Disordered Eating: How Can I Tell if My Eating Habits Are Healthy?

A person's lower legs and feet are shown standing on a scale.When summer is nearing, we are all likely to be exposed to our fair share of commercials, billboards, and magazine ads touting the latest diet trends to get our bodies ready for the beach. Maybe some of you have heard coworkers talk about new diets they are on, or maybe you have been on a diet yourself. Are the diets short-lived, or do they sometimes go too far? Are you or a loved one seemingly always on a diet of sorts? Do thoughts about food, calories, health trends, and body size seem to dominate a good portion of your day?

Very often, when we think about eating disorders, we think about extremes. We imagine emaciated figures and extreme behaviors, which are, perhaps, far from the world of casual dieting for the summer or working off the holiday treats. However, like many things in this world, our relationship with food is not so black and white; eating and dieting behaviors lie on a continuum.

On one end of this continuum, we have “normal” eating. Normal eating is being able to eat when you are hungry and stop when you feel full or satisfied. It means that you have the freedom to choose foods that you enjoy and crave and allow yourself to have an appropriate portion, instead of restricting or denying yourself. Normal eating means that there are no “bad foods” and everything is consumed in relative moderation.

Normal eating means that we trust our bodies to regulate themselves when we over- or under-eat. It also means that on some days we might eat a little too much or that on others we forget a meal or a snack. In normal eating, these occurrences happen because of the natural rhythm of our lives, not out of a desire to diet or lose weight. Normal eating also allows for occasional eating because of emotions such as happiness, sadness, boredom, or maybe just because we are out enjoying ourselves with friends. Normal eating does not take time and calculation; it is just another one of the many aspects of our busy lives.

On the other end of the continuum, we have eating disorders. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, 4th Edition (DSM-IV), eating disorders include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge-eating disorder, and eating disorder not-otherwise-specified.

Anorexia nervosa is characterized by an excessive fear of weight gain, self-starvation, and a disturbance in how one perceives his/her body shape and size (American Psychiatric Association, 2000). Symptoms can include refusal to maintain body weight at or above a minimally acceptable range for age and height, amenorrhea, intense fear of weight gain, feeling “fat” (despite being underweight), and excessive concern with body image.

Bulimia nervosa is characterized by a cycle of binge-eating and purging behaviors (American Psychiatric Association, 2000). Purging can be characterized by a number of compensatory behaviors used to “get rid” of the unwanted food, such as vomiting, using laxatives or diuretics, or exercising excessively. Symptoms can include excessive dieting, preoccupation with body image and weight, feeling out of control during binge-eating cycles, and engaging in purging behaviors following a binge.

Binge-eating is characterized by periods of uncontrolled and impulsive consumption of food, usually to the point of feeling uncomfortably full. Often individuals who engage in binge-eating will experience periods of shame or self-loathing following a binge, and some may try to diet in order to “make up” for the large quantity of food they had previously consumed.

Now, in the middle of this continuum is something called “disordered eating.” Just as there are varying levels of eating disorders, there will be varying degrees of disordered eating. Disordered eating describes a wide range of irregular eating behaviors that do not necessarily warrant a diagnosis of an eating disorder. Some may think that disordered eating is not as serious; however, disordered eating can still cause a significant negative impact on food relationships and body image that subsequently impacts health, interpersonal relationships, emotional well-being, work performance, and overall quality of life.

Disordered eating in some individuals can also lead to the development of a full-fledged eating disorder. Some examples of disordered eating can include omitting food groups, eating only certain kinds of foods, eating at only certain times of the day, and engaging in other kinds of ritualistic patterns. Disordered eating can develop from childhood patterns or frequent dieting or as a coping mechanism. So how can you know if you or a loved one is struggling with disordered eating? The questions to ask are whether or not the behavior negatively impacts physical and emotional well-being and whether or not the behavior is interfering with daily functioning.

Over one-half of teenage girls and nearly one-third of teenage boys use unhealthy weight control behaviors such as skipping meals, fasting, smoking cigarettes, vomiting, and taking laxatives (Neumark-Sztainer, 2005). We live in a society that is obsessed with unhealthy and unnatural norms for body weight and size. According to Collins (1991), 42% of first- through third-grade students want to be thinner. Another study showed that 81% of 10 year olds are afraid of being fat (Mellin et al., 1991). We have watched our models and icons shrink from decade to decade, while the rates of men, women, and children diagnosed with eating disorders has continued to rise. We are also a nation facing an obesity epidemic, and we have all kinds of health and fitness experts condoning new diets and fads in order to help Americans achieve a healthier body. We find ourselves innocently following along, perhaps unaware when our quest for health has turned into a dangerous obsession.

