Disordered Eating

What is disordered eating?

Disordered eating is a reflection of disturbances in an individual’s patterns of food consumption and related emotions. These disturbances can manifest as feelings of guilt or shame while eating, or an overreliance on food as a comfort item. While it’s common to think of food when we’re hungry or stressed, or to regret occasional overeating, for some thoughts of food can be all-consuming. If the way you eat is a daily preoccupation that interferes with your enjoyment of life, you may be experiencing disordered eating.

Some examples of disordered eating include:

  • Frequent or prolonged dieting, fasting and cleanses
  • Frequent binge eating (eating until you’re uncomfortably full, especially when you’re not hungry)
  • Purposefully missing meals, or eating fewer than 1,200 calories a day for prolonged periods of time without a doctor’s supervision
  • Categorically avoiding a type of food or food group for a non-medical reason
  • Using diet pills, misusing supplements, or turning to unhealthy appetite suppressants like cigarettes and cocaine

Mental health professionals consider disordered eating to be a strong indicator for development of an eating disorder. Eating disorders can be life threatening, and are characterized by an unhealthy obsession with controlling food consumption to the point of starvation or other bodily harm. Anorexia (characterized by self-starvation) and bulimia (characterized by binging and purging) are the two best known eating disorders, and the most fatal.

Even if you don’t develop a textbook eating disorder, upon reflection you may find you have a lot of ideas about what to eat and how to eat that don’t come from a dietician. Food is highly cultural, linked to community building, healing, and celebration. It’s also highly personal - we develop particular tastes for what we like most, and associate certain foods with memories or people. We all eat differently, and experts disagree about what constitutes the perfect diet. As a result, our eating can become motivated not by hunger, but by our emotions, and this can be dangerous territory.

What can cause disordered eating?

While disordered eating is considered a different psychiatric diagnosis than an eating disorder, it can share many associated risk factors.

Genetics and Family Background

Researchers find that genetics are the greatest predictor for the development of eating disorders - if someone in your family has an eating disorder, you are more likely to develop one. In addition, family eating behaviors can have a big impact on your feelings about food. If your family members talk a lot about dieting, struggle with obesity and binging, or express negative feelings about their weight or muscle tone, it’s likely you’ve absorbed a lot of those attitudes towards your own eating and body image.

Body Dysmorphia

Eating disorders are often linked with body dysmorphia - sufferers have a distorted vision of their appearance, particularly their weight, and impose extreme restrictions on how and what they eat in response. This may be accompanied by other behaviors to control weight, like excessive exercise to burn calories, or dressing in oversized clothing to make the body appear smaller. No matter what others tell them, someone with body dysmorphia can only see a distorted image of themselves in their minds, and may turn to self-destructive habits as a result.

A Need for Control

Anxiety and depression are often present in those with eating disorders. Negative feelings and low self-esteem may spark a need for control that finds its outlet in food. Sticking to a restrictive diet can be comforting and make you feel that in at least one part of your life you have the upper hand, even if that diet begins to negatively impact your physical and mental health. For binge eaters, food becomes a comfort item they can turn to and escape from their feelings at least temporarily - a form of emotional control. Unfortunately sufferers often reach a tipping point where the coping mechanism starts to control them, and lose perspective on what a healthy diet and lifestyle look like.

How can a therapist help you address disordered eating?

As noted above, disordered eating and eating disorders are closely linked with intense, negative emotions around food, eating, and body image. A therapist can talk you through the way you feel about these things, and help reveal underlying misconceptions of who you are and what you’re worth that contribute to issues with eating.

For many of us with disordered eating habits, feelings of shame, guilt, or self-disgust can prevent us from examining the reasons for our over or under-eating. Therapists create safe, judgment-free spaces for their patients to explore difficult feelings with empathy and support. Simply building this therapeutic relationship can contribute to feelings of self-worth, and inspire us to invest in greater self-care.

A therapist may also refer you to a support group or other program that specializes in disordered eating and eating disorders. It can be isolating to struggle with food, and connecting with others who share your experience can support and inspire you when you need it most.

Ready to overcome the barriers holding you back?