In a society that is obsessed with diet teas and cauliflower pizza crust, it can be difficult to recognize when we’re engaging with disordered eating.
It’s important, however, to know the signs. Disordered eating can easily become an eating disorder, and can impact our well-being.
But what is disordered eating, exactly? Disordered eating describes food- and diet-related behaviors that, while not meeting the full criteria for an eating disorder, still affect someone’s health (including their physical and mental health). Social pressure and active shaming can often push individuals to these behaviors.
While challenging to recognize, understanding that you may be struggling with disordered eating can empower you to seek out support and, if needed, get further assessment for a potential eating disorder.
So what are some of the types of disordered eating we commonly see? Here are five ways disordered eating may show up.
1. Avoiding certain foods, food groups, or textures.
Avoidance is a disordered eating behavior that often stems from anxiety. Anxiety around food is a red flag — ideally, your relationship to food is not driven by anxiety or fear.
This, of course, doesn’t include avoidance due to an allergy or sensitivity (though you should always be tested to ensure that you do, in fact, have a food allergy).
You may be engaging in disordered eating if you find yourself abstaining from certain foods, eliminating entire food groups from your diet, or even avoiding certain food textures due to discomfort caused by eating them.
This could also be more discrete behaviors, like making “healthy swaps” with other foods (like replacing brownies with their black bean counterpart) to reduce your anxiety about eating certain foods.
In a non-disordered relationship with food, all foods fit, and you’re able to freely eat whatever foods you crave without experiencing distress or discomfort.
2. Engaging in compensatory behaviors.
What are compensatory behaviors? These are behaviors that are intended to “offset” or reduce the calories one consumes.
This includes exercising to “make up for” what you’ve eaten or “burn off” calories, misuse of laxatives or diuretics, and engaging in cleanses.
The idea that calories need to be saved or earned might seem pretty normal, since we hear it all the time, but it can lead to a relationship with food based on numbers rather than the needs of our unique bodies. In actuality, you do not need to “offset” anything you eat. You can actually just eat your food and trust that your body knows what to do with the foods you’re eating! Distress over consuming calories is a red flag for a disordered relationship to food.
3. Trying to trick yourself into feeling fuller.
Eating to fullness is important to ensure you’re getting enough to eat and that your metabolism can do its job. Hunger is a key feedback loop from your body, and a healthy relationship with food means honoring your body’s communication rather than tricking it into feeling full when it is not.
Hunger and fullness cues exist for a reason — your body is giving you these signals to help you, not to hurt you!
“Many folks with disordered eating fear that listening to their hunger cues and allowing all foods in their diet will result in an out of control experience with food,” says Leigh Ann Greenfield, LMFT. “In actuality, the body has a wide range of somatic cues to let us know when we’ve eaten enough. This means that we can trust our bodies both to let us know when to eat and when to stop if we develop a safe, connected relationship with ourselves.”
Some hunger-dampening behaviors common in eating disorders include slowing down your pace (unreasonably so), cutting food into smaller pieces, drinking a lot of water with or before meals, pushing back the first meal of the day to avoid stimulating the digestive system, overuse of caffeine, or eating foods such as rice cakes to feel full while consuming minimal nutrients.
Again, this usually stems from a fear of overeating or having too much to eat. In a healthy relationship with food, you can trust your hunger, and follow it knowing that you need not have anxiety about these signals. Your body is not trying to deceive or trick you!
4. Intentionally skipping meals or restricting your intake.
Many people skip meals or restrict their caloric intake because they are afraid of having too much to eat, or because they wish to lose weight. In reality, a healthy relationship to food means obeying our natural hunger cues, and allowing those cues to guide us through our day without fear or anxiety.
When our cues are normative, this typically means eating three meals and 2-3 snacks per day (but our hunger cues may change in response to undereating, either becoming more intense or even disappearing entirely — if this is the case, eating more consistently and eating to fullness can help restore normative hunger cues).
Some disordered behaviors may include: “saving up” calories before a big meal, fasting to lose weight, or skipping meals in response to eating a large quantity of food or a food you consider “unhealthy.”
5. Fixating on your weight or your food.
A fixation on your weight and/or the foods you eat is a sign that your relationship with food may not be a healthy one.
This can include weighing yourself or measuring yourself a lot, yo-yo dieting, tracking your food intake or calories, obsessing over the types of food that you eat (including “clean” or “healthy” foods), or creating strict food rules or rituals.
If you have a disordered relationship to food, these activities may feel normal or even reasonable. But in actuality, these are behaviors that are fundamentally driven by fear and anxiety.
In a healthy relationship to food, we are able to eat freely and follow our natural hunger cues — and we can do this without fear of gaining weight, anxiety about overeating, or fixating on rules about what is and isn’t “healthy.”
In a disordered relationship to food, however, our behaviors are driven by fear, and we may make decisions around food based on that fear, rather than following our bodily intuition, cravings, and dietary needs.
When should you get help?
“Given the prevalence of diet culture in the US, many, if not most, adults experience some type of disordered eating,” Greenfield explains. “When that escalates into patterns that directly impact health, relationships, and ability to function fully in one’s life, we diagnose an eating disorder.”
An eating disorder clinician will often look at the frequency, severity, and intensity of the disordered behaviors, as well as the overall health impact of these behaviors, when making a determination about whether or not an eating disorder is present.
Some signs that an eating disorder is present include: obsessive thoughts about food and body, extreme concerns or anxiety about calories, and difficulty functioning in one’s everyday life due to disordered behaviors. It may also include changes in one’s weight, though it doesn’t always.
However, it’s important to know that one key characteristic of eating disorders is called “anosognosia,” which is the inability to recognize the severity of one’s illness or behaviors. So while you may believe that your disordered behaviors are normal or insignificant, it’s always best to speak to a mental health provider who can offer a more objective assessment of what’s going on.
Think you may be struggling with disordered eating? Supportive experts can help. Browse Alma’s free directory to find a clinician like Leigh Ann Greenfield, LMFT.
You might also reach out to a dietitian or nutritionist for support. “If you could use external support, don’t hesitate to consult with a registered dietician who identifies on their practice webpage that they use a ‘HAES’ or Health At Every Size approach,” Greenfield recommends.
Remember, just because certain behaviors are considered “normal” in our culture, that doesn’t make them healthy. Even “healthy eating,” when taken to an extreme, can be very unhealthy for some individuals, and can devolve into an eating disorder.
Being able to eat intuitively — following your body’s natural hunger cues and cravings, and giving yourself permission to eat freely without fear or anxiety — can be challenging in a culture that wants us to deny our instincts.
However, the healthiest relationship we can have to food is one which is not driven by shame or fear. We all deserve to find pleasure in our food and peace with our bodies.
Sam Dylan Finch is a writer, advocate, and content marketing manager at Alma.
Featuring: Leigh Ann Greenfield, LMFT
Leigh Ann Greenfield specializes in treating complex trauma and eating disorders. She has a warm, direct style, and combines structured interventions, such as DBT and CBT, with somatic healing modalities, like the trauma resilience model. Leigh Ann is passionate about providing identity-affirming, culturally sensitive, and social justice-oriented therapy for all individuals.