There is no easy solution. All we can do is work to increase our own self-awareness and be willing to take an honest look at the role food plays in our lives. After that, the goal is to find balance, whether you are trying to recover from an eating disorder or manage your weight for health reasons or if you recognize that maybe food has become more of a coping mechanism than you would like. There are many professionals who can help you find this balance. It is also important to remember that even the process of finding balance is an imperfect journey. However, it is one that can be worked towards with a little patience and grace.

References:

  1. American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, fourth edition, text revision. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.
  2. Collins, M.E. (1991). Body figure perceptions and preferences among pre-adolescent children. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 199-208.
  3. Mellin, L., McNutt, S., Hu, Y., Schreiber, G.B., Crawford, P., Obarzanek, E. (1991). A longitudinal study of the dietary practices of black and white girls 9 and 10 years old at enrollment: The NHLBI growth and health study. Journal of Adolescent Health, 27-37.

© Copyright 2012 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Anne Khalifeh, PsyD, therapist in San Francisco, California

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

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  • Brighton

    Brighton

    July 2nd, 2012 at 3:22 PM

    Sometimes I feel like I have been on a diet for more years of my life than I haven’t been, and it starts to wear on you, that’s for sure. It started with a comment a guy I was dating in high school made about maybe I could lose 10 pounds, and there I started on the vicious cycle of the forever diet.
    I have tried everything ove the years; I have gained and lost that sma eten pounds over and over again, more times than I could ever count.
    And the sad thing about it all was before this comment was made, I was always pretty happy with my body, not the greatest in the world but I’m pretty tall so that always helped. But ever since then, I have constantly been in this hate relationship with my weight and my body.
    And I haven’t even seen that guy in more than 20 years now, but his comment still follows me!!

  • taryn

    taryn

    July 3rd, 2012 at 4:11 AM

    For a long time I thought that I was the only person in the world living with this kind of dismal relationship with food and my body. I can’t express to you how I felt to read this and learn that I am not the only one out there who feels this way. Brighton, I feel your pain and remember the many times in my own life when my mom would tell me just how much prettier I would be if I would only lose a few pounds. But that emphasis on losing a few pounds has turned into this cycle of denial, bingeing, purging, and really terrible relationship with food and how I feel about myself.

  • Zeus

    Zeus

    July 3rd, 2012 at 11:12 AM

    Whatever happened with being happy with what you are?

    We have the contro, to make the right choices in our lives when it all comes down to food and exercise. Eat it or don’t, go for a walk or don’t. These are decisions you have to make, so you are the only one who can be accountable when the decisions you make are the wrong ones.

    I fail to see why so many people get hung up on how they look on the outside. Isn’t it all supposed to be about who you are on the inside? And when did we get so far gone that we forgot that element of humanity?

  • C Campbell

    C Campbell

    July 3rd, 2012 at 3:04 PM

    Whose idea of healthy relationship are we talking here?
    I know what I think is healthy and what works for me, but who’s to say that someone else doesn’t believe the same thing that I do but they are still ok with the way they handle their food and that relationship?
    Someone either loves who they are or doesn’t and for some people that revolves around food and body image and that whole innerconnectivity and for others it’s always something else.
    You have to figure out what works best for you and what will allow you to make peace with that part of your life.
    I would hate to think that something like that was always following me and keeping me from being my very best.

  • Theo

    Theo

    July 3rd, 2012 at 4:33 PM

    The biggest problem faced today is that instead of listening to our bodies we listen to external agents as to what we should and should not give to our body. That is where the fault lies. As soon as we start listening to the feedback given to us by our body and act accordingly most of these problems will vanish.

  • gabby

    gabby

    July 5th, 2012 at 4:31 AM

    the problem I have is that even when I know I’m full I will just keep on eating if what I am eating tastes good. then I end up feeling so sick that I have to purge.

  • Dr. Anne Khalifeh

    Dr. Anne Khalifeh

    July 18th, 2012 at 8:19 PM

    It is true that as we grow older, we become less effective at listening to our hunger and fullness cues because of various different reasons. Infants and toddlers are really good at crying and letting us know when they are hungry, and stopping when they are full. As we grow older, our meal schedules become less regular, we eat for different reasons, and the waters become murky. The good is news that we can learn once again how to “tune-in” and listen to our bodies again.

    Also, there are lots of wonderful resources and different kinds of help available if you are struggling with an eating disorder. There are a number of risks associated with eating disorders and seeking out professional help is always recommended.

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