American culture focuses intensely on lofty beauty standards and numerous fad diets to achieve them. Perhaps no one is more intensely affected by these influences than young women, who are at the highest risk of developing anorexia, bulimia, or other eating disorders. Parents and loved ones find themselves asking a fundamental question: “How do I know if I should be worried?” It can be confusing to see your child or friend restricting their portions and expressing concern over their weight, but how do you know whether they have a pattern of disordered eating or a diagnosable eating disorder?
What is Disordered Eating?
Disordered eating is a term used to describe unusual eating behaviors. It may include frequent dieting, anxiety about specific foods, or preoccupation with food. Individuals who exhibit a pattern of disordered eating feel guilt or shame when they eat, and it’s common for them to also use exercise to “make up for the bad foods” they’ve consumed. They may turn to these behaviors to feel a sense of control over themselves or their circumstances, with the goal of a specific weight at which they will finally be happy. Once the scale reflects that number, however, they will set an even lower goal weight, creating a pattern that may lead to a diagnosable eating disorder.
Eating disorders are diagnosed according to specific, narrow criteria. As such, there are some people who may not exhibit all of the characteristic signs required for a label of anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa. Therefore, these individuals may instead receive a somewhat broader diagnosis of EDNOS, or eating disorder not otherwise specified. One example is orthorexia, an eating disorder characterized by an obsession with a healthy lifestyle. People with orthorexia focus on eating “clean” and avoiding “unhealthy” foods. While this disorder is not included in the DSM-5, it is generally recognized by the eating disorder community.
Increased Risk for an Eating Disorder
Experts refer to disordered eating as a “slippery slope” to eating disorders. This is because the two issues, while differing in severity, are based in the same behaviors and mindsets. For example, an individual referring to themselves as “bad” for having pizza at dinner may begin a habit of negative self-talk called food shaming. This creates a belief that their disordered eating is the norm, and anything else is in opposition to it.
America’s diet fads have also created a breeding ground for disordered eating. While lifestyle changes like veganism and gluten-free eating can be positive, they are also easily contorted into rigid food rules that create anxiety around eating. Because some especially restrictive diets (like keto or paleo) have become more mainstream, it can be challenging to identify whether someone has adopted a new lifestyle or begun to practice disordered eating.
Symptoms of Disordered Eating
While the negative health effects of eating disorders are well-documented, many of those suffering from disordered eating don’t realize that they, too, are jeopardizing their health. This lack of understanding makes it more likely that the behavior will continue, and their health will worsen over time. Risks associated with disordered eating include increased anxiety, depression, and social isolation, as well as physical side effects like increased likelihood of obesity and eating disorders, gastrointestinal issues, fluid imbalances, low heart rate, low blood pressure, and bone loss.
If you’re trying to identify disordered eating in yourself or a loved one, consider the below criteria. If you or someone you love has shown any of these symptoms, we encourage you to seek help immediately.
- Frequent dieting
- Meal skipping
- Chronic weight fluctuations
- Anxiety associated with specific foods
- Rigid rituals around food or exercise
- Feelings of guilt or shame associated with food
- Using dieting or exercise to “make up for bad food” consumed
- Compulsive eating habits, feeling a loss of control around food
- Worrying about food, weight, or body image to the point that it interferes with daily life
National Eating Disorders Awareness Week
February 24th marks the beginning of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. The National Eating Disorders Association encourages individuals to “come as they are” and join the movement to address eating disorders nationwide. For more resources and shareable promotional materials, visit NEDA’s website today.
Help is available for those suffering from eating disorders; with professional intervention, it is possible to end the destructive pattern of disordered eating. At Pine Grove, we offer an eating disorder dual track for women who also have substance use disorders. Our relational growth groups help our clients to apply the five developing concepts of self-esteem and focus solely on their personal growth. To learn more about Pine Grove’s unique approach to recovery, contact us today.