Dieting and Disordered Eating

Sometimes, abnormal eating behavior is actually quite normal.

Posted Apr 28, 2008

The results of an online national survey by Self magazine, published in the magazine's current issue, show that 65% of American women are disordered eaters and that a number of eating habits considered normal by many women may in fact be symptoms of the condition. Disordered eating is considered more common and less serious than a true eating disorder, though much of the behavior is similar. According to the survey, disordered eaters may eat secretly, obsessively binge and then purge their bodies of unwanted calories by vomiting or using laxatives or diuretics, and exhibit many other behaviors similar to, but not as extreme, as those that define a true eating disorder such as bulimia or binge-eating disorder.

One problem with this survey, and the accompanying article which points to abnormal eating behaviors, is that some of the behaviors deemed abnormal are, in fact, the only weight loss techniques that have been shown to be even remotely successful. These include following strict food rules, eating the same “safe” foods every day, calorie restriction (less than 1,200 calories), thinking about food more than 50 percent of the time, obsessive calorie counting, daily weigh-ins, eating a lot of no- or low-calorie foods, and adopting a vegetarian diet solely for weight loss. And since 65% of the survey's respondents described themselves as overweight or obese, is it groundbreaking, or even surprising, that more than 60% have engaged in behaviors common to people who are trying to lose weight?

It is true that food addicts and compulsive overeaters suffer terribly from an unhealthy relationship with food, and all of these “abnormal” behaviors, if taken to an extreme, could be indicative of a problem. But I question the relevance of the statistics gathered in this survey, because, to come up with such a high percentage of disordered eaters, respondents who practiced one or more of these “abnormal” behaviors just a couple of times in their lives were lumped together with women who consistently practice potentially harmful eating behavior over extended periods of time. The difference between “normal” and “abnormal” lies in the amount of obsession and the degree to which eating behavior interferes with your day-to-day health and happiness. So where’s the line? To label so many women as disordered eaters because they experimented with questionable diet techniques at some point in their lives is just ludicrous.

At some point in our lives, most of us will consider a change of diet—cutting calories, eliminating certain types of foods from your diet, or making a point to eat more of some foods and less of others—because it’s part of the prescription plan for preventing or treating most age-related medical conditions, including weight gain. It takes a certain amount of obsessive behavior to accomplish any lifestyle change or to reach a difficult goal, and it’s never going to be a joy ride when you’re trying to change your eating habits. It will definitely interfere with your day-to-day happiness.

Although it seems psychologically healthier and somehow nobler to focus on your health rather than your good looks, it doesn’t really matter if your initial goal is to lose weight for vanity’s sake, or to prevent diabetes or heart disease. If you want to get fit because you’re at an unhealthy weight, it’s OK to count calories, get on a scale every day, and give yourself whatever attention it takes to keep you motivated and on course.

No matter how or why you do it, your initial reaction to any restricted diet plan is likely to be the same. You won’t like it. You’ll look for (and find) ways to rebel. Until you get used to a new way of eating, you’ll feel somewhat obsessed. You’ll cheat. Or you’ll just feel plain miserable. These are all normal responses to permanent changes you might have to make in order to succeed.

Eating fewer calories, exercising more, and paying close attention to your personal habits is how you lose weight and keep it off. It’s a lot like quitting smoking. Some people go “cold turkey,”break their bad habits, and never look back. But for most people, it doesn’t happen that way. To be successful, you ultimately have to make that one core decision to be a healthier person overall, and work up from there, one change at a time. You may give up and go back to your old eating habits many times before you’re ready to make the commitment to do better once and for all. You may need professional help to figure out the best approach to breaking old habits and maintaining the new ones that will get you to your goals. But along the way, if you stick to it, you’ll learn a lot about yourself and what works for you and what doesn’t. Practice what works and discard the rest. That’s how you’ll figure out what’s normal for you.

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