DISORDERED EATING VS EATING DISORDER - AREN'T THEY THE SAME?
A shocking 25% of people who go on a diet become diagnosed with an eating disorder (1).
We live in a society where ‘disordered eating’ is becoming the norm. But what is disordered eating, and what are disordered eating habits? Most people would think that disordered eating is just another way to say ‘eating disorder.’ How many times have you heard a friend or colleague mention they want to lose weight for the summer, that they need to go to the gym to ‘burn’ off that donut they ate last night, that they’re ‘so fat’ or feel terrible for eating that chippy after a night out?
How many times have you felt guilty for ‘over’ indulging, for how much you ate out over the weekend, for skipping the gym, for snacking at midnight? How many times have you heard a family member talking about cutting carbs or stopping eating X for their new year’s resolution? Uncountable times, I’m guessing. You’ve probably even congratulated them on whatever diet ‘success’ they’ve had.
All of the above, and any ‘fad/crash diet’, can be described as disordered eating behaviours.
The world around us has always been one filled with fad-diets and magazines commenting on celebrities figures, but recently with the increase in the ‘health and fitness’ movement across social media; unhealthy thoughts and habits just seem to be normal. Hating the way your body looks has become normal. Food shaming - labelling one food ‘good’ and another ‘bad’, has become normal.
Obsessively eating healthily or ‘clean’ or going to the gym almost every day is viewed as a positive thing; is envied - that person seems disciplined, is admired, envied - that person appears to have achieved optimal health. And don’t get me wrong, these things CAN be good and very beneficial to the human body and mind. But like everything; balance is needed.
The above mentioned, so-called unhealthy-mindset related ’disordered eating’ habits are a slippery slope to developing an eating disorder. But the question is, where is that line drawn - where is the moment that one slips into another? How can we dabble with diets just momentarily to ‘look good’ in that bikini, or get to that number on the scale? When does skipping breakfast or another meal because you ‘weren’t hungry’ become a problem?
Although I am in no way a professional in the subject, and I speak about this from an awareness that has come from my own experience and that of others, truthfully I don’t think anyone really knows - which makes this area even more dangerous. Some seem to argue that there isn’t a difference from one to another - that all dieting or disordered habits fall under the eating disorder spectrum, just at different ‘severities.’ But can you really measure a severity of a mental illness? - another issue that arises from this. Others argue that when a seemly ‘simple’ diet takes on a psychological, mental aspect, that is where the line should be drawn. When thoughts, actions and habits start taking up more brain space than it should be; when they start affecting your social life; when your day starts revolving around what you eat and when you exercise. When you become more withdrawn from friends and family, when you no longer engage in any previous hobbies or interests - only your new found ones that may include cooking, scrolling for hours looking at recipes and photos of food or people with ‘fit’ bodies, or training for the new sport or gym class you’ve found.
If you’re worried about a friend, or about yourself; here are some signs or symptoms to look out for aside from typical ones that people tend to be aware of, such as weight-loss, obvious binging/purging etc - bear in mind only one, a few or all might be present, and this should not prevent you from seeking change or advice:
Restrictive dieting/skipping meals/restricting one meal to ‘make up’ for another
Not eating regular meals but snacking throughout the day, or not eating enough during the day and ‘binging’ at night
Drinking coffee/tea/water or eating particular foods to try and curb hunger
Withdrawing from social activities due to fatigue/anxiety surrounding event/not fitting in with exercise or food routine
Distorted body image - viewing themselves as ‘bigger’ or as ‘fat’
Concern about gaining weight or fat
Checking their appearance and body shape in the mirror often, taking ‘progress’ photos
Feeling self-conscious, anxious or ashamed of their body
Constant thoughts about food; next meal-time, food planning/prepping, recipes
Compulsive activity - unable to sit still, excersizing often whether it be going to the gym, on walks, counting steps - unable/reluctant to deviate from normal routine if possible; continuing despite weather/injury/tiredness/illness - often hiding behaviors behind de-stressing/pretend enjoyment/progression in fitness
Viewing movement and exercise mainly as a way to ‘burn’ calories or certain foods
Only eating certain foods under certain ‘rules’ - having done exercise/at certain times of day/at the weekend
Unable to eat out at restaurants, or only able if planned in advance/certain place/exercised before or after
Your hormonal health e.g periods, ability to sleep is beginning to be affected
So how can we diet without running the risk of developing something more serious?
Honestly, I don’t think you can. I have come to realize, as are many others out there (yay for the anti-diet, health-at-every-size, body positive movement that is slowly happening), that dieting is NOT sustainable, in any way, in any form. Our bodies need balance, in all aspects of life, not only in regards to food and exercise. Extremes; whether that be cutting out a food group such as carbohydrates or fats, or pushing your body to work-out more than it likes, is not, and never will be healthy. Some people are able to cope better than others; some can go for years following these strict diets and even believe they are thriving - despite subtle signals from your body, or even more prominent health issues indicating otherwise. But for all, it is only a matter of time before they burn out. I believe that all diets and disordered eating habits mask something else - whether that be a low self-esteem resulting in a poor body image, and the idea that by changing your appearance you’ll find the inner love and happiness you’re lacking; extreme stress or anxiety leading you to project these fears onto something else, striving to find control and order in something external that is easier to manage; a coping mechanism for grief, depression, inner turmoil - ‘emotional eating’ really is a thing… eventually, whatever the true reason is, it’ll surface and your body and mind won’t be able to take it anymore. Unluckily for some, by the time this happens you might have already suffered from many health complications from the intense stress or extreme lifestyle your body has been exposed to; including amenorrhoea, adrenal fatigue, anaemia, osteopenia and osteoporosis, dry skin and hair, extreme tiredness, bradycardia… the list goes on.