Every time I start to feel hopeful that the anti-diet movement is gaining traction and more people are finally starting to reject toxic diet culture, reality seems to rain on my parade.
Whether it’s teenage “wellness” influencers using TikTok to promote massively restrictive eating plans or a magazine headline touting ways to outsmart your hunger cues, the truth is that disordered eating is everywhere. What is worse, it’s often praised as health-conscious or virtuous.
Depriving your body of the food it wants and needs is anything but healthy. Just because we’ve normalized things like chewing gum to avoid eating, or religiously weighing your food and logging it into an app, doesn’t mean those things are actually good for us. And while it’s fair to say that silly “diet tricks” are pushed on us all the time, it’s also true that many people are especially drawn to these disordered eating habits at this moment.
“People’s concerns with foods are heightened right now,” said Barbara Spanjers, a Las Vegas-based therapist and wellness coach. “In a way, it’s easier to focus on food than to focus on the existential threats that we are facing, both the virus and the dire economic situation that some people are finding themselves in.”
Of course, stressing about food instead of stressing about the pandemic isn’t really a healthy coping mechanism. Here are a few common signs of disordered eating to watch out for:
1. You focus on “clean eating.”
Do you shy away from processed foods in favor of “whole” or “clean” foods? (Been there.) Many people view that as a healthy choice, but it isn’t.
For starters, it draws an arbitrary line in the sand between what you can eat and what you can’t eat. Think of the way clean-eating advocates demonize things like Kit Kat bars (because sugar!) but promote chocolate bars made with organic cocoa, organic coconut sugar and organic puffed quinoa (which contain just as much sugar). Or the way they avoid fresh bread made with wheat flour and yeast but deem fresh bread made with tapioca or almond flour to be A-OK.
The truth is, “clean eating” is a way to restrict food without much scientific rhyme or reason. Rachel Larkey, a New York City-based registered dietitian, described it as “an unhealthy obsession.” It’s not smart to think or eat this way.
2. You avoid all the foods you actually want when you go out to eat.
It’s one thing to say no to your favorite comfort foods when you’re just not hungry, but it’s another thing to avoid those foods altogether, said Brittany Wehrle, a Dallas-based sports dietitian and owner of Fueled & Well Nutrition.
“Avoiding all ‘fun foods’ when out to eat,” she said, is probably a sign of disordered eating, even it’s applauded as healthy. If you find yourself constantly scanning the menu for the lowest-calorie options — or even looking them up on the restaurant’s website beforehand — you might need to take a step back and think about why you’re doing it.
3. You refuse to eat food outside your home altogether.
“Avoiding social situations where there is fear of being around certain foods, so as not to ‘fall off’ a diet plan,” is a sign of disordered eating, said Alissa Rumsey, a New York City-based dietitian, nutrition therapist and author of Unapologetic Eating: Make Peace With Food and Transform Your Life.
Constantly forgoing dinners out (or even takeout) because there aren’t “healthy” choices on the menu isn’t healthy at all. In fact, it can leave you feeling isolated and lonely.
4. You stress out about eating something that’s not part of your plan.
“Someone with disordered eating who is on a road trip with friends may be completely shaken by having to eat something that isn’t part of the ‘routine’ or ‘plan’ ― such as grabbing lunch from a fast-food drive-thru,” Wehrle said. “In contrast, someone with a healthy relationship with food can roll with the punches and not be bothered by a change of routine.”
It’s fine to try to eat nourishing foods, but it shouldn’t feel like an emergency when you have to stray from your usual eating habits for a short period of time.
5. You’re strict about portion control.
The idea of proper portion size is a popular one, but it’s not really true that you should stick to the same portions at every meal.
“Deciding how much to eat based on an ‘appropriate portion’ or external measurement rather than listening to the body’s needs” can be a sign of disordered eating, Rumsey said.
Instead of putting arbitrary limits on the amount of food you eat at a given meal or snack, just eat until you’re satisfied. That might take a while to figure out if you’re not used to doing it, but you’ll get the hang of it.
