When eating starts to become stressful, heavily monitored, all-consuming or even a chore, disordered eating habits may be present.
I hear from so many women — whether it’s members of the community messaging me on Instagram, clients sharing their hearts and stories, or students in my programs sharing their thoughts — and it’s so clear to me that many of them have disordered eating tendencies, but they are unaware that these behaviors are considered unhealthy, which also means they’re unaware of how damaging their actions may be to their mental and physical wellbeing.
Whether you or someone close to you is going through the experience, the more you know on the subject the better you can help both yourself and others.
Eating Disorders & Disordered Eating Habits
Disordered eating involves so much more than just eating. The underlying reason for why you are making that food is the heart of the eating disorder.
Absolutely anyone can develop disordered eating habits or an eating disorder. No matter your age, gender, sex or ethnicity — eating disorders don’t discriminate.
Additionally, in recent years there has been an amazing movement of transparency and acceptance within the disordered eating community. In an effort to support this trend and encourage others to follow suit, let’s do a deep dive into disordered eating so you can have all the knowledge you need on the subject.
A Friendly Note
Quick sidebar – before we dive deep, there are three things I want you to remember as you’re reading this article if you believe you may have disordered eating tendencies. First, you’re not alone. There is a whole community of people out there (myself included!) ready to support you.
Second, it’s never too late, you are always worth it. No matter how difficult or unimaginable recovery may seem at the moment, you are always worth fighting for.
Third, this is always a judgment-free platform. We’re simply here to educate, support and encourage.
Ok, let’s dive in.
Disordered Eating V. Eating Disorders
Technically, having disordered eating habits is a bit different from having an eating disorder. You must meet specific criteria to be diagnosed with an eating disorder. On the other hand, disordered eating habits may be present in the absence of a diagnosis of a specific eating disorder.
I know it sounds a little confusing, but stick with me.
The Academy of Nutrition And Dietetics defines disordered eating as, “a range of irregular eating behaviors that may or may not warrant a diagnosis of a specific eating disorder” (1).
In contrast, each specific eating disorder has it’s own set definition and criteria, but more on that later.
While disordered eating habits may be different from eating disorders, that doesn’t mean they are any less serious. Disordered eating habits can be just as severe and should be treated as such.
Symptoms of Disordered Eating Habits
The following symptoms are specifically associated with disordered eating habits:
- Yo-yo dieting
- Anxiety associated with skipping meals or certain food items
- Constant weight fluctuations
- Rigid nutrition or fitness routines and rituals
- Extreme feelings of guilt and shame associated with eating
- Obsession with food as it relates to weight and body image that results in a negative impact on daily life
- Lack of control around good, compulsive eating habits
- The use of exercise, food restriction, purging or fasting to “make up for bad foods eaten” (2)
Unfortunately, in today’s society, many of these symptoms are considered socially acceptable or “normal”. Because of this, many people are unaware of just how damaging their actions may be to their mental and physical wellbeing.
Disordered eating habits can cause any number of health complications, from gastrointestinal issues to bone loss, electrolyte imbalances, depression and anxiety.
One of the things that can really help support a healthy relationship with food is to create a healthy lifestyle that’s fully unique to you, rather than following plans or some idolized way of eating.
Download my guide for creating healthy habits with ease. One thing I walk you through in it is how to define what wellness looks like for you and then how you can create habits that support that vision.
Even though disordered eating behaviors aren’t considered eating disorders, they should still be taken seriously and some of you may need deeper support. So if that feels like you, I encourage you to one-on-one support by joining our coaching program.
Now that we’ve covered the basics of disordered eating habits, let’s talk about eating disorders.
Signs Of An Eating Disorder
Sometimes establishing the difference between disordered eating habits and an eating disorder can be tricky. Often times there is a bit of overlap between the two.
Someone with an eating disorder may display some of the symptoms listed above that are commonly associated with disordered eating habits. What really differentiates the two is the presence of one or more clearly distinguishable symptoms that are indicative of a specific type of eating disorder.
