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.


So what is my advice to you?

Reject the diet culture and mentality. Eat intuitively; listen to your bodies hunger queues, but make sure that you’re getting enough - especially if you are coming from a history of dieting and calorie restriction, as your body may no longer be producing those signals. Let your body find it’s natural, optimal weight. It may gain weight, it may lose weight, it may temporarily gain fat to protect itself then slowly go down to your set point. Trust it. And let go of your weight, of your body image; focus on the things that really matter. If your habits came from a place of negativity inside of you; work on yourself and your self love. 

Don’t be afraid to seek help. If you can, maybe meet with a dietician or nutritionist to ensure your body is really getting ‘enough’ - both in calories and the nutrients it needs - especially if you feel part of your mind might be convincing yourself of false truths. If you think there is an underlying psychological aspect, meet with your GP and ask about seeing a psychologist/psychiatrist or therapist to help you work through this.

I know how easy it is to convince yourself what you’re experiencing is ‘normal’, isn’t ‘bad enough’ or isn’t ‘as bad’ as what other people are going through, or convince yourself you have a handle on it and can do it on your own. Because in our culture, disordered eating has sadly become normal. And eating disorders can be hidden so well, and most of the time remain hidden - as with all mental illnesses. There is, and sadly will probably always be a stigma that those suffering from eating disorders are confined to only teenage, incredibly thin girls, admitted to hospital. But in reality, disordered eating and eating disorders affect a wide range of people; males, females, adults, young children, overweight people, underweight people, people who seem at a ‘normal’ or ‘healthy’ weight or BMI. The frightening truth is; many of the fitness models and health influencers across social media; many of the abs or butts we see images of have people behind them leading restrictive, diet, fitness and image consumed lives. Sadly, for most people in this world, without awareness, mindfulness and care; one simply can’t come without another. We all have different body shapes and sizes and different states that are optimal for us, and for some, 6-packs or thigh-gaps just aren’t natural. For many; achieving percieved physical health and fitness comes at the expense of their mental health and wellbeing.

Ask yourself, is that diet or physique really worth it?

Myself and others would tell you, it’s really not. Don’t distract from your lack of self-love or confidence, or stress and anxiety by displacing it onto something physical, by succumbing to our image-driven digital world.

But that, ultimately, is for you to decide. You have the power to change your habits, your mentality, and what you choose to fill your life with. Only you know if you’re living your best, most happy, true and fulfilling life, and what is and isn’t serving you towards your goals and your purpose. Question too, what those ‘goals’ are - and if they really are coming from a place of love and passion, and remember, seeking help or advice does not make you weak.

With everything progressing in the world; the diet and fitness is something I hope will progress in the opposite way. We need to move backwards to a time where we listened to our bodies; where our actions were driven from our innate signals rather than from our minds. As a society, many of us need to re-learn how to eat intuitively; the intuitive actions that we were born with and that most of us grew up with as children. I’m coming to realize that being healthy is more and more about being in touch with yourself; with what your body and your mind needs to truly thrive. 




https://www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk/ -  BEAT charity They also have a contact email and helpline as well as many online resources.

https://www.samh.org.uk/ Scottish Association for Mental Health

https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/eating-disorders/ NHS resources

http://www.orthorexia.com/ Information on Orthorexia - an eating disorder less widely spoken about, not yet featured in the DSM psychological manual

http://www.laurathomasphd.co.uk/ - Laura Thomas; registered dietician specializing in Intuitive Eating with many helpful and informative online resources and podcasts

http://www.plantbased-pixie.com/ - Pixie Turner; nutritionist also embracing the anti-diet culture; helping debunk myths about foods that have been spread across social media

http://tabithafarrar.com/ - Tabitha Farrar; eating disorder recovery coach with many online resources

https://www.thereallife-rd.com/ - Robyn Nohling; registered dietician and nurse practitioner, specializing in eating disorder recovery and hormonal health

1. Shisslak, C. M., Crago, M., & Estes, L. S. (1995). The spectrum of eating disturbances. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 18(3), 209-219.