When most of us hear the words “eating disorder,” they think of a bony anorexic, a young teenage girl, who over-diets her way to extreme skinniness. Or perhaps a bulimic, who binges and purges by forcing herself to throw up. Or maybe you even say (only half-jokingly), “wish I could have just a touch of that!” But there are many forms of eating disorders and they’re all dangerous. Eating disorders can damage or destroy your esophagus, teeth, metabolism, bowel function, fertility, skin/hair/nails, relationships, mental and social functioning, and even your life. And a lot of times, they don’t even make you skinny – a lot of risk for not a lot of payoff. Before you think you don’t fit into this category, consider the following eating disordered behaviors, in addition to the classic forms of severe calorie restriction and purging:
Binge Eating Disorder – this one’s often a precursor to full-scale bulimia, but basically involves ingesting enormous quantities of food in a short period of time, typically high fat/high carbohydrate combinations that trigger happy feelings in the brain while, at the same time, stimulating ever more craving. Without the balancing effect of purging, significant weight gain may result, which often contributes to the development or exacerbation of mood disorders (anxiety and depression), decreased self-esteem, and other self-injurious behaviors.
Exercise Bulimia – you love the gym, you are a super-consistent exerciser, you’re proud of doing something that’s good for you (hey, not everyone can do 90 minutes on the stair machine!), you HAVE to go the gym, or else…you get irritable, anxious, nervous, critical, and start obsessing about how to fit in some alternate exercise time. If you routinely spend more than an average of about one to 1.5 hours a day exercising, this may be an issue for you. Or, if you go ahead and eat that scone with your non-fat latte, but then make a point of exercising it off, down to the calorie, as soon as you can, this may point to a problem. Unless you’re a professional athlete or competitive hobbyist in training, or on a medically supervised weight loss program, about an hour a day at moderate intensity and occasional bursts of higher intensity activity, six days a week, is a healthy limit.
Excessive Tracking – with all the really cool apps for your iPhone, and internet programs like Daily Plate, it’s easier than ever to keep a food diary, with calculations down to the last calorie, nutritional breakdowns, etc. But how much time do you spend inputting data, analyzing the results, and tweaking your next bite as a result? Instead of being conscientious, you may be exhibiting eating disordered traits.
Food Restriction – by color, shape, size, type, etc. – it’s normal to favor some foods, and dislike others, even intensely. But when you eat only fruit, or eliminate all orange foods, or require that vegetables be cubed into measurable perfection, again, you may be looking at a problem rather than a preference. Food fads run in cycles, and right now, gluten-free is a hot topic and product segment in the supermarkets. It’s also often a cover-up for an eating disorder. Veganism is a frequent suspect in eating disordered people as well – sounds healthy, but is often an excuse or disguise for eating-disordered behavior.
Being a Champion Dieter – you may not be losing any weight because you’ve become so skilled at calorie restriction from all those years of dieting that your metabolism has slowed to a crawl. Active, average-height, healthy people require a substantial daily input of calories in order to remain health, or even to lose weight. Routinely consuming less than 1,500 – 2,000 calories/day may well impair your ability to lose weight, slow down mental functioning, and leave you too weak to exercise. Some women require as many as 2,000 – 2,500 calories/day in order to actually start losing weight, and some men may require even more! Do yourself a favor, check your actual daily consumption, check in with your doctor or nutritionist or a very detail-oriented TDEE calculator, and see if you might not be better off consuming more instead of less. Furthermore, it is not normal to be on a diet every single day of your life, regardless of your weight. Our bodies require rest, nurturing, healthy input, and balance – the antithesis of many popular diets. What you learned about weight management as a teenager may not be working for your mature body now.
The psychological issues underlying most eating disorders are complex and best treated by a licensed mental health professional with training in eating disorders, endocrine disorders, or women’s health issues. If anything described above sets off your alarm bells – about you or a friend or family member – change your behavior. If you can’t do it alone, get help. Your body and your relationships will become healthier, if properly nourished.