So let’s discuss what those specific eating disorders are in addition to the symptoms that are associated with them.
Disordered Eating Habits & Eating Disorders
Here we’ll outline the six main categories for eating disorders.
It’s important to note here that for each of these disorders, a person’s appearance may not be telling of their current state of health.
While appearance is often a contributing factor to an eating disorder, it isn’t always indicative of the severity of a person’s particular situation.
Orthorexia is characterized by an obsession with eating food that is considered to be healthy. Sounds a bit contradictory, right? Eating healthy food is a good thing, how could that be a disorder?
Well, think of the commonly coined phrase, too much of anything is bad. This is key here. Someone suffering from orthorexia systematically, consistently avoids food items they believe to be “unhealthy”, which can cause an excess of anxiety, depression and even isolation.
The purpose of eating a healthful diet is to nourish the health of a person, both physically and mentally. While an obsession such as this one may have great intentions, it, unfortunately, results in a negative relationship with food.
Symptoms of Orthorexia:
- Compulsive checking of nutrition facts and ingredients
- Excessive removal of food items from their diet
- Extreme distress when foods deemed “healthy” are unavailable
- Obsessively following healthy food blogs and accounts (3)
Anorexia Nervosa is similar to orthorexia where it involves heavy restriction. Yet the focus is more so on the amount of food being restricted as opposed to the quality.
In this scenario, extreme calorie restriction is utilized to achieve or maintain extreme weight loss. Various food rules are more often than not involved as well.
Anorexia ultimately involves starvation, which can potentially impact almost all organs in the body. Possible health complications include bone loss, hair loss, low blood pressure, dry skin, constipation, loss of menstrual periods, kidney damage, anemia, infertility, liver damage, cardiac arrhythmia, and possible death.
Symptoms of Anorexia Nervosa:
- Dramatic weight loss
- Layered clothing to disguise weight
- Obsession with calories, fat grams, carbohydrates, exercise, and dieting
- Extreme restriction of certain foods or food groups
- Frequent constipation
- Discussion of the need to “burn off” calories consumed
- Cooks for others without eating
- Withdrawal from friends and family leading to isolation
- Intense fear of weight gain despite the underweight status
- Excessive tracking of food consumed
- Strong need for control accompanied by perfectionist tendencies
- Loss of menstrual period
- Hair loss, sunken eyes, pale skin, low blood pressure, headaches and dizziness
- Mood swings, depression, anxiety, and fatigue (4), (5)
Bulimia nervosa involves many of the same fears and restrictions as anorexia nervosa. The primary difference is that those suffering from bulimia nervosa often have extended fasting periods followed by binge eating and purging.
Purging may include induced vomiting, the excessive use of laxatives or intense exercise.
The restriction and purging pattern can cause quite a bit of strain and damage to the body. Possible health complications include edema, electrolyte imbalances, dehydration, cardiac arrhythmia, ulcers, pancreatitis, loss of tooth enamel, esophagitis and gastrointestinal issues.
Symptoms of Bulimia Nervosa:
- Sore throat, swollen glands, and raspy voice
- Bruised or calloused knuckles, bloodshot eyes and bruising under eyes
- Binging and/or purging
- Fear of a loss of control
- Frequent bathroom trips with water running to disguise sounds (6)
Binge Eating Disorder (BED)
Binge eating disorder involves compulsive overeating. It involves many of the same signs and symptoms previously discussed in relation to anorexia and bulimia.
The main difference is that binge eating disorder does not involve calorie restriction or purging. Instead, the focus is on the act of binge eating and its connotations.
Binge eating disorder may result in weight gain, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, kidney disease, arthritis, bone loss and stroke.
Symptoms of Binge Eating Disorder:
- Chronic dieting without weight loss
- Eating quickly, in private and excessively
- Eating until uncomfortably full
- Feeling guilty or depression after eating
- Weight gain
Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID)
This particular disorder is a restrictive and avoidant disorder associated with a lack of interest in food either due to disliked sensory characteristics or a fear of consequences associated with the consumption of food. ARFID generally presents itself in a form of malnourishment.
