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Disordered or Not?
In the age of wellness trends, elimination diets, and what I eat in a day videos - how do you know whether you are eating in a supportive way?
How in the world do we know whether our relationship with food is disordered in the current food culture? Well, here’s my first question:
Is food stressing you out?
The most important thing to consider is whether you can even enjoy food at this point. Food is necessary to nourish our brain and body, so, if it is leading to stress and overwhelm, it’s time to investigate if your current pattern of eating is actually supporting a healthy lifestyle. In a healthy relationship with food, we should see that there is enjoyment in eating - because the process of eating releases feel-good hormones if everything is going well. If eating food is leading to more stress than joy, it’s a red flag.
Let’s break down some more of the things to look for in yourself or with loved ones if you are concerned that experimenting with food and exercise has crossed the line into disordered eating.
We are making sweeping cuts to our food groups - avoiding all carbs, all fats, all desserts, all sodium, all processed foods… the list goes on. Cutting out full food groups without evidence that there is a food allergy or tested intolerance can be a sign that food is being limited in unsupportive ways. When we don’t feel great in our bodies it can make normal things like fullness, bloating and gas unbearable. But eliminating various foods and food groups may not be the best answer - or even all that helpful1. It’s important to work with an allergist or dietitian if you have concerns about how food is impacting your body before you start cutting things out.
You’ve tried every diet there is. Over. And over. And over again. Without anything “sticking”. Weight and diet cycling can damage our bodies in ways that make it harder to maintain a stable weight2, get regular hunger and fullness cues, crave a variety of foods and food experiences, and more. If you have been off and on diets for as long as you can remember, you may need some extra support from an RD to get your body back to a regulated state.
There is no nuance or flexibility in our eating habits. If rigid rules are controlling what and how we eat, we don’t have much room for leniency in various situations. You may typically not choose fast food for your average meal - but if we can’t eat fast food on a road trip, it’ll be pretty hard to find something to eat. We may notice that a sweet breakfast without fiber and protein doesn’t keep us full very long day to day, but what if our kid requests cinnamon rolls for their birthday breakfast? I still want you to be able to enjoy a cinnamon roll guilt free!
Breaking your rules results in intense feelings of guilt or shame. These emotions are really tough - they are some of the most intense emotions to feel in our bodies. If we’re feeling this on a regular basis, of course we’re stressed about food! And it means we have some unlearning to do. Food does not have to result in guilt and shame - in fact, it’s possible to change the way we feel about eating food and even have it feel good to eat!
You are noticing that there are physical impacts to the way you are eating - being cold all the time, low heart rate, poor digestion, constant thoughts about food or your body, really intense feelings of hunger, early satiety (getting full really fast), bloating when eating any amount of food…. all of these could be signs that your body is starting to be impacted by your lack of nutrition. These things develop after chronic undernutrition and should be taken seriously.
You spend more time thinking about food or your body than is pleasant. If food and body thoughts occupy most of your waking hours, your body is hinting that something is wrong. These little nudges to eat are meant to encourage you to grab some food because you’re hungry! When it’s all you can think about during the day… it means we really need to increase our energy intake.
You eat (or avoid eating) to solve an emotional experience. These behaviors can feel incredibly effective in the short term, but typically cause more distress over time. We need a variety of coping skills to sit with and feel our emotions. Food can be a piece of the puzzle, but it shouldn’t be the only tool we use.
You can tell something’s off and want to explore it with someone.
So when do we need to seek help? As soon as you feel like your relationship with food and your body is impacting the quality of your life. There is no such thing as not being “sick enough” to deserve help - if it’s something you want and are ready for, you deserve support. Seeking support early can also potentially keep treatment time shorter and get you back to a supportive eating style faster. Start by reaching out to a dietitian or therapist who lists eating disorders as a specialty - and I’m one of those people if you need me! They will be able to do an assessment to determine if outpatient care will be supportive or if you would benefit from a more intensive treatment program. From there, you can build a team that will address the physical and mental effects of disordered eating.
Recovery is possible. Eating can feel easy again. You deserve to feel good in your body.
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Food intolerances are a tricky business. There are many, many tests out there that claim to find food intolerances, but that don’t have any solid evidence behind them. It’s common to have a period of time when the placebo effect makes things feel better. But this often turns into a cycle of cutting out more and more foods without reintroducing anything. Which makes disordered thoughts and behaviors very likely. You can learn more below!
I’m not a dietitian who believes that weight loss is an inherently good thing. I don’t view weight loss as an indicator of success in our work together. I don’t pathologize body weight or assume that health is achieved at a particular body size.