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We all have them. Those little voices in our heads tell us we're not good enough, that we need to be thinner, or that we should have eaten less. For some people, these thoughts can spiral out of control and lead to disordered eating habits.
Disordered eating habits can impact your relationship with food, cause you to obsess over every calorie and macronutrient, or leave you feeling guilty after every meal. Whether this is something that you personally struggle with or something a client struggles with, know that you’re not alone.
Millions of people struggle with disordered eating. While disordered eating is a complicated issue that can feel difficult to overcome there is hope. In this article, I'm going to teach you how to overcome disordered eating and develop a healthier relationship with food. So please read on!
What is Disordered Eating, and How Can You Identify it in Yourself or A Client?
According to VeryWell disordered eating is used to describe:
Various abnormal eating behaviors that do not yet fit the criteria for an eating disorder, but if left untreated, could lead to eating disorders. 
This is something that I experienced firsthand. For years, I struggled with disordered eating habits, such as binging, emotional eating, restrictive eating, and extreme dieting. As I mentioned in my article, Can Exercise Become an Addiction? And, If So, How Do You Break the Addiction, because I was so obsessed with how my body looked I followed an extremely restrictive diet. While that served my weight loss goals in the short-term, in the long-term it led me to develop a binge eating disorder.
If you’re noticing that you or your clients are engaging in similar abnormal eating behaviors, your eating habits may not be as healthy as they appear. For instance, if restricting your calories during the day leads to binge eating at night, you’re probably engaging in disordered eating habits. Or, if your client is following an extreme diet that is leading to nutrient deficiencies, they’re likely engaging in disordered eating habits.
If you noticed I used the terms probably and likely. The reason is that as someone who has struggled with disordered eating habits and an eating disorder I know what it's like to be stigmatized. I never want to assume that my experience is your experience. What I do know is that the probability and likelihood that your habits aren't as healthy as you think they are is high. If providing you with some insight and a little friendly tap on the shoulder helps you see that, then I'm doing my job.
The Causes of Disordered Eating, and Why it's Important to Address Them
Although identifying disordered eating habits is an important step, it’s equally important to know what causes it. When you’re able to identify the root causes of disordered eating you can take conscientious steps to avoid it from happening.
Here are a few common causes of disordered eating.
- Skipping Meals: The tendency to skip meals or make excuses not to eat can be a very clear warning sign that you may be developing disordered eating habits.
- Excessive Focus on Clean Eating: When the desire to eat only natural, organic, and unprocessed foods becomes obsessive it might be an indicator there is a disordered relationship with food developing.
- Consistent Concern About Gaining Weight: Even though people have different food preferences when it's rooted in a fear of gaining weight there’s a good chance those eating habits are a bit disordered.
Now I want to be clear that while this isn't an exhaustive list, it does highlight a few common causes of disordered eating habits. It might be things that you have found yourself struggling with - I know I have in the past. It was a time when I skipped meals and even started intermittent fasting (IF) in order to lose body fat. While there may be some people who are able to engage in IF in a non-disordered way, I certainly wasn't one of those people. Even though I never resonated with the term "clean eating" I was a bit obsessive about only consuming processed foods on "cheat days." And, I had an unhealthy fear of gaining weight.
Can you relate? If so, it's vital that you address it. What we know is that when left unchecked, disordered eating only gets worst, not better.
How to Overcome Disordered Eating, and Why the First Steps are Often the Hardest
- Seek Accountability and Support: It should go without saying that overcoming disordered eating habits is a journey that you don’t need to go on alone. For many reasons I would recommend that you don’t go on this journey alone. Disordering eating thrives in environments of guilt and shame. By continuing to suffer in silence you’re only making it harder for you to break this habit. While I don’t think you need to bring everyone along on the journey, it is important to seek accountability and support from those you trust. That might come in the form of a therapist or a support group. Whichever route you choose know that there are many resources available to help support you along the way.
- Develop a Healthier Relationship with Food: Learning how to eat intuitively can be a game-changer when it comes to helping you make peace with food. By that, I mean being able to eat “normally” again. The thing about intuitive eaitng is that we all learned how to do it when we were kids. Unfortunately, as we grew older we lost the ability to know what foods we liked and didn’t like. We forgot what foods worked for us and which ones didn’t. Rediscovering your inner intuitive eater is going to help you and your clients develop that healthy relationship with food again. If you need some support in making that process a little less painful I highly recommend the book Intuitive Eating. It’s not a light read, but it will challenge you in a good way to reconsider some of your thoughts and beliefs about food. If you truly want to make peace with food, intuitive eating is a practice that you want to implement into your life.
- Be Mindful of the Comparison Trap: Whether it’s comparing your progress or success, know that when you’re comparing yourself to others you’re fighting a losing battle. There will always be someone who is X, Y, or Z more than you. That’s why it’s important to be mindful of those times when we’re tempted to compare ourselves to others. Despite the fact that you may be on a similar journey your path is not the same. They literally will never live your life in your body. So, comparing ourselves to someone with different responsibilities, goals, and genetics is unfair to both you and your clients. It’s important that you remember that and that you remind your clients of that!
I know that these first steps might feel like the hardest - because they are. It wasn't easy after years of disordered eating habits to one day decide to do things differently. What made it easier was realizing that what I was currently doing was no longer serving me. I could continue doing what I'd been doing and get the same result that I didn't like. Or, I could pursue a different path to get the result I actually wanted. As you might guess I choose the latter and couldn't be happier.
Resources for Further Support and Guidance on Overcoming Disordered Eating
As you can see disordered eating is a serious issue and should not be taken lightly. It can have severe consequences on physical and mental health, both in the short-term and long term. If you think you or your client might be struggling with disordered eating, please seek professional help. There are many resources available to you, and there is no shame in seeking assistance.
A few resources I highly recommend:
- Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Anti-Diet Approach
- The Core 4: Embrace Your Body, Own Your Power
- Food Psych Podcast
- Food Heaven Podcast
Remember that you are not alone in this struggle; millions of people deal with disordered eating every day. With the right tools and support, you can overcome it and reclaim your life. Thank you for reading my guide on disordered eating. I hope it has been helpful for you and your clients.
Kuller, K. (2021, September 19). Difference Between Disordered Eating and Eating Disorders. VeryWell Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/difference-between-disordered-eating-and-eating-disorders-5184548#toc-types-of-disordered-eating
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