6. You think of foods as “good” or “bad.”
“A healthy approach to nutrition allows for flexibility and promotes a healthy relationship with food where there are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ foods,” said Rebecca Ditkoff, a New York City-based dietitian, certified intuitive eating counselor and owner of Nutrition by RD. “Food is not black and white and serves beyond just nourishment, and is also considered a form of self-care as well as a source of enjoyment.”
While a disordered approach to eating is rigid, a healthy approach takes into account not only the physical effects of food but also the social, emotional and mental effects.
7. You have feelings of guilt around food.
Another problem with this good-or-bad thinking around food is that it leads to guilt.
“This moralization of food often extends to the person doing the classifying so that they start to feel they are a good or bad, healthy or unhealthy human based on what they eat,” said Nina Mills, a Melbourne, Australia-based dietitian and founder of Feel Good Eating.
That should never be your mindset. As Spanjers said, “Food guilt is very mainstream but is, in my opinion, pretty disordered. Did you steal the food from a baby? No? Then there’s no need to feel guilty.”
8. You use exercise to “earn” food.
“Another tell-tale sign of early [disordered eating] problems is when someone frequently refers to exercise as a way to ‘earn’ or ‘burn off’ food,” Wehrle said.
There’s a time and place to link food and exercise — like if you’re fueling up for an endurance event or you’re trying to time a meal and a workout so that you won’t feel hungry or stuffed. It might feel especially good to work out the day after a big meal. But you should never not eat something because you didn’t “earn” it with a workout or schedule an extra workout to “burn off” something you ate.
9. You give weight-based compliments.
This one’s a little more general, but if you’re constantly giving weight-based compliments or analyzing other people’s bodies in your head, it could be a sign of your own disordered eating.
“We often think it’s normal to tell someone they look great and ask if they’ve lost weight or to compliment someone’s weight loss,” Larkey said.
Really, though, it’s inappropriate. For starters, “someone might have lost weight due to an illness, depression, eating disorder ― a whole host of reasons,” Larkey continued. Plus, these comments reinforce the idea that body size is very important and weight loss is something we should all strive for.
“That preoccupation with the body above all else is usually a sign that someone is having a messed-up relationship with food,” Larkey said.
10. You have designated “cheat” meals or days.
Um, what exactly are you “cheating” on by eating food that you love? The practice of being “good” all week and then having a “cheat” meal on the weekend is often a sign of disordered eating, Mills said.
Plus, “this invariably always backfires, and the cheat meal or day feels excessive and reinforces this idea that certain foods need to be controlled, when the actual ‘problem’ is the restriction that comes with trying to be good throughout the week,” Mills explained.
In other words, all of the rules you put around food during the week leave you feeling totally out of control when the rules get lifted, and you end up feeling much worse than if you’d just let yourself have what you wanted when you wanted it.
So how can you fix all of this? Here’s some expert advice on how to improve your relationship with food instead of letting it become another source of stress:
Talking to a professional is the best way to work through disordered eating habits.
If you’re really struggling with food, “talk” to a qualified therapist or registered dietitian who can help you recognize harmful behaviors and work through them.
If that’s not possible for you at the moment, Mills suggested immersing yourself in podcasts, books and social media accounts that call out disordered eating habits and promote healthier ones. Podcasts like “Love, Food,” “Food Psych” and “Food Heaven” are great resources, as are the books “Anti-Diet” and “The Body Is Not an Apology.”
The difference between a healthy approach to food and a disordered one is flexibility.
Someone who has a healthy relationship with food can be flexible in what they eat. Mills described this as the willingness and ability to be spontaneous with food, so that it takes up some time in your day and some space in your brain but doesn’t feel all-consuming.
“A healthy approach to health and well-being comes when you approach nutrition from a place of self-care, rather than self-control or restriction,” Rumsey added.
Bottom line: There’s nothing wrong with caring about your physical health and wanting to eat nutritious foods, but it’s not mentally, emotionally or physically healthy to stress about food all the time.
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