Though we all have some type of relationship with food, if you have never been exposed to an eating disorder or worked in the field of mental health, you may not be cognizant of the signs and symptoms of the full range of eating disorders (including the lesser-known but significant ones). Eating behaviors can range from ‘normal’ or ‘healthy’ to ‘disordered’ or, at the far end of the continuum, ‘eating disordered’.
I find it helpful to think of eating behaviors as disturbances on a spectrum that are not always clearly defined; trying to fit them into a specific category or diagnosis can be confusing, or minimizing of behaviors that are creating a problem for you, even if they wouldn’t create a problem for somebody else. For example, you might recognize that you spend an awful lot of time thinking about what you eat each day or even feel guilty after eating a certain food, but since this doesn’t meet criteria for an eating disorder you are left feeling like maybe it is not a problem. Similarly, if you are directly linking your mood to what you ate, then there is probably room for improvement in the way you think about food.
Over the years, I have assigned more and more eating behaviors into the ‘disordered’ category because setting the bar higher for a healthy relationship with food stands to benefit us all.
Here are some characteristics of different categories of eating behaviors:
- Food choices mainly influenced by hunger and preference
- Absence of guilt or shame around food
- Eat with spontaneity and flexibility
- Eat socially without stress or concern
- Use hunger and fullness cues to guide quantities at meals
- Eat enough to maintain a healthy weight
- No fear foods or rules around eating
- Eat a variety of foods
- Food choices strongly influenced by desire to maintain a certain weight or body type
- Often feel guilt around eating certain foods
- Ignore hunger/fullness cues to guide eating
- Compare what you eat to others frequently
- Research the calories of foods and menu items at a restaurant you are going to
- Have rigid rules around foods that you eat
- Think of food choices in a “good and bad” mindset
- May eat more often out of emotional hunger
- Often preoccupied with how your food choices will affect your weight, body size or shape
- Directly links food intake to exercise compensation
- Food choices consistently influenced by goals of restriction, weight loss, or binge/purge behaviors
- Feel guilt and shame around food most of the time
- Use food (or restrictive eating) to cope with emotions most of the time
- Eat in isolation and avoid social occasions that involve food
- Tend to be secretive about food and eating behaviors, or minimize problematic behaviors
- Engage in strict diet rules and behaviors, like measuring and weighing food
- Very limited variety of foods in diet
- Ignore or minimize health problems associated with unhealthy eating behaviors
- Focus on food and weight directly impacts major areas of their life
- Feel a sense of panic or loss of control when eating foods that aren’t “safe”
If you identify with a number of the characteristics in the ‘disordered’ or ‘eating disordered’ categories, you might benefit from making some changes in your eating behaviors to achieve a healthier food mindset and body. If your eating behaviors or beliefs about food are causing you continued stress or impacting your day-to-day functioning, this is cause to reach out to a medical or mental health professional. If possible, consider a specialist in the field of eating disorders as they will be aware of these signs and know how to best help you. You can call local programs for information or referrals, or seek guidance from a national organization such as the National Eating Disorders Association to learn more about options in your area.