Anyone who's interested in healthy living spends a lot of time thinking about healthy food choices... but when does a lot become too much? As Carrie Bradshaw might write: When does our preoccupation with being healthy veer towards the unhealthy?
Experts note that just because one hasn’t been diagnosed with an eating disorder doesn’t mean disordered eating patterns haven’t surfaced, even in those who might seem to be the healthiest of us all.
“The quest for health and healthiness can actually be disordered eating disguised,” says Elise Museles, certified Eating Psychology and Nutrition Expert and podcast host of Once Upon a Food Story. “On the outside, it looks like, 'Wow, that's so admirable,' or she's really taking care of herself.’ But it's a question of degree.”
“Those who struggle with disordered eating and eating disorders both develop negative thoughts, patterns and behaviors surrounding food, their body, and/or themselves,” explains Kate Kaczor, RD, CEDRD, CSP, CSOWM, Lead Dietician at Alsana, a top of the line eating disorder recovery center.
To make sure your healthy eating interest hasn't become an unhealthy obsession, here are four questions to ask yourself.
1. How much time do you spend thinking about healthy eating?
As foodies, it’s not uncommon to plan lunch at breakfast and dinner at lunch, to enjoy perusing the farmer’s market for an entire afternoon, or to spend hours (or days!) making homemade sauerkraut. But when your entire life revolves around food, this interest becomes concerning.
“The turning point where disordered eating turns into a clinical eating disorder often revolves around level of preoccupation or headspace the thoughts or behaviors take up,” says Kaczor. “Many clients with eating disorders share they spend greater than 75 percent of their day worrying about food or body image concerns, compared to the 20-25 percent of the time that eating regular meals and snacks required for someone who does not have disordered thoughts or behaviors. It truly becomes all consuming. It prevents the ability to engage in meaningful relationships, feel invested in career choices or hobbies, and have any internal peace.”
Museles agrees, noting that concerns with healthy eating can impact your social life, how you feel about yourself, and even make a difference in how you live your life and go about your day.
“Sometimes we get so caught up in the cycle," she says. "We think that we're doing it for this greater cause of being healthy, that we don't actually recognize the behaviors.”
Warning signs could include worrying about foods that will be on offer at a planned social event to such an extent that you cancel, or planning your meals out to a phenomenal degree so that there's no room for spontaneity.
"It's just that preoccupation with doing things the right way, with following a prescribed dietary philosophy," she says. “If the food is impacting your social life, I think that's a big red flag."
2. Do you assign a binary good/bad value to certain foods or eating patterns?
How often have you heard yourself say, after digging into a slice of chocolate cake, a nostalgic bite or two of a candy bar, or a swig of soda you know is filled with high-fructose corn syrup, “Oh, I’m so bad.”
What could seem like an innocuous comment could, however, evolve into guilt – and when guilt plays too big a role in our eating, it becomes disordered.
With people who experience disordered eating behaviors, explains Kaczor, "there tends to be constant guilt and worry about being out of control with their eating experience."
"Often," she continues, "the food choices made that day dictate how their day will go and if something goes not as expected, it can feel earth-shattering.”
A food binary can lead some individuals to adopt diets or lifestyles that involve severely restricting calories, times of day when one eats, or cutting out entire food groups. And since many of these behaviors are also common among healthy living communities in the form of intermittent fasting or elimination diets, it can be tough to see where the divide lies.
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Museles notes that a red flag could be someone having “a long list of 'fear foods,'” especially foods that are excluded from a certain diet but that the person in question doesn't necessarily have an adverse reaction to.
“If they don't have a medical reason," she says, "and they're obsessive about the rules, that means that a person should really stop and think: 'Why am I doing this?'”
3. Are you obsessed with losing weight?
Many Americans – particularly women – have spent a good part of our adult lives battling with excess pounds, trying out new diets nearly constantly: Up to 50 percent of women are on a diet at any given time, according to Judy Mahle Lutter's book "The Bodywise Woman."
“Our society is very fat-phobic and appearance-driven,” says Kaczor. “This leads many to feel like their family, friends, employers, and society, in general, will not accept them if they are not at the ‘right’ body size.”
Dieting has even become a way of getting closer to friends and family.
“Dieting and body shaming has become a means of social bonding," says Kazcor, "and one can feel left out if not participating."
But frequent dieting and obsession with body weight can also be major culprits in developing disordered eating patterns, especially when diets are successful.
“After getting praise from the weight loss, it can feel necessary to continue losing weight to feel like you belong in the world,” says Kaczor. “Given that greater than 90 percent of diets fail, individuals feel pressure to try new means of controlling their diet and weight.”
If numbers – like the number on the scale or your dress size – are starting to feel overly important and are the major things governing your daily eating decisions, this could be a sign that you're veering towards disordered eating.
4. Is eating (too) emotional for you?
This one’s tricky, because unless you’re the founder of Soylent, chances are eating is at least a little bit emotional for you. Mealtime means shared moments with our families, making memories and catching up with one another. Comfort food, meanwhile, evokes nostalgia and childhood: Grandma's cookie recipe, or that Niçois salad you ate on your honeymoon.
But for some, eating can become a replacement for emotional management, and this is never a good sign.
“When the world feels unpredictable and out of control, food is a constant,” says Kaczor. “The body’s reactions to eating, restricting, purging, and exercise can provide a false sense of emotions being regulated and temporarily provide a distraction from the chaos of life.”
“Food is connection, food is pleasure, food is fuel – food is a lot of things, but it shouldn't be stress and anxiety,” says Museles. “So if it's not all those things, then your relationship with food could need some support.”
Kaczor recommends taking the time to check in with your own emotions regularly.
“Emotions can be really powerful things and for many people are manifested in their body,” she says. “Take a few moments every day to evaluate your emotions and figure out where they live. Do you feel anxiety in your stomach, anger in your throat, joy in your feet? It is different for everyone, but knowing how these emotions show themselves can help you separate them from your eating experience and help you identify the true needs you are experiencing.”
Also make sure that you aren't using food as a crutch to replace truly enjoying your life, your work, and your passions.
“Evaluate how you are spending your time (i.e. your career, hobbies, volunteer work, relationships) every few months," she says. "Do they still bring you joy? Is there something missing? Do you notice your feelings about food or body change when you spend time doing or not doing any of these? Then take small steps to increase those things you love.”
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