The Pain of Disordered Eating

It starts off innocently enough. Calorie counting, MyFitnessPal, 10,000 steps a day. Before you know it, the pursuit of weight loss is controlling your every move. I can’t go out to eat with my friends, what if there is nothing healthy on the menu? I already ate my 1,200 calories, I can’t eat for the rest of the day.

Sound familiar? If so, you may be one of the millions of people who struggle with disordered eating. Disordered eating is defined as food- and diet-related behaviors that don’t meet diagnostic criteria for recognized eating disorders but that may still negatively affect someone’s physical, mental, or emotional health. In other words, disordered eating falls somewhere in between normal, healthy eating and a full blown eating disorder. People of all ages and sizes are at risk of struggling with this. But this doesn’t mean that it isn’t a massive interruption to someones life, preventing someone from fully living and enjoying food.

Many disordered eating behaviors have become normalized in our society. We hear these statements on a regular basis: Have you tried intermittent fasting? You’re not hungry, you’re just thirsty! You may spend your day counting down the minutes until you can eat your next meal, afraid that eating just 30 minutes earlier than your set time is damaging to your health or diet. Just because these statements and mentalities may be common, that does not mean they are healthy or true. Many of these disordered eating habits have roots in yo-yo and fad diets. The research strongly suggests that these types of diets greatly increase someone’s likelihood of developing an eating disorder, especially when people begin hearing these messages at a young age. Don’t stress just yet, however, because there is a way to break the cycle of disordered eating and food and weight loss obsession, through counseling. In counseling you can discover the core issue behind your need to lose weight and rediscover the joy of food.

Whether someone is struggling with disordered eating or with a life-threatening eating disorder, the root of the issue is never food or body image. Part of your journey to normalized eating will be recognizing what is pushing you to want to lose weight in the first place. Inadequacy? A need to feel a sense of belonging? This process often requires the help of a trained professional such as a counselor or dietitian to recognize the core issue of the problem. Discovering what is at the root of the behavior is critical in order to change it. Luckily, through a combination of counseling, journaling, or some self reflection, the underlying cause can be identified and behavior change can follow.

Here are some tips on overcoming disordered eating. Firstly, break all the rules. You’re not supposed to eat lunch until 12:30? Well, guess what. If you’re hungry at 12:00, allow yourself to eat at 12:00. Sick of bringing your own food when you go out to eat in restaurants with your friends? I don’t blame you, it’s a joyless habit fueled by obsession. Go to the restaurant and order what they offer. Try and be present with those friends and be grateful for your ability to enjoy this moment with them, recognizing that food is often a social event and that’s okay. Eat the cake at your brother’s birthday party.

Obviously, these behavior changes are easier said than done. Abandoning all the food rules you set for yourself will be scary, as I am sure you are concerned about how this will affect your weight and health. The truth is, we won’t know. The only way to find out is to try. But, eating a balanced, normalized meal is always healthier than disordered eating and the rigidity that your previous patterns brought, no matter how it affects your weight. Speaking of weight, ditch the scale. It is the least important indicator of your health and there are hundreds of reasons your weight can change within a single day. Health comes in every shape and size. Your behaviors are a bigger indicator of a healthy life than the scale is. I’m sure your head is a constant calculator, between the calorie counting and the weight watching. Unfortunately, this calculator cannot just be powered off in your head, and it can be a difficult process to learn to ignore it and do what you know your body needs to fuel itself and live a healthy lifestyle. Fortunately, however, counseling can help enormously with this.

Even if these things seem out of reach or you’re not ready to make these changes, that’s alright. One step at a time. Make an appointment with a therapist or dietitian. Begin to explore how these eating habits are affecting your health and happiness. Begin journaling. Through self reflection, counseling, or even a little bit of mindfulness, you can begin to question how these disordered behaviors are holding you back and can redetermine your worth outside of your body. Hopefully you begin to recognize there is a wonderful world outside of the numbers that keep you from fully enjoying your life.

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