How to tell if you have an eating disorder

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Following a balanced way of eating that provides the body with the fuel and nutrition that it needs for optimal functioning is important, however, diet culture messages encouraging restriction and deprivation are everywhere. In fact, research has shown that dieting is a risk factor for developing eating disorders. (1)

Restrictive dieting, especially if it’s with the intent to lose weight, is not only ineffective at its stated goal of producing sustained weight loss, but can also lead to increasingly disordered and all-consuming behaviors. (2) If you’ve been dieting and it has become an obsession, you may wonder if you are starting to show signs of an eating disorder.

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Is dieting always bad?

Before learning how to tell if you have an eating disorder, it is helpful to have an understanding of the impact of dieting behavior. Dieting is pervasive in our culture, and people may jump on the dieting bandwagon because they have been coerced into believing that it will be health-promoting.

For people who have no medical reason to limit or eliminate certain foods, eating a non-restricted diet that includes all foods they enjoy is the most physically and mentally beneficial decision they can make. Specific diets may be necessary for people who have certain health problems. For example, a person who has celiac disease must avoid gluten, and someone who has inflammatory bowel disease may need to avoid specific trigger foods.

That being said, dieting with the intent of losing weight is both ineffective and actively harmful, failing to produce sustained weight loss and frequently resulting in weight cycling and increased risk of chronic diseases. (8) A weight neutral approach to implementing health promoting behaviors without focusing on restriction or weight loss has been shown to be more effective without the associated harms of dieting. (9)

What can be concluded from the above finding is that dieting for weight loss is actually detrimental for physical and mental health. Instead, health promoting behaviors, like adequate sleep, regular medical care, reducing stress, and consuming an adequate amount of energy and nutrients, can improve some health markers. Unfortunately, in diet culture, the focus is often on losing weight for physical appearance, which increases the risk for disordered eating. Studies have shown that when people are dissatisfied with their physical appearance, they are more likely to diet, which in turn leads to pathological eating behaviors. (3) Ultimately, following an eating plan for a specific health condition recommended by a doctor or dietitian can be appropriate for some people, but dieting because you’re unhappy with your appearance, which is the case for many people, increases the risk of developing an eating disorder. 

Pathological eating vs. eating disorders

When taking a look at how to tell if you have an eating disorder, it is important to recognize that there is a difference between pathological eating and eating disorders. As research has shown, people who diet because they are dissatisfied with their bodies are likely to develop pathological eating behaviors. (3) This doesn’t necessarily mean that they have an eating disorder diagnosis. Pathological or disordered eating behaviors can include fasting, vomiting, using laxatives, smoking, or taking diet pills in an effort to control weight. (4) These behaviors can be a symptom of an eating disorder, or they can increase the risk that someone will later develop an eating disorder, but they do not necessarily constitute an eating disorder in and of themselves. 

An eating disorder is a mental health condition that involves a severe and lasting disturbance in the way a person engages with food, movement, and their body. (5) Some people may engage in short term extreme diets or very occasionally engage in a pathological eating behavior but not meet criteria for an eating disorder. Someone who lives with an eating disorder consistently demonstrates pathological eating behaviors, and their focus on food and weight control becomes obsessive and can cause physical, psychological, and social problems. (5)

It is important to note that while dieting increases the risk of developing an eating disorder, many people develop eating disorders for other reasons, even if they have no history of dieting. Trauma, other mental health conditions like anxiety and depression, bullying, food insecurity, stress, physical illness, and many other factors can also contribute to the occurrence of eating disorders. 

