Disordered eating habits are, unfortunately, not widely discussed – mostly because disordered eating is commonly accepted as normal, even strived for. You don’t need to spend a lot of time online, on social media and magazines to notice the general message – food is the enemy, eat as little as possible and exercise as much as possible. Also, once you finally shrink yourself and reach your “ideal weight” (what is ideal weight and who decides that?), your life will suddenly be perfect.
Unfortunately, although these kinds of messages and behaviours coming from them may seem normal, they are actually very harmful and can lead you straight into disordered eating.
The difference between disordered eating and eating disorders are intensity and diagnosis. Eating disorders are at the extreme part of the spectrum. However, diagnosed eating disorders mostly start with an “innocent” diet, that escalates into disordered eating and then into an eating disorder.
Therefore, it’s important to know what kind of behaviours belong to the disordered eating habits, evaluate yourself – check what of these signs you may be experiencing, become aware of it and start healing your relationship with food.
1. Yo-yo dieting
If you are a kind of person who follows a (strict) meal plan for a while with an intention to lose weight, and after a while you go back to your previous eating habits (and add some overeating to the mix, because diets will cause that). You end up gaining back all the weight you’ve lost and a bit more.. This is a sign you could probably improve your relationship with food.
All kinds of short term diets, restrictive diets, calorie counting diets, meal plans and other attempts of controlling your eating belong under an umbrella of disordered eating.
Yes, even the diets that allow you to eat “as many apples as you want between the meals”.
Aside from the fact that these kinds of diets and restrictions are dangerous and unhealthy, it’s obvious that they don’t work.
If diets worked, you wouldn’t need a new one every month, would you?
2. Anxiety around food, fear of food, fear of skipping meals etc.
If you feel uneasy around/because of food for any reason, it’s time to reevaluate your relationship with it.
This includes fear of skipping meals, fear of eating before certain time of the day, fear of specific foods and food groups, fear of eating foods out of your “meal plan” or “allowed foods” and all the behaviours similar to this.
The only valid reason to exclude certain foods from your eating world are health issues caused by that food – like celiac disease or allergies. Of course, is consuming gluten is dangerous for you, you need to cut it out.
(Side point: the other valid reason to exclude certain foods from your eating world is – you don’t like that food.)
However, people who suffer from disordered eating usually cut out entire food groups because of the fear (even if you don’t call it fear, but “trying to get healthy”). Like people who suffer through keto diet, who cut out all the carbs and then feel unease/anxiety because of carbs – like when they’re around others who eat carbs, but they are not allowed to have some because “it will ruin their diet/ketosis”.
Similar thing happens with popular “challenges” on social media where you are supposed to cut out sugar and all foods that contain sugar (or some other food/food group) for a week/month – these kinds of “challenges” are not supportive of your mental health and will most likely cause a lot of anxiety, unease, fear. None of that is healthy.
Any behaviours you have around food that are making you uneasy or are causing your fear from food in any way are NOT healthy. These behaviours will only ruin your emotional/mental health and cause you a lot of stress – which, you’ve guessed it, is a disaster for your health.
It’s much healthier to just eat a cookie and move on with your life.
3. Food rules, routines and rituals related to food and movement
Adding to the previous point, all food rules, routines and/or rituals that make you feel like you may lose control, that create fear and anxiety if you must break them are a sign that you may wanna work on your relationship with food (and exercise).
This includes occasions when you are prevented to follow your food rules, routines and/or rituals because of some external factors you have no control over. For example, if you must skip a meal when you’re supposed to eat according to your meal plan, or when you must skip gym. When this happens, you feel like you’ve “ruined everything”, you’ve “lost control” and you end up feeling like a failure.
Your lifestyle, eating and exercise must be flexible and they must contribute to your general health. If they’re causing you anxiety, stress, chaos – it’s time to ask yourself is there a better way to be. (Yes, there is)
4. Obsessing about food and exercise in order to lose weight
Although you may think otherwise, your worth doesn’t come from your weight. You are not a “before and after” pic. You are now and here.
Unfortunately, today’s culture would have you believe that weight is the only way to see your progress when it comes to health, but also when it comes to your body image – your representation of your looks, the way you see, evaluate and accept or don’t accept your body.
If you believe that weight (loss) is the biggest or only indicator of health or a biggest factor in creating a positive body image, you’re not alone.
Unfortunately, sometimes it seems like weight loss is the greatest accomplishment one may achieve. I’m sure you’ve been through receiving loads of compliments for losing a couple of pounds. Or you’ve gained a couple and felt people judging you for it. Maybe it wasn’t just a feeling, maybe they had audacity to drop some negative comments.
So, belief that weight loss is the best thing you can do for yourself is not surprising at all. However, this is not the truth.
Maybe the person you see everyone complimenting on their weight loss suffers from all these disordered eating behaviours – and while everyone thinks she’s doing a “great job” and that she’s an inspiration to everyone around her, all she thinks about is a piece of her grandma’s famous cake, she feels out of control all the time, and she’s scared shitless of most foods.
