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Examining Your Relationship With Food: How to Recognize Disordered Eating

Are you concerned that you might have an unhealthy relationship with food and eating? Do you eat significantly less or more when you’re stressed? Does your relationship with food feel chaotic or hard to manage?

If any of these questions resonate with you, continue reading to examine your relationship with food and learn to recognize signs of disordered eating

Let’s start by acknowledging that having a complicated relationship with food is very common, and affects people of all ages, genders, and backgrounds. Food can have a lot of positives – it can be a wonderful source of pleasure, discovery, and a joyful component of social gatherings. Not to mention, we need it to live! That being said, certain societal norms and pressures, complex body image experiences, and the power of food to influence our emotions can all make eating feel anything but positive. Consider the following to begin examining your relationship with food and eating:

Track athlete with performance anxiety preparing to run at the starting line
 

1. Emotions and a sense of control: Emotions can play a very powerful role in our eating behaviours. Many people turn to food for comfort, relief from stress or boredom, or as a way to cope with other distressing emotions. This can lead to an unhealthy pattern of “emotional eating”, where food becomes a primary means of soothing or numbing emotional discomfort. You may also find yourself using your eating patterns, such as restriction, to create a sense of control when emotions or circumstances in your life feel chaotic or out of control.

2. Diet culture and media influence: The pervasive presence of diet culture in media and society in general can shape our perceptions of what an “ideal” body looks like and what “healthy” eating is. This can lead to unrealistic expectations and a problematic fixation on achieving a particular body image through extreme dieting and behaviours such as calorie counting and in more severe cases, purging of unwanted foods through vomiting and/or laxative use. Unfortunately, dieting and related behaviour are often ineffective at achieving their intended goal (i.e., sustained weight loss), and can be a catalyst for harmful disordered eating.

3. Cultural and societal influences: Our cultural background and societal norms surrounding food can have a huge impact on our relationship with food. For example, some cultures view food as part of a reward system in which certain foods must be “earned” to be enjoyed. Foods are often labeled using moral connotations of “good” or “bad”. In addition, cultural traditions, celebrations, and social gatherings often revolve around eating and specific dishes, which can lead to both positive and negative associations with certain foods. 

4. Body image and self-esteem: Our relationship with how our body looks can be very complicated and cause significant anxiety and preoccupation with appearance and impression management! Negative body image in particular can lead to restrictive eating habits, or cycles of overeating and shame. These behaviours can further damage self-esteem and become part of a vicious and difficult-to-break cycle. 

5. Trauma and disordered eating: it is worth acknowledging that past traumatic experiences can have a lasting impact on our relationship with food. These experiences may lead to avoidance or fear of certain foods or eating behaviours, or lead to distressing emotions that we use food to cope with.

6. Stress and lifestyle: even if our direct relationship with food may not feel complicated, busy, high-stress lifestyles can lead to erratic eating patterns or reliance on convenient, often less nutritious, food options. Long hours at work or other responsibilities can make it difficult to prioritize eating balanced, regular meals, or inadvertently lead to under-fueling that leaves you drained of energy.

Elderly man worried about his lunch

Understanding Disordered Eating

 

Now that we have an awareness of some of the things that can make our relationships with food and eating anything but simple, you might be wondering whether your eating behaviours are what could be considered “disordered” (i.e., indicative of a problematic or harmful pattern). You might even be wondering whether you have a diagnosable eating disorder, such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, or binge-eating disorder. 

 

Types of disordered eating and related behaviours:

1. Restrictive eating

This involves severely limiting food intake, often leading to inadequate nutrition. Individuals might skip meals, eliminate entire food groups, or engage in extreme dieting.

Unhappy woman with disordered eating with big plate and small portion of food

2. Binge eating

This behaviour involves consuming unusually large amounts of food in a short period of time, often accompanied by the feeling of loss of control.

Assortment of various unhealthy junk food

3. Purging

tThe use of compensatory behaviours after eating in an attempt to eliminate the food/calories consumed (e.g., self-induced vomiting, excessive use of laxatives, misuse of diuretics). Purging may be used after eating a normal portion of food or after a binge-eating episode.

4. Compulsive exercise

Some individuals develop an extreme obsession with exercise, feeling compelled to burn off calories consumed.

