Disordered Eating Habits vs Eating Disorder – Do You Need Treatment?
It’s not uncommon to hear someone say that they’ve been “bad” for having had a breakfast doughnut or a bowl of ice cream for a snack. Others may pat their bellies after a big meal and note that they’ll have to hit the gym for an extra hour the following day. Although those kinds of remarks are often made in a joking manner, they reflect a deep-seated and distorted view of eating.
Of course, disordered eating habits are not equivalent to an eating disorder. While people with eating disorders certainly exhibit disordered eating habits, the same does not hold true the other way around. Not all disordered eaters have an eating disorder.
What, then, is the difference? And, do you perhaps, suffer from either?
What Are Disordered Eating Habits?
Disordered eating is becoming a more and more recognizable phenomenon. An ever-increasing number of people engage in abnormal eating patterns or food behaviors on a consistent basis.*
Disordered eating habits can include:
- Feeling anxiety around food – Pursuing an inflexible approach to food. This may involve rigid meal times, not eating outside the home, or viewing some foods as good and others as bad and, therefore, only eating certain foods.
- Having a distorted view of body and health – Like falling within a healthy weight range but always thinking you’re overweight. This may lead to excessive or overly strict exercise routines, obsessive calorie counting, or following fad diets every few months. It may also cause you to believe that certain miracle foods hold the answer to your health and weight problems.
- Basing self-worth on body image – Extreme focus on body shape and weight to control happiness. Hoping to boost your mood through specific approaches to food, such as low-carb diets, veganism, etc. It’s an attempt to distract yourself from areas of your life where you feel inadequate.
- Undereating, overeating, or erratic eating – The kind of behaviors that are similar but don’t quite fall under eating disorders yet. Excessive dieting, eating when you’re not hungry, eating secretly, restricting food groups or types of foods, skipping meals, or eating over-processed, convenient foods for comfort.
- Overindulging after restricting food – It’s possible what you’re doing isn’t quite binge eating, but after denying yourself food for a time, you overindulge. You feel guilty and ashamed when the eating is finished.
- Counting calories obsessively.
Sadly, disordered eating isn’t harmless.
It often hurts your body and unsettles your brain, despite not being a full-blown eating disorder.
You think about food all the time. Rather than enjoying your friends or focusing on your work, you’re thinking about when you can eat next.
When you look in the mirror, instead of seeing yourself as beautiful, you see all the things you’ve eaten that day. Why do I have to be this way, you might think. If only I was five pounds lighter. If only I had more self-control.
Ultimately, food has more power in your life than you want it to.
What Is an Eating Disorder?
Simply put, an eating disorder is a problem with brain function that causes obsessive thinking and compulsive behavior related to food and your body. In short, it is a mental illness.
There are many different types of eating disorders, but they all share the same core struggles, even though the behaviors look different. Eating disorders affect people in all shapes and sizes and from all backgrounds, both men and women. Following is a brief description of the different types of eating disorders.
Eating disorders are usually divided into four types:
- Anorexia Nervosa – Insufficient food intake that leads to unhealthily low weight due to fear of weight gain. It may include binging and then purging. While noting what you’re doing, you may lack a true understanding of the severity of the issue. Anorexia is the most deadly eating disorder because the body can literally be starved to death.
- Bulimia Nervosa – Episodes of out-of-control eating of excessive amounts of food are followed by periods of trying to prevent weight gain and excessive guilt and shame. May include purging, self-induced vomiting, or fasting. And can involve depression and low self-esteem. This cycle of trying to resist the urge to eat, giving into it, and trying to undo actions is very emotionally taxing and can leave one feeling exhausted, hurt, and powerless.
- Binge Eating Disorder – Frequent and recurring episodes of extreme overeating. May include eating to the point of feeling great discomfort or eating when you’re not hungry. Due to feeling strong shame or guilt about the bingeing, you may often eat alone. It may seem impossible to control how much you eat.
- Eating Disorders Not Otherwise Specified – Including purging disorder (without binge eating), night eating syndrome (excessive eating in the evening or at night), and orthorexia (obsession with clean eating and extreme dietary restrictions).
How One Eating Problem May Lead to the Other
The social acceptance of many diets that encourage disordered eating can make it difficult for those people who struggle with eating disorders to identify their problem.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that everyone who follows a strict diet may have an eating disorder. But the risk of developing one often starts with disordered eating.
