What it is:
The phrase disordered eating covers a wide host of behaviors but they all have two things in common: they deal with our eating habits, whether it be what we’re eating or how often, and they ultimately can cause a lot of harm.
For a lot of survivors disordered eating is another way that they gain control when they feel like they’re spiraling, for others it is a form of self harm, and still sometimes these bad habits are simply picked up as a negative coping mechanism along the way. Some of the behaviors are learned too, taught to us by people and while some of these people may have had good intentions- they can still cause us a lot of pain.
Because this post is for disordered eating and not eating disorders, I won’t be talking about some of the things that could come along with it- like purging. If you’re struggling with an eating disorder please seek help, either professionally or from other individuals with ED who are on the road to recovery and are open to talking about what they’ve learned.
Common disordered eating habits:
• Fasting or chronic restrained eating
• Skipping meals
• Binge eating
• Self induced vomiting
• Restrictive dieting
• Unbalanced eating (e.g. restricting a major food group such as ‘fatty’ foods or carbohydrates)
• Laxative, diuretic, enema misuse
• Using diet pills
Sure, my habits aren’t healthy, but:
A lot of people who suffer from disordered eating will tell you that they don’t have a problem. After all, they don’t consider their behavior severe enough to warrant a diagnosis of an eating disorder, so it must not be serious. However, this is an extremely harmful notion. It is better to try and address the issue sooner or later than wait around for the day that you believe you are sick enough to merit help. Playing the game of ‘sick enough’ can be dangerous and detrimental to your health.
You can have disordered eating whether you are a survivor or not. No matter what race or gender or sexuality you are. No matter what your body size is.
Please, if you need help, reach out and utilize resources. What you’re going through- is bad enough. Your pain is valid.
Okay, so what can I do?
First you have to understand the cause and the behavior. Someone trying to quit binge eating is going to have a different plan of action than someone who is trying to no longer restrict their eating patterns.
Understand that even unintentional restrictive eating can be a problem. All the ‘I was just busys’ and ‘I didn’t have the energy to make something’ can really add up. If you’re worried that you might be struggling with this kind of disordered eating, it is important to try and keep a list of what meals you’re missing. Every now and then is fine, we all get side-tracked sometimes, most days a week and there is probably an underlying cause. The list doesn’t just have to be extensive just a ‘did eat’ check or ‘meal/snack’. Only do this if you feel safe doing it though, because for a lot of people, food diaries can turn unhealthy fast.
I’m not going to try and preach a specific eating style to you. Some people do perfectly fine eating three meals a day, some people eat two, some people do the five smaller meals. This isn’t about me preaching about ‘eat healthier’ either, or telling you to make sure that you eat all your veggies. This isn’t about shaming people for drinking milkshakes or eating dessert every night.
This is about addressing a very serious problem that is often overlooked. A lot of restrictive eating habits are lost in ‘fad dieting’ and ‘but this is healthy!’ Extreme calorie restriction is not healthy, and often times fad diets come with some pretty severe consequences.
But in the midst of all the conflicting information how can we tell what is disordered eating and what is health?
Listening to our bodies. Not our emotions, not the latest news article, not our friends. Now, sometimes what our bodies tell us can be misunderstood. For instance, I’m cutting out caffeine right now and to be honest, I feel lethargic a lot of the time. Does this mean I should go back to drinking soda like I was? no. caffeine is a stimulant that I got used to, and it’s going to take a while before my body realizes I’m no longer going to give it an artificial upper.
But for the most part, our bodies will tell us what we need to know- if we pay attention.
Those who recognize that they’ve been restricting their intake may struggle at first with increasing due to the shrinkage of their stomach. It is important to still increase intake- but not to hurt yourself in trying to do so. Try increasing in small portions and through out the day, rather than eating everything at one time.
For those struggling to remember to eat:
place reminders in your phone, or schedule them into your planner if you carry one of those. If you have friends that are willing, having actual lunch/dinner plans can also be the difference between ‘but I have to finish the thing- I don’t have time right now’ and getting up to go get lunch. Carry snack foods with you if you need to. Sometimes having a bag of chips or a baggie of celery in your bag is all you need to be like ‘oh, that’s right, I am hungry and should do that thing where I consume stuff’. The hope is that after a while of eating on a schedule you will become more intone with your bodies signals that its time to eat.
If you tend to forget to eat when you’re stressed, it’s important to remember that before hand. When I’m working on big projects I stick sticky notes on my instruction sheet that say things like ‘Have you taken a break in the last few hours?’ and ‘Do you need to go get a sandwich?’ because if not I am the person that will work on something straight through and look up 10 hours later like ‘oh I guess I should have stopped and done something.’
For people who tend to ‘eat their emotions’:
First, please understand that there is nothing wrong with you. You are not a bad person for doing so. Eating is not a sin.
Consider why you’re emotionally eating. Is it a distraction? If so, it’s just a matter of finding better things to distract you. If it’s about the sensory experience, things like chewing gum or having mints can help. Of course there are other tips, things like ‘if you’re eating a snack somewhere else- make sure to make a bowl/plate rather than grab the whole container’ and ‘only eat during designated meal/snack times’ but…
It’s important not to shame yourself for emotionally eating. A lot of people who ‘eat their emotions’ have a negative relationship with food, and they go through cycles of starvation and binging. They shame themselves when they eat too much and that doesn’t help break the habit. In fact, it can often become a self-harming behavior. A ‘I deserve to feel bad, so I’m going to do this and it will confirm that I’m a bad person’. Eating is not a bad thing. Food is not a bad thing. One of the first steps to ending this pattern is understanding that food is not your enemy, and working on ending the shame.
If you struggle with negative thought patterns associated with eating
it is best to start there. Staying away from, or limiting your exposure to, toxic thoughts surrounding eating can help. Also, don’t feel bad about asking those around you to limit their negative talk as well. While plenty of people remain healthy who talk about food as ‘a guilty pleasure’ or ‘cheating’, it can be dangerous to those who are already struggling and you have every right ask for people to respect your need. To work through these negative associations we have to confront the lies and the negative messages that we receive from the world on a regular basis.
recoveryrecord.com has apps for both android and iphone that can be used for those with disordered eating/eating disorders. It allows meal planning, has a meal log, coping skills, and all sorts of things that can help you along the way.
For those of you who struggle because making food takes energy-
I encourage you to go check out lowspoonsfood.tumblr.com. Its full of recipes that don’t take too may steps and shouldn’t be too complicated. It is complied by people who have a chronic illness, as a resource for those who don’t always have the ‘spoons’ to make food and eat.
Remember to take care of yourself in the mean time, for those who are just beginning to fight the urge to restrict- it can feel lie you’re doing something wrong just by eating. I promise you, this doesn’t mean you’re making a bad decision by trying to cope in healthier ways, it’s just because we get in routines and ‘what works- works’. Except disordered eating doesn’t work in the long term and can cause us lots of pain. When we challenge our disordered eating, we are taking huge steps to being in a better place.