Disordered Eating Is Still Missing From the Conversation About Eating Disorders

Have you ever used coded language when assessing your own food intake? As in, have you ever assigned moral values to certain foods, calling them “good” or “bad” when food is actually a pretty neutral thing? If you do, you’re not alone. Many of us fall into these patterns of self-judgment and alter our eating behavior based on whether we feel we deserve to eat what we want.

After all, we’re not only bombarded daily with constant images of the supposedly ideal body, but we’re also expected to do whatever we can to make our own body align with this image as closely as possible. This troubling standard is fraught for most people, but it can be even more difficult to navigate for those already struggling with their relationships to food and body image.

Though eating disorders are getting coverage more regularly (and that’s a good thing!), what’s less commonly covered is disordered eating. It can be a short-lived pattern, or it can be a stepping stone to a clinically diagnosed eating disorder. “While there is no strict definition of disordered eating, experts tend to use the term to indicate the use of any unhealthy weight-control behaviors, such as skipping meals, cutting out food groups in the absence of a medical diagnosis, or behaviors such as using laxatives, diuretics, diet pills, restriction, or binge eating,” says Katherine Balantekin, a dietitian and clinical assistant professor in exercise and nutrition sciences at the University of Buffalo.

According to an article in Current Psychiatry Reports, anywhere from 5 to 20 percent of people struggle with symptoms of eating disorders that “do not meet the full criteria of a problematic eating pattern.” That means they might not register, symptom-wise, as having an eating disorder — but they may still suffer from disordered eating.

Often, disordered eating behaviors can seem normal in our body-obsessed culture: thinking about your weight, trying new diets, and following rigid exercise routines are often praised but can be warning signs.

How did we get here?

Most of us have learned to internally code all the food we eat into positive or negative categories, and we both admonish and applaud ourselves and others for making decisions about what we consume. We eat salads to “make up for” eating cake at an office birthday, or exercise an extra 30 minutes to counteract all the “bad” food we ate over the holidays. But the truth is, food doesn’t have inherent moral value, and acting as though it does sets a dangerous precedent.

While “wellness” has become a goal that nearly everyone wants to attain — after all, who doesn’t want to feel better, healthier, and stronger? — the term has nearly lost meaning. There’s almost nothing these days under the wellness umbrella that goes untouched by capitalism: Self-care is monetized via face masks and jade rollers; trendy, high-priced, CBD-infused activewear is a thing; even Weight Watchers, which has been around since the early ’60s, recently rebranded as WW and started a weight-monitoring app for kids. These are only a handful of the ways companies seek to make money from our self-improvement.

As the conversation around health evolves, many people change their eating patterns under the guise of wellness rather than weight loss. Though the language has changed, the behavior hasn’t — it’s dieting under a different name, and it can often veer into disordered eating.

What is disordered eating?

If the description of disordered eating sounds pretty close to the average diet, that’s because it is. When someone’s frequently restricting, bingeing, or intermittently purging (through diuretics or otherwise), they’re exhibiting signs of disordered eating. (Of course, there are exceptions to the rule — any doctor-recommended change in your eating behavior should be made in your best interest, though there’s always the possibility it may encourage bad habits when taken to an extreme.)

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