Getting swept away by fad diets, extremely specialized eating patterns, and excessive exercise regimens aren’t “abnormal.” However, caution is definitely warranted. Your disordered eating habits could easily cross the line between trying to lose a few pounds and an acute, life-threatening eating disorder faster than you think.
For example, once you’ve reached your goal weight, you may find that it’s not as satisfactory as you had hoped and inevitably set a lower goal. Step by step, you could end up walking straight into disaster without ever being aware of it.
Or perhaps you are an emotional eater. You overeat when you feel upset, anxious, lonely, or stressed. In time, those habits could become so automatic that you’re in real danger of developing binge eating disorder or bulimia nervosa.
Don’t take it lightly! The road to an eating disorder is a slippery slope.
Ask Yourself These Questions to Identify if You are Struggling with Disordered Eating Habits
1. Has anyone ever told you that you have a problem with food?
2. Do you think food is a problem for you?
3. Do you eat large amounts of high calorie food in a short period of time?
4. Do you find yourself fearful of gaining weight?
5. Do you eat when you are disappointed, tense or anxious?
6. Is it hard to stop eating without a struggle after one or two sweets?
7. Do find yourself preoccupied with gaining weight?
8. Has being overweight ever affected any part of your life?
9. Do you weigh yourself once or twice (or more) a day?
10. Do you eat more than you planned to eat?
11. Have you hidden food so that you would have it just for yourself?
12. Have you ever felt angry when someone ate food you saved for yourself?
13. Do you worry that you can’t control how much you eat?
14. Have you felt frantic about your size, shape or weight?
15. Have you tried three or more methods of weight loss in the past? (i.e., self induced vomiting, laxatives, diuretics, fasting, amphetamines, weight loss programs)
16. Have you ever felt so ashamed of the amount you eat that you hide your eating?
17. Have you been so upset about the way you eat that you wished you would die?
18. Do you overeat more than twice a week?
19. Do you invent plans in order to be alone to eat?
20. Do you seek out companions who eat the way you do?
The greater the number of questions you responded yes to above, the greater the liklihood of disordered eating.
What can you do to start feeling better about eating?
Changing how you feel when you eat is really difficult. It’s not just a question of what kinds of food you should buy at the grocery store; getting better means learning to see yourself in a different light.
Stop condemning yourself. When you regret something you ate and you think, “I’m a failure,” or “I’m never going to change,” recognize those thoughts. Try to guide yourself toward more compassionate thinking like, “I regret eating when I wasn’t hungry,” or “that didn’t feel good.”
Begin to recognize how you feel before you eat, and what you tell yourself afterward. What is food distracting you from or helping you cope with? What do you really need? When you pay attention to your thoughts, feelings, and needs you might gain important insight into patterns you didn’t even know existed.
Once you build a more compassionate relationship with yourself and your body and connect with your feelings and needs, food begins to lose its power over you. You’ll learn to really believe that the foods you eat don’t define you, and in turn, you’ll find that you feel less emotionally compelled to quash your feelings with food, or to eat in secret.
How to Know if You Need Eating Disorder Treatment
Really, anyone can fall prey to disordered eating. Troubling as it may be, though, unhealthy eating habits can be overcome with planning, self-care and attention to your needs. And if nothing else, your body and brain eventually start protecting you by making it harder to continue with crazy eating habits.
But if you’re suffering from an eating disorder, you have no such choice. As much as you may wish, you have no conscious, logical control over your ailment. Rather, your behavior continues to increase in frequency and severity, causing much distress and a relentless decline, mentally and physically.
To decide if you need treatment, ask yourself to what extent your distorted eating patterns affect your daily functioning:
- Do my thoughts about food, my body, and exercise keep me from focusing and concentrating at school or work?
- How much irritation, stress, or anxiety do my thoughts about these things cause me? Do I have trouble deflecting them?
- Is my social life disrupted by my discomfort and worries of eating certain foods or eating outside of my own home?
- Do I use eating or food restrictions to help me handle stress or manage problems in my life?
Should you detect a negative pattern when answering those questions, it may be a good idea to consult with one of our professional mental health experts who can make an accurate diagnosis of your problem.
Treating Eating Disorders
Living with an eating disorder is painful and can feel impossible to talk about with others, but they are real and can affect anyone. The good news is that eating disorders are treatable. Being treated for an eating disorder is not something to be ashamed of; treatment can help you work through your fears in a way that makes you feel better about yourself and the future. There is hope!
(*Note: Disordered eaters do not include people with specific food intolerances, food allergies, or other health problems that require them to follow a strict diet.)
Sign up to be notified of group and workshop dates.