Thin person exercising

5. Orthorexia

This is a condition that centers on an obsession with eating ONLY“clean” or “healthy” foods, leading to extreme dietary restrictions. This preoccupation with “clean eating” appears to have become increasingly prevalent in recent years, with the plethora of self-help books, documentaries, podcasts and social media influencers touting the health benefits of avoiding certain foods (e.g., those that are high in sugar or unhealthy oils, non-organic, processed, etc.).

Clean food versus unhealthy food

Recognizing warning signs of a bigger problem:

  1. Obsession with food and weight: constantly thinking about food, calories, dieting, or achieving a specific body weight or shape.
  2. Significant changes in eating habits: noticeable shifts in portion sizes, food choices, or meal frequency.
  3. Social withdrawal: avoiding social gatherings that involve food, making excuses not to eat, or isolating oneself.
  4. Physical signs: drastic changes in weight, fluctuations in energy levels, constantly feeling cold, hair loss, brittle nails, and changes in skin complexion.
  5. Emotional distress related to eating: moodiness, irritability, anxiety, or depression, particularly when discussing or thinking about food, weight, or body image.
  6. Secretive behaviour: hiding food, eating in private, or engaging in ritualistic behaviours around mealtimes.

It is important to understand that disordered eating may involve behaviours or health problems that are less severe than those seen in clinically diagnosed eating disorders. However, disordered eating can easily escalate and develop into full-blown eating disorders.  An eating disorder is characterized by persistent and very harmful disturbances in eating patterns, thoughts, and behaviours related to food, body weight, and body image, and must be diagnosed by a mental health professional. Of course, there can be some very negative consequences associated with both disordered eating and diagnosed eating disorders, for both your mental health and physical health (e.g., increased negative emotions and difficulty regulating emotions such as anxiety, irritability and shame, relationship issues, extreme low energy, and damage to critical internal organs such as the heart). 

If any of the content discussed in this blog feels relatable, it is likely that you could benefit from working on your relationship with food. 

Tips to get started on addressing your relationship with food:

  • Track eating patterns: consider keeping track of your eating patterns for a brief period to have a better understanding of when and why these things are coming up for you, and how often you’re engaging in behaviours like restriction or binge eating.  Please note that this does NOT include calorie-counting and related food monitoring practices which can be more harmful.
  • Practice mindful eating: notice what is motivating your eating behaviours and what emotional experiences might be connected with your relationship with certain foods or eating in general .

Questions to ask yourself:

  • Am I eating right now because I am bored or upset, or because I am hungry? 
  • Am I limiting my food choices because of self-judgment or body image concerns?
  • Am I eating slowly and mindfully, and truly savouring my food, or am I eating in a rushed and distracted way (e.g., while working / watching TV) to simply gain a feeling of fullness or escape painful emotions?

If you can notice the connection between emotions and eating, you can start to learn other ways of coping or regulating yourself that don’t complicate your relationship with food. 

  • Identify and challenge “food rules”: do you purposefully avoid certain “bad” foods or have specific rules around what, when, and how much you eat? Having rules and rigidity around your eating habits can lead to a negative preoccupation with eating and self- criticism when rules are inevitably broken. Challenge yourself to break rules and reduce avoidance of certain foods.  Instead, start shifting toward a more flexible and balanced diet that allows you to nourish your body and approach your mental and physical health goals through value-based decision-making about food choices vs. being pre-occupied only with avoiding perceived “bad” foods.
  • Do some research: consider doing more research about eating disorders to be informed. The National Eating Disorder Information Centre (www.nedic.ca) is a good resource and a great place to start!

Summary

Understanding the various factors that may complicate your relationship with food is an important step towards fostering healthier eating habits. By acknowledging these influences and being aware of potentially harmful eating behaviours, you can develop a more balanced and sustainable approach to nourishing your body.  The body and mind are intricately connected, so balanced eating can play a huge role in your overall psychological well-being! 

If you think that you might have an eating disorder or are struggling with disordered eating, please consider reaching out for support.  Recognizing and acknowledging a problem is the first step to healing, but it can be very difficult to overcome these challenges alone and eating disorder treatment can be very helpful. 

If you want to work on your relationship with food or your body image, our team at the Mindful Living Centre has experience with these concerns and would love to help! 

Reach out today for more information!

Ms. Rachel Jewett

Ms. Rachel Jewett

Clinical Psychology Resident
Please note: this article is for informational purposes only, and is not intended as a substitute for therapy or advice from a qualified professional.