.

* Indicates required field.

GoodTherapy uses cookies to personalize content and ads to provide better services for our users and to analyze our traffic. By continuing to use this site you consent to our cookies.