Eating disorders impact 9% of the U.S. population (approximately 1 in 10 people), but rates of disordered eating are likely to be much higher. Disordered eating refers to consistent patterns of food obsessiveness, dieting tactics, and body image concerns. While not all disordered eating leads to a clinical eating disorder, such behaviors can affect self-esteem and relationships. They can also exacerbate other mental health symptoms.
But, in a society that covets certain body types and embraces a diet mentality, it can be hard to discern disordered eating from simply caring about nutrition or wanting to lose weight.
Here are some of the main disordered eating signs to be aware of:
Labeling Foods as 'Good' or 'Bad'
One of the more classic disordered eating behaviors is categorizing food based on criteria of moral value. This can sound like, "I shouldn't have eaten so badly last night!" or, "I'm really trying to eat clean today."
Even though such labels may sound innocent, they can intensify stress when planning meals or going out to eat with others. They can lead to you actually feeling bad about yourself based on what you consume.
Having Patterns of Uncontrollable Eating
Most people overeat from time to time, particularly during social occasions or when eating a favorite food. But binge eating refers to eating high quantities of food quickly and shamefully. Most people with this habit feel like they can't control what they're doing- it's like they can't stop until they're totally full.
Some people try to cope with binge eating by avoiding certain foods altogether. But having a taste of a 'taboo' food can trigger them into a pattern of overeating. Others may also try to compensate for their binges with restriction, compulsive exercise, or purging behaviors (which may be indicative of bulimia).
Feeling Anxious When You Miss a Workout
Exercise has numerous emotional and physical benefits, but excessive exercise patterns cause people to feel irritable or anxious when they miss a workout. They might also sacrifice other important priorities to ensure they have enough time to exercise each day.
While many people acknowledge disordered eating patterns in women, many men have equal concerns about body weight and shape. This can be seen with men in certain athletic and bodybuilding communities, where men feel pressure to maintain a certain physique.
Always Trying Fad Diets
People who exhibit disordered eating behaviors often jump from one extreme diet to the next. Healthy eating becomes a challenge- they often cut out entire food groups, try fasting, buy diet pills, engage in food restriction, or otherwise try to induce weight loss.
These diets may show some temporary results, but frequent dieting rarely works. Over time, people hold onto distorted relationships with food, and the concept of intuitive eating becomes entirely foreign.
Intense Desire to Eat Healthily
Nutrition is important, and it's good to want what's best for your physical health. But some people take healthy eating habits to the extreme and develop more orthorexic tendencies. Although orthorexia isn't in the diagnostic and statistical manual (DSM), many mental health professionals agree that it's a real condition with problematic symptoms.
Some of the risk factors for orthorexia include:
avoiding entire food groups or ingredients, including carbohydrates, dairy products, or sugar
worrying about healthy eating to the point where it impacts daily functioning
feeling guilty, unsafe, or anxious when eating foods that seem unhealthy
Worrying Excessively About How Other People Eat
People with disordered or irregular eating behaviors often fixate on other people's plates. This may be a subconscious projection, particularly if you are trying to prevent weight gain in either yourself or others.
Parents, for instance, might become reactive if their child eats "too much" birthday cake or chips as a snack. Someone else may feel angry at their partner for enjoying a large meal at dinner.
It may be a cause for concern if you measure your own worth based on how others eat. For example, some people will deem themselves superior if they order a "healthier" dish at a restaurant than their friend. But the opposite can also be true- you may feel worse about yourself if you eat more than others.
Prioritizing Weight Loss Over Other Important Obligations
Even if you want to lose weight, it's important to have a sense of balance in daily life. If fears of gaining weight are drastically impacting your well-being or routine, it could be a sign of disordered eating.
Like anything in life, balance is important. But eating disorder behaviors become time-consuming, and they can affect how present you are in everyday life.
Nobody chooses to be picky, and anyone who identifies with picky eating knows the frustration of other people misunderstanding their anxiety.
Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (AFRID) is a relatively new eating disorder. Children with this disorder tend to be extremely selective in what they eat, and they often show little to no interest in food. In serious cases, this can lead to poor nutrition and stunted growth.
AFRID can also affect adults. This particular eating disorder isn't about weight loss, but it often entails people skipping meals, obsessing over food, or risking malnourishment due to food-related anxiety.
Engaging in Disordered Eating Habits Sometimes
Most people only know about anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder when considering eating disorders. But many people fall under the diagnosis, other specified feeding and eating disorder (OSFED).
Symptoms of this disorder include:
atypical anorexia (restrictive eating that does not entail someone being underweight)
binge eating at a lower frequency than once a week
self-induced vomiting that can happen outside of bingeing
night eating syndrome
Recognizing Disordered Eating Signs and Getting Appropriate Help
Eating disorders are among the most fatal mental disorders, and they can seriously compromise someone's emotional and physical well-being. While there isn't a universal standard for normal eating, constant fears about gaining weight, unhealthy behaviors around food, and a poor relationship with exercise all represent disordered habits.
At Resurface Group, we support people with various mental health conditions to feel more empowered in daily life. We can help you or your loved one get your life back on track. Contact us today to get started.