I felt the lump in my throat as I looked around. The smell of fresh grilled meat filled the air. Walking through the crowd, I attempted to smile past my discomfort. I nodded at familiar faces as I passed by. I quickly scanned the table filled with edible options. How many calories were in the burgers? Were there any non-fat options? Here I was, three weeks into a new diet and I couldn’t let something like a barbeque, get me off track! I wondered how much I could eat before I found myself regretting my meal. How much would I have to workout to redeem the calories I “wasted?” Looking back, though I was never diagnosed with an eating disorder, I was indeed an avid participant and recipient of the harms of disordered eating.
Disordered Eating: The Definition
According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, disordered eating is not a diagnosis. Rather, it describes several behaviors that at times resemble the symptoms found in eating disorders like anorexia nervosa and bulimia. For example, participating in disordered eating may have a person frequently restrict what they eat or feel guilty or shameful for eating what they deemed, “too much.” In my case, jumping from one diet fad to the next, constantly working out due to my anxiety around food consumption and weight gain, and thinking heavily about what foods I would allow myself to eat, all contributed to disordered eating patterns that I would later have to unpack. In fact, as I would soon learn, disordered eating has its own dangers that do receive limited attention because it is not a diagnosis. One could also argue that it does not receive as much scrutiny because we have been conditioned to accept these behaviors as normal by an industry hellbent on massaging money out of our pockets, making us believe will never be good enough.
Disordered Eating: Considered the Norm
If one began investigating the messages sent from the weight loss industry to the general public, they’d find that disordered eating is actually encouraged. The Keto, Atkins, and South Beach diet all recommend that participants reduce their caloric intake to see “results” (i.e., short-term weight loss). Intermittent fasting encourages users to skip meals altogether for weight loss, citing additional health benefits and a rich history of fasting among religions. Through these lenses, intermittent fasting is considered not only successful, but also scientifically robust and somewhat spiritual.
The charge to lose weight by any means necessary is also recommended in doctor’s offices across the country. This advice from trusted healthcare practitioners perpetuates the harm of disordered eating. How? By disrupting body cues that regulate our body’s need for food, leaving us subject to a new normal: one that creates a mountain of internal distrust.
No Trust, No Control
What does one do when they get hungry? Well, the answer depends. If you have access to food, you might get up and go to the fridge and grab a snack. However, if you are someone with disordered eating, you may find yourself drowning out your body cues in hopes that they will eventually go away. You may tell yourself that you’re not really hungry. You may remind yourself that you are only supposed to eat three to four times a day, and you haven’t “budgeted” an additional meal. Consequently, you probably become preoccupied with when you are allowed to eat and what you intend to feast on.
Suppression such as this harms the relationship we have with our bodies because it erases the natural cues from our brains and replaces them with a regimen erected by an outside source. This source does not know our bodies’ needs. So while on the outside, it may seem as though our bodies are benefiting from caloric restriction, inside, our bodies may be lacking important nutrients. There is also a toll on the psychological well-being that is upheld through decision making and confidence in understanding the signals our bodies send us.
Additionally, suppression can also lead to our body cues catching up with us. Bouts of restriction for some are usually followed by bouts of bingeing, leaving individuals to feel out of control of their food consumption. This cycle typically leads to the blame-shame cycle that causes participants to assume they failed the diet, without understanding that the diet was a failure to begin with. The harm of disordered eating sets off a chain of events that in the end, benefits no one.
Alternatives to Disordered Eating
So what options do we have to escape disordered eating and reclaiming agency over our food choices?
- Consider intuitive eating – Intuitive eating is a practice utilized by individuals seeking to reconnect themselves to their body and its cues. By rejecting diet culture and its restriction, intuitive eating encourages honoring the body and making peace with food, broadening understanding around what can be eaten and when.
- Learn body trust – Body Trust®, founded by Hilary Kinavey and Dana Sturtevant, uses practices designed to connect individuals back to their bodies through a weight-neutral approach. Through their program at Be Nourished, healing is offered to users as they unpack and release misinformation about their bodies.
- Utilize the Health at Every Size®* paradigm – The HAES paradigm teaches that all bodies are worthy of love and respect, regardless of size or ability. HAES believes in body diversity and intersectional justice. It addresses the differences in the lived experiences of individuals and the power dynamics of their relationship with society and food.
While disordered eating is not a diagnosis, it can be harmful and negatively impact the lives of those who participate in it. I no longer well up with anxiety about food choices, and I ditched the diet years ago. By releasing disordered eating, I found a piece of myself that was missing. I restored trust in the voice that seemed so far away.
*Health At Every Size and HAES are registered trademarks of the Association for Size Diversity and Health and used with permission.