In the course of learning to be more aware of when we eat, what we eat, where we eat, how much we eat and why we eat we can also examine and deal with, or rule out, the possibility of an eating disorder. Disordered eating is simply eating that on one level or another is out of order.
An eating disorder can include many shades and extremes of binging- compulsive overeating, stress eating, anorexia- starvation, and bulimia- eating then purging.
Simply put, in regard to an issue that is anything BUT simple, in any of the many forms, it’s a bad relationship with food either consistently or sporadically. Experts cite the need to be in control as the #1 reason for disordered eating. Other factors include isolation, chronic dieting, poor body image, unmanaged stress, loneliness, depression, or fear.
Binge eating is a pattern of disordered, compulsive episodes of out of control overeating. During such binges, a person rapidly consumes an excessive quantity of food, feeling unable to stop eating. Bingers often eat normally around others, and binge in secret, when they don’t risk discovery.
Stress or emotional eating involves consuming food in response to your feelings, especially when you are not hungry. Your emotions, not your body, are telling you when and how much to eat. Stress may create a craving for salty and sweet food due to excess cortisol, the stress hormone that is over secreted when we are overly stressed. When real emotions are not clearly communicated or acknowledged, those stuffed emotions can be quieted with food. It’s a good question to ask, “what I am now feeding?” If it isn’t hunger, it might be stress, sadness, anger, fear, loneliness, anxiety, boredom, etc. Understanding what triggers your stress eating is pivotal in being able to overcome it.
Anorexia Nervosa is characterized by vigilant caloric intake restrictions, intense fear of gaining weight and a distortion of what you should weigh or what you really look like. People with anorexia starve themselves out of an intense and irrational fear of becoming fat. Despite being underweight or even emaciated, they never believe they’re thin enough. In addition to restricting calories, people with anorexia may also control their weight with punishing exercise regimes, diet pills, or purging.
Bulimia involves a destructive cycle of bingeing and purging. Following an episode of out of control binge eating, people with bulimia take drastic steps to purge themselves of the extra calories. In order to avoid weight gain they vomit, over exercise, fast, or take laxatives. Bulimia is often accompanied by guilt and depression.
Approaching eating disorders on your own may be a challenge, so know that there are great professionals who can help. Psychologists, eating disorder specialists, nutritional counselors, support groups such as Weight Watchers and Over Eaters Anonymous, and residential treatment centers are all legitimate considerations.
Overcoming disordered eating can also be approached by learning to eat with awareness- learning to consciously eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full. It sounds easy, but it is a journey of discovery. Dieting, deprivation, fear, punishment and guilt have to be discarded as options, once we recognize that ninety-five percent of people who lose weight on a diet will gain it back unless new and more conscious relations with food are formed.
In her book Feeding the Hungry Heart, Geneen Roth says that conscious eating, “Would be freedom for the three out of four women who are constantly on a diet, who define their worth by what they weigh….who would now have the freedom to pay attention to what’s really important: tending to physical, emotional, and spiritual well being- spending their time on what makes them feel as if they belong on the earth instead of what shames them into believing that only the rail-thin deserve to be alive.”
Let’s dissolve a few myths about eating disorders. You don’t have to be overweight or underweight to have an eating disorder. People with disordered eating come in all shapes and sizes and simply put, do not have a healthy relationship with food. You don’t have to be young. Although women aged 13-27 are the most vulnerable, women and men of all ages can have disordered eating habits. You don’t have to be vain. Actually, those who follow extreme diets, over thinking every food choice, are obsessive, not vain, and are usually struggling more with insecurity, stress, shame, fear, powerlessness, leading to the need to control something in their lives.
Here are a few Eating Disorder warning signs. One is an ongoing preoccupation with body size and looks and weight leading to obsessing over calories and food in general. Another is constant dieting with little ability to maintain weight loss. Rapid weight loss or gain is a warning sign. Taking laxatives or sleeping pills are both red flags. Compulsive exercising to punish yourself for eating, or to justify all eating is important to note. Eating before or after normal meals and hiding it from others- an alarm is going off! Lastly, hoarding/hiding unhealthy foods should lead to some self examination.
There’s so much more to say, but I think that’s enough fun for one day. Don’t be discouraged. I have never yet met anyone, including myself, who has a perfectly healthy relationship with food. We are all in process, finding ways to pursue our best and most healthy self. Don’t beat yourself up over your imperfections, but if something here struck a chord with you, don’t ignore it. Do something about it. Be honest about your relationship with food, asking the question- Are my eating habits Out of Order?