Maybe the fitness influencer you follow on Instagram looks like she’s totally blissful munching on kale and quinoa every day, but she’s actually afraid to have lunch with her family because of the food that may be on the table, so she’s eating alone.
The truth is that with “before and after” photos and “inspirational” people who “lose all the unwanted weight” you can NEVER know what’s really going on.
The truth is that some people even suffer from serious eating disorders like orthorexia, anorexia, bulimia etc. for more than a decade without their friends and family even noticing – because in today’s society, disordered eating is often seen as inspirational, #goals, #fitspo etc.
The truth is also that it’s absolutely possible to have a positive body imagine, enjoy living in your body, and enjoy food without desperately trying to lose weight all the time. One might argue it’s even mandatory.
Have you ever been in a situation that, after suffering through the diet, you actually lost some weight, looked at yourself in the mirror and.. Noticed a hundred other places where you could “lose a bit more”?
Or have you ever been looking through your old photos where you now think you looked fantastic, but when you remember those moments – you actually hated your body?
This is the proof that positive body image doesn’t come from weight loss. It’s an internal shift.
5. Avoiding social events and activities because of food anxiety
Were you ever afraid to go to the family gathering or a birthday party because the thought of all the foods that will be there was just too much to handle? Or because you were scared about what will happen to your diet if you eat a slice of pizza while out with your girlfriends?
Or, do you remember a situation where you brought your own food to family dinner because you were afraid that there won’t be any foods available that you’re allowed to eat?
All fo these are signs of disordered eating habits that are most certainly not serving your health in a positive way.
Food is more than just nutrients. Food is also pleasure, a part of culture, tradition and an important social aspect – if your food rules and diets are stopping you from enjoying social events and activities that you’ve previously enjoyed, maybe it would be helpful for you to become aware of what your relationship with food looks like. Then, you can freely decide what’s not working for you.
6. Guilt, shame, remorse
Diet industry just loves making money from your fear of food.
How many times did you see ads for foods that you “can enjoy without feeling guilty”?
It’s no wonder at all that disordered eating habits are considered normal when we live in a diet culture that’s trying to moralize food. And of couse it is – just imagine how many companies would fail right now, if we all realized we’re good enough just the way we are and that eating is not a moral issue, but an essential need.
Messages that want you to feel guilty and shameful because of your food choices and the way you look escalate during and after winter holidays, and in spring: “lose the Christmas weight”, “New year diet resolutions”, “start shaping your beach body”, “deserve your Christmas feast” …
If you’re feeling guilty for eating, please understand it’s not your fault. None of us is immune to these messages when we first hear them. Also, please understand that you’re not alone. Trying avoiding feeling guilty for feeling guilty – this is kinda counterproductive.
However, you can always stop for a moment and ask yourself – would you enjoy that chocolate more if you could eat it with a peaceful mind – without guilt, shame and thinking how you’ll later need to “pay” for eating it.
7. Unstable weight, big weight fluctuations
Of course, unstable weight and fluctuations may be a sign of a disease – so please, consult your doctor and check out what’s going on.
However, when it comes to disordered eating habits, weight fluctuations that happen often and are large are usually result from all the dieting, yo-yo effect and unhealthy relationship with food.
For people who have healthy, normal relationship with food, weight is usually constant – of course, it fluctuates a bit, but it’s not as extreme. This is the result of relatively constant appetite, in contract to people who go through diets and sometimes eat very small amounts of food and lose a lot of weight, and then, when the body wins the battle against starvation, they eat large amounts of food at once, causing weight gain. Which is, btw, super unhealthy for the body and mind, mostly because of a huge stress it causes for both.
Side note; please keep in mind that SOME weight fluctuations are really normal, especially for us women, since our appetites change during the months because of our beautiful moon cycles. For more info on that, check out Self-love, Period.
If you’ve recognized yourself in any of these signs, you may be surprised (or even resistant) because you didn’t expect them to be unhealthy behaviours. This happens because, as I’ve said, many of these disordered eating habits are socially acceptable, and even seen as a great thing.
However, disordered eating habits can be very dangerous, and can lead to dangerous, potentially deadly, problems, such as full blown eating disorder.
That’s why it’s important to take your relationship with food seriously and take responsibility for your food choices, by listening to your body.
Your body knows what its ideal weight is (even if you’re not happy with it – majority of our bodies need more fat than what you can see on the cover of magazines), what food it needs and how much. Your job is to tune in.
Of course, don’t expect your habits to change over night – after all, you’ve spent a lot of time cultivating them, didn’t you?
First step is awareness. Now that you’re informed, you can take a moment and really evaluate your relationship with food and how healthy it is, or how much it’s harming you.
I would recommend writing down your opinions, beliefs and experiences with food, habits related to food and exercise, and how you feel about current relationship you have with food and exercise.
Be gentle with yourself, remember that you haven’t done anything wrong or bad – in every single moment of your life, you have been doing what you believed is the best choice for you.
But also keep in mind that you’re the only person with the power to change your beliefs, opinions and habits.
If you realize you need help and guidance, seek it. Work with a professional who can help guide you through the process of eliminating beliefs and behaviours that are no longer serving you in a positive way.
Eating should be easy and pleasurable.