While eating disorders have received extensive coverage over many years, the topic of disordered eating has received far less attention. Disordered eating, or unhealthy relationships with food, are very common. They have, however, been normalised to such a degree that many people do not recognise them as a problem or know that they suffer from them. Verywellmind describes disordered eating as “various abnormal eating behaviours that do not yet fit the criteria for an eating disorder”. Disordered eating, according to Huffpost, is everywhere. It is often praised as “health-conscious” or “virtuous”, even though it can be very damaging. Disordered eating can present itself in many different forms; including focusing on clean eating, strict portion