Possible health complications include stomach cramps, loss of menstrual cycle, lack of concentration, dizziness, fatigue, fainting spells, sleep problems, dry skin, weight loss, poor immune function and poor wound healing.
Symptoms of ARFID:
- Dramatic weight loss
- Dresses in layers to hide weight or stay warm
- Lack of appetite or interest in food
- Fear of vomiting or choking
- Limited list of acceptable food items
- Dramatic restriction of foods based on texture (7)
Other Specified Feeding Eating Disorder (OSFED)
If an eating disorder is present that does not fit under the previously defined categories, it is generally considered to be an OSFED. Possible disorders that may be categorized here are atypical anorexia nervosa, purging disorder and night eating syndrome (8).
Just as we said before, disordered eating habits can impact anyone. You may find yourself relating to a couple of these symptoms, or maybe someone close to you comes to mind. Either way, you or the person you’re thinking of deserve help and support. You deserve to feel better.
If you’re grappling with the idea, if your gut tells you something just isn’t right or you just don’t feel your best, take the time to talk to someone. Tell someone about how you’re feeling, what you’re struggling with. Whether that’s a friend, family member or health care professional, find someone you feel comfortable with.
Meeting with a well-versed registered dietitian can make all the difference in your recovery. They understand what is going on and how to help you take baby steps to get you to the finish line.
I so often work with clients that are struggling with variations of the above stated disorders. At the beginning of our time together many of them are still a bit hesitant to explicitly state that they believe they may have disordered habits, and that is perfectly fine. As long as you are seeking help and guidance, you will be able to slowly but surely get where you need to go.
Mental Health Professionals
Meeting with a mental health professional can do wonders as well.
Just as we previously discussed, all disordered eating has a root cause, a catalyst. For some, the catalyst is well known, where psychotherapy will be used to work through that cause. Yet for others, when the catalyst is a bit more elusive, psychotherapy may also be used to uncover the root cause and subsequently work through it. Ultimately, mental health plays a vital role in disordered eating.
Recovery takes patience and diligence, but it is absolutely possible and absolutely achievable. I have seen so many clients work through the difficulties and come out on the other side. I’m here to tell you that recovery truly is possible.
If you’re ready to reach out and are looking for dependable health professionals near you, here are some great resources for you to refer to:
- National Eating Disorder Association Hotline: 800-931-2237
- Health Practitioner Near You Search Engine
- Mental Health Practitioner Near You Search Engine
When A Loved One Has An Eating Disorder
There is no right way to start the conversation. It will always feel a bit uncomfortable. But hearing from friends or family is key for encouraging individuals to seek help.
With that being said, there are a few tips we have for you if you’re considering reaching out to a loved one.
- Educate yourself – the more you know about disordered eating habits and eating disorders, the better you can communicate your thoughts to the loved one (if you’re reading this article, you’ve come to the right place!)
- Choose a comfortable environment – talk to your loved one in a comfortable, safe space; the more comfortable they feel, the more open they will be to hearing you out
- Be honest – speak truthfully and plainly, sometimes it can be difficult for them to hear, but the more direct and truthful the message, the more powerful
- Be realistic – try not to just tell them to “stop acting that way” or “just do this”, these seemingly simple tasks can be much more difficult for someone battling a disorder, be realistic about the journey they may have to recover
- Encourage professional help – your bravery is the first step, now the second step is for them to seek guidance, always encourage them to seek help from an RD and a licensed mental health counselor
My hope is that if necessary, you can use this information to take the next step and seek help for yourself or others. Know that you are not alone, you have absolutely nothing to be ashamed of and you deserve to feel better.
Connect With Us
Please feel free to share any of your experiences with this subject! I would love to hear from you and I know there are many others out there that could use your support as well. As always, you can connect with us on Instagram via @nutritionstripped @nutritionstrippederica and #nutritionstripped #nswellnesscoaching.