Content Warning: Mention and discussion of eating disorders
Does your eating or preoccupation with food get in the way of you living your life? Do you avoid places, social events, food groups, or skip meals because of your food rules and fears? Then you might be struggling with disordered eating. “Disordered eating” may be a term you’ve seen online - on body positive/Health at Every Size Instagram, therapist blogs like this one, or in books or articles by fat positive activists. I’m here to explain what disordered eating means and how it differs from eating disorders.
Disordered Eating is Everywhere
Eating disorder diagnoses are required in order to receive specialized treatment and/or receive insurance reimbursement for those services. Though disordered eating is subclinical (meaning the behaviors do not meet the criteria for official diagnosis of an eating disorder), that doesn’t make it any less distressing or potentially dangerous. It is also really common.
Similar to eating disorders, this behavior has roots in societal pressure to be thin and participate in diet culture. Disordered eating can mask itself as eating “healthy” - in fact there is a term for an obsession with “healthy” foods known as orthorexia, which is not recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) at this time, but is commonly used among eating disorder professionals. But disordered eating is really a preoccupation with food that could present itself in many different ways.
It could include cutting out certain food groups, having rules around food, such as not eating after a certain time of day, or so much anxiety about food and eating that social engagements are feared or avoided because of the food present. Many people fall into the category of having had some level of disordered eating in their lifetime, especially if they ever went on a diet meant specifically for weight loss, where disordered eating is normalized and encouraged.
But Isn’t That Just Being “Healthy”?
At its core, disordered eating is a way to control, minimize, or avoid feelings through the control of food intake. It is a disconnection between our body and mind, and an inability to feel intense or difficult emotions. This is never healthy. Because disordered eating is so encouraged through diet culture, and there is so much societal pressure to be thin or pursue thinness, we’ve started to associate disordered eating behaviors with “health.” But what’s healthy is mindfully eating when hungry, stopping when full, and not judging ourselves and others for our food choices.
As I’ve said before, weight is not a reliable indicator of health. Any measure of “health” that ignores mental, social, and emotional health - which are all valid aspects to food and eating behaviors - is not sustainable or very healthy at all! If you notice yourself engaging in activities of disordered eating, try to see that as a warning sign and reach out for help from a HAES practitioner.
Sources: Eating Disorders vs. Disordered Eating; What is Disordered Eating