People with disordered eating are often misunderstood, as they do not fit criteria for an eating disorder diagnosis. Someone suffering from disordered eating may have chronic weight fluctuation, guilt or shame regarding eating certain foods, preoccupation with dieting, weight and body image and feeling a loss of control around food. Often holding themselves to strict, rigid rituals regarding food and exercise for fear of failure. Many suffering from disordered eating are hard to treat if not referred to therapy; nutritionists may be unaware or unfamiliar with these harmful and problematic eating behaviors. Many times those exhibiting symptoms of disordered eating may be experiencing high levels of physical, mental or emotional stress. Working on trusting our body, our mind and allowing ourselves the freedom to eat what we enjoy is possible; with no shame or guilt.
Mood and Food: Misunderstood
The term “disordered eating” is a descriptive phrase, not a diagnosis. Many people who have disordered eating patterns may fit the criteria for an eating disorder. It is also possible to have disordered eating patterns that do not fit within the current confines of an eating disorder diagnosis.
Signs and Symptoms
The most common physical symptoms of disordered eating include:
- Significant fluctuations in weight
- Stomach complaints and pain
- Changes in bowel habits
- Changes in menstrual regularity, including stopped or missed periods
- Feeling dizzy, weak, or tired
- Changes in skin and hair (such as being dry and brittle)
- Acid-related dental problems, including cavities and erosion of enamel (caused by purging)
The most common emotional signs include:
- Being preoccupied with weight, food, dieting, calories, and carbohydrates to the point that eating and managing weight become a primary concern over other activities (dieting)
- Being preoccupied with body image, body size or shape, a specific part of the body, and weight
- Significantly limiting the variety of foods by restricting whole categories of food and only considering a very small number of foods safe to eat
- Performing specific food rituals
- Withdrawing from social eating activities
Risks of Disordered Eating
Many people who suffer with disordered eating patterns either minimize or do not fully realize the impact these patterns have on their mental and physical health. Complications that disordered eating can cause include:
- A greater risk of obesity and eating disorders
- Bone loss
- Gastrointestinal disturbances
- Electrolyte and fluid imbalances
- Low heart rate and blood pressure
- Increased anxiety
- Depression and social isolation
Who’s At Risk of Disordered Eating?
Body dissatisfaction is a risk factor for disordered eating in research studies, but not all individuals with body dissatisfaction exhibit disordered eating. Frequent dieting, restricting and low self esteem are also contributing factors.
Societal norms pressure thinness as being acceptable leading many to feel unwanted or left out based on body size.
When to Seek Help
Ask yourself these questions to determine if you need help:
- Do you use food to escape from stress? (emotional eating)
- Does the number on your weighing scale affect your thinking?
- Are you constantly thinking of food?
- Do you binge eat? (eating until overly full; so full you physically vomit)
People who suspect they have disordered eating or an unhealthy relationship with food can seek treatment. Psychotherapy can help people understand their relationship with food, achieve body acceptance and explore the relationship patterns and other psychological issues that contribute to disordered eating. I understand how complicated our relationships with food are, can help you understand where they stem from and can help you learn to live a life where food does not control you.
Often people with disordered eating are unaware their eating patterns are problematic or harmful; it is simply the way we have eaten most of our lives. Working with a therapist who has a background in counseling patients with disordered eating and bariatrics can help a person get the help they need for their disordered eating and prevent it from progressing to an eating disorder and continued dieting.