"Do I Have an Eating Disorder?" Might Be the Wrong Question

Our disordered relationship with food.

Posted Sep 11, 2019

Many people are surprised to learn that eating behaviors exist on a spectrum, and quite a broad one. On the healthy end is intuitive eating, a food philosophy predicated on fully trusting and listening to your body's signals. Intuitive eaters enjoy food. They eat when they're hungry and stop when they're full. They think about nutrition, convenience, and cost as well, balancing these factors to give their bodies what they really need as often as possible. They are flexible and do not have undue anxiety about food.   

On the other end of the spectrum are diagnosable eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder, plus other equally serious conditions not yet fully recognized by our diagnostic system. For people with these issues, food has become such a source of fear and shame that it threatens their health, relationships, and sense of self.

Rupert Britton/Unsplash
A healthy relationship with food is more the exception than the norm.
Source: Rupert Britton/Unsplash

But there’s a lot of grey area between these extremes, and most people in our culture have a relationship with food that is at least somewhat disordered. Most people don't feel comfortable in their bodies and have anxiety about what they eat. How could it be any different in a culture that fetishizes both food and thinness, and that prioritizes looking good over feeling well? 

It's considered completely normal to say terrible things about your body in public settings. Ideas about "earning" dessert or "being good" by eating vegetables are everywhere.  But foods aren't rewards or punishments, and they aren't moral choices. When you confuse eating with concepts like this, there isn't any room to just enjoy vegetables because they are delicious. The diet culture reaches our children at younger and younger ages; almost one third of girls with weights in completely healthy ranges have nevertheless dieted.1 

Against this backdrop, there are very few truly intuitive eaters. Perhaps the relevant question isn’t whether or not you have an issue with food, but rather how you can create a healthy relationship with food even in a food-sick environment.

If you aren't an intuitive eater — if you diet, criticize your body, make food choices into moral choices, or have shame around eating — it is worth seeking help. These behaviors, however seemingly normal against the backdrop of our toxic culture, erode self-worth and destroy relationships. They steal joy, spontaneity, and connectedness from life.

Below is a list of problematic eating behaviors. If you feel that any describe you, it is worth talking to a professional about how to move toward a healthier relationship with food and your body.

  • Skipping meals in order to lose weight
  • Lying about food behaviors
  • Thinking that food behaviors are moral choices, or that they make you a "good" or "bad" person.
  • Eating in secret
  • Talking negatively about your body
  • Thinking about weight, shape, and size a great deal
  • Allowing weight to determine mood
  • Intentionally vomiting after eating
  • Comparing meals to what other people are eating
  • Feeling out of control around food
  • Eating in order to numb emotions
  • Wearing clothes that don’t fit as “motivation
  • Punishing oneself for food behaviors
  • Rewarding oneself with food
  • Taking diuretics or laxatives
  • Feeling ashamed when eating
  • Obsessing about food
  • Having difficulty eating in public
  • Avoiding social events because of food
  • Not eating when hungry
  • Not stopping eating when full
  • Feeling guilty or panicked when unable to exercise
  • Exercising when injured or ill

References

1.  Wertheim, E., Paxton, S., & Blaney, S. (2009). Body image in girls.  In L. Smolak & J. K. Thompson (Eds.), Body image, eating disorders, and obesity in youth: Assessment, prevention, and treatment (2nd ed.) (pp. 47-76). Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.