Eating disorders and disordered eating — phonetically similar words, yet vastly different concepts. The intersection of the two phrases is the path by which one stumbles into disorder, most often by way of ineffective habits.
Almost every individual has experienced disordered eating at some point in their lives – we forget to eat breakfast or lunch due to the responsibilities of a busy day, overindulge on holidays centered around food, or cut out vital food groups dictated by diet fads. An excessive amount of effort to engage in disordered eating patterns is part of what manifests into eating disorders.
An eating “disorder” can be classified as any presentation of symptoms characterized by “abnormal or disturbed eating habits” and the struggle with thoughts and emotions related to these habits. The hallmark feature of an eating disorder is when these habits, thoughts, and emotions significantly impair one’s ability to function in more than one area of life (e.g. social, vocational, educational, etc.).
While eating disorders often reflect dysfunction in eating patterns, they can also develop as a means of coping with emotions and concerns of body image or physical appearance.
The Facts on Eating Disorders
While eating disorders can affect those of any gender or sex, eating disorders statistically affect women with greater significance than their male counterparts. According to the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA), approximately 20 million women in the USA will experience an eating disorder at some point in her life. Eating disorders affect women across all intersections of identity and do not discriminate based upon race, ethnicity, class, body shape, socioeconomic status, or otherwise.
Although disordered eating and a similar sensitivity around food and weight dominate a large sector of society, clinical eating disorders are less present. Eating disorders such as bulimia, anorexia nervosa, and binge-eating disorders collectively affect less than 10% of the population over a lifespan.
The experience of an eating disorder is often depicted as an invisible struggle and can increase susceptibility to other co-occurring health issues such as anxiety, depression, physical ailments, and suicidal thoughts. This gives credence to the idea that in treating eating disorders, it is imperative to treat the “whole person” rather than any one specific experience.
The Normalcy of Body Consciousness
Due to the rising popularity of body consciousness (i.e. being aware of our bodies), it proves difficult to tell exactly when eating disorder behavior becomes problematic. Is it when we start counting calories, eliminating food groups, looking more frequently in the mirror, comparing our weight loss or successes, or purging after meals? Or does the problem lie somewhere within that spectrum?
To know when eating disorder behavior becomes a problem, we must first consider how “normal” the above behaviors have become in our surroundings. Social conditioning of the binary female gender in Western culture often teaches women that worth can be found in external appearance, thereby equating accepted standards of weight or appearance to household and/or societal contributions.
We notice this conditioning through both subliminal and overt methods of delivery, which include but are not limited to magazine covers emphasizing fad diets, representation of models or public figures in specific sizes, and popularity of photo filtering applications geared toward female consumers. The passivity of these sentiments varies by medium, but these pressured messages reflect a general struggle on the part of women to be content with their bodies.
Knowing What to Look For
Dietary and body shape restrictions often manifest in eating disorders as a way to mitigate feelings of low self-worth, self-esteem, or self-efficacy. Eating disorder behavior becomes a problem when a person seeks relief of mental health struggles through manipulation of physical processes, seeks out food or ritualistic eating as a means of coping, or develops a negative relationship with food or one’s body. These means of coping may become a problem when a person connects food manipulation with relief or satisfaction, rather than a means of physical and mental nourishment. The means of coping may speak to a desired end that consists of unhealthy weight loss, maintenance of dietary intake through extreme restriction or excess, and an escape from worldly stressors.
“And I said to my body, softly, ‘I want to be your friend.’ It took a long breath. And replied, ‘I have been waiting my whole life for this.’” – Nayyirah Waheed
What Help Looks Like
In order to silence the internal pressures or beliefs that are soothed or heightened by eating disorders, one must understand a common underlying theme of eating disorders: these external representations of the self often reflect an internal struggle that still needs processing. Although this idea often speaks to body image in particular, we may generalize this to all struggles that relate to food, weight, and eating that influence our opinions of self.
Food is a necessary tool used to sustain our minds, bodies, and spirits as we learn to navigate and accept many of life’s stressors that are often out of our control. While it is simply physical nourishment, it is also perhaps one of the easiest places we can find a semblance of power and control over our lives. Eating disorders can be a way in which we check out of our emotions and into our bodies. Ironically, these actions often neglect the practice of mindfulness and self-compassion and instead fuel feelings of anxiety or misguided self-sacrifice.
Through philosophies typically used in Dialectal Behavior Therapy (DBT), it is when we start to treat our bodies with empathy and acceptance, as well as correcting behaviors no longer useful to our growth, that we begin the process of giving our bodies love, patience, and intention.