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  • Writer's pictureKatherine Chivers

How do you know you have an eating disorder, and not just disordered eating?

Updated: Oct 25, 2022

In today's world of yo-yo dieting and fad diets - like Keto, the Atkins diet, Paleo, The South Beach diet, the 5:2 diet, the Dukan diet, the Zone diet - how do you know if you have an actual eating disorder, or if you're just somebody that just likes going on these different diets?

So if we think of definitions we've got intuitive eating, which is when somebody mindfully consumes food when they're hungry and they can stop when they're full. They can incorporate a variety of different foods into their diet.

Disordered eating can be characterized by a number of different things, such as:

  • frequent dieting

  • experiencing anxiety associated with specific foods

  • chronic weight fluctuations

  • irregular or inflexible eating patterns

  • feelings of guilt and shame associated with eating

  • preoccupation with food, weight, and body image

  • loss of control around food

  • using exercise, restriction, fasting, or purging to make up for foods that you've consumed

There are also some habits that people have around eating that aren't necessarily disordered eating, but just their way of life, e.g. snacking when bored, having the same thing for lunch every day, or cutting out major food groups. Sometimes these patterns of behaviours have been formed at a young age so it can be quite difficult to actually change these patterns. Typically, if it's not interfering with your life and there's no desire to change, then it's not necessarily disordered eating.

Now with an actual eating disorder, such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa, these are diagnosed according to official criteria which is quite specific and quite narrow. These diagnoses typically exclude a large number of people that are suffering with what you might call, disordered eating. However, people with disordered eating may fit into the criteria for EDNOS (eating disorders not otherwise specified), but then you can also have disordered eating patterns that don't fit within any of these diagnoses.

Disordered eating can lead to a full blown eating disorder, and if you're not sure if you have an eating disorder or it's just disordered eating you can think of it in these 3 ways:

  1. Behaviors: How often are you engaging in these disordered eating behaviours? Are you keeping it a secret from others? What's actually driving their behaviours? e.g. is it an unrealistic desire to be thin or to lose an extreme amount of weight?

  2. Obsession: Are the thoughts that you're having around food all consuming? Do you think about it all day, every day? Do you think about where to buy food? What you can eat and when you can eat? Do you think about how to eat without other people noticing? Do you constantly count the number of calories that you're going to be consuming ? Are you planning eating episodes or ways to avoid eating?

  3. Function: How are the behaviours and thoughts impacting your life? Are they taking you away from your normal day to day functioning? For example, are you not going to social occasions because you don't want to be eating too much food at these events?

I personally had disordered eating prior to developing bulimia, I used to count my calories to the absolute minuscule of a calorie. I had a spreadsheet and I would count every single calorie I ate every day, and I had my little book of calories which I referred to and eventually I didn't even need to refer to that book anymore because I had memorised the calories of every single food item. I was also buying the lowest possible fat margarine, milk, and anything that said low fat or skinny or skim. Of course these days, I know that actually they're the worst things to be buying, the least healthy in many respects, and so now I buy full fat everything, because I prefer the purest form of food. I also stopped counting calories years and years ago and my weight is absolutely fine, it's normalised to what is appropriate for my body, shape and size and it's so freeing. So that's an example of how a disordered eating behavior like calorie counting can then eventually lead to a full blown eating disorder, because eventually I started to vomit my food up in order to keep my calorie count down.

Also remember that not all disordered eating patterns end up in an eating disorder and ultimately it's up to you to decide, how much is it actually impacting your life? Is it getting worse? Is it an actual problem? And is it something that you need to resolve? That's something that only you can know and something that only you can decide.

I help women with bulimia and binge eating disorder. If you're ready to recover then reach out for a chat to me today.

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