Learn about the signs and symptoms of eating disorders

Eating disorder signs

When a person becomes preoccupied with food and spends most of their time obsessing over how their body looks, they may have developed an eating disorder that requires treatment. If you’re looking for advice on how to tell if you have an eating disorder, the signs below may suggest that the disordered behaviors have become severe enough to be indicative of an eating disorder diagnosis: (6)

  • Obsession with the calorie and/or nutritional content in food 
  • Focusing primarily on weight manipulation and control of food intake, to the point that other areas of life, such as socializing, fall by the wayside
  • Being extremely concerned about weight or body size, and frequently checking the mirror to evaluate flaws in appearance 
  • restricting entire groups of food or restricting more and more foods over time
  • Experiencing intense mood swings
  • Withdrawing from family, friends, or usual activities because of the fixation on weight and food control 
  • Continuing to engage in disordered eating behaviors, even when it causes health problems, significant life disruption, or extreme distressPhysical symptoms like dizziness, muscle weakness, dry skin, and constantly feeling cold

There are various specific eating disorder diagnoses, but what most of them have in common is that the focus on dieting and body shape creates significant distress in a person’s life, and they continue to engage in unhealthy behaviors, even when it makes it difficult to function in daily life and causes significant consequences like health problems or social isolation. 

Seeking treatment

There is some gray area between disordered eating and eating disorders, but for many people, they become aware of their eating disorder when they realize they feel out of control, unable to stop their behaviors, and significantly disrupted from other aspects of life. If you show some of the signs and symptoms of an eating disorder discussed here, you might benefit from reaching out to a mental health professional who can help evaluate your symptoms and recommend appropriate care. A professional who specializes in treating eating disorders can perform a diagnostic assessment and develop a treatment plan that helps you to overcome disordered patterns of thinking and behaving.

Even if you don’t believe you have an eating disorder, you might consider working with a dietitian if you find yourself compulsively dieting or struggling with a negative body image. Seeking help now can prevent dieting behavior and body dissatisfaction from leading to an eating disorder down the road.

Disclaimer about "overeating": Within Health hesitatingly uses the word "overeating" because it is the term currently associated with this condition in society, however, we believe it inherently overlooks the various psychological aspects of this condition which are often interconnected with internalized diet culture, and a restrictive mindset about food. For the remainder of this piece, we will therefore be putting "overeating" in quotations to recognize that the diagnosis itself pathologizes behavior that is potentially hardwired and adaptive to a restrictive mindset.

Resources

  1. Stice, E.,Gau, J. M.,Rohde, P.,& Shaw, H. (2017). Risk factors that predict future onset of each DSM–5 eating disorder: Predictive specificity in high-risk adolescent females. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 126(1), 38-51. https://doi.org/10.1037/abn0000219
  2. Bacon, L., & Aphramor, L. (2011, January 24). Weight science: Evaluating the evidence for a paradigm shift - nutrition journal. BioMed Central. Retrieved October 7, 2022, from https://nutritionj.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1475-2891-10-9 
  3. Chithambo, T.P. (2020). The role of thin-idealization in associations between body dissatisfaction, dieting, and eating pathology: A moderated mediation analysis. Current Psychology, 39, 550-555. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12144-017-9776-4
  4. Loth, K.A., MacLehose, R., Bucchianeri, M., Crow, S., & Neumark-Sztainer, D. (2014). Predictors of dieting and disordered eating behaviors from adolescence to young adulthood. Journal of Adolescent Health, 55(5), 705-712. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jadohealth.2014.04.016
  5. What are eating disorders? Psychiatry.org - What are Eating Disorders? (n.d.). Retrieved October 7, 2022, from https://psychiatry.org/patients-families/eating-disorders/what-are-eating-disorders
  6. Warning signs and symptoms. National Eating Disorders Association. (2021, July 14). Retrieved October 7, 2022, from https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/warning-signs-and-symptoms 
  7. Tomiyama, A.J., Ahlstrom, B., & Mann. T. (2013). Long-term effects of dieting: Is weight loss related to health? Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 7(12), 861-877. https://doi.org/10.1111/spc3.12076
  8. Bacon, L., & Aphramor, L. (2011, January 24). Weight science: Evaluating the evidence for a paradigm shift - nutrition journal. BioMed Central. Retrieved October 7, 2022, from https://nutritionj.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1475-2891-10-9 
  9. Tylka, T. L., Annunziato, R. A., Burgard, D., Daníelsdóttir, S., Shuman, E., Davis, C., & Calogero, R. M. (2014). The weight-inclusive versus weight-normative approach to health: evaluating the evidence for prioritizing well-being over weight loss. Journal of obesity, 2014, 983495. https://doi.org/10.1155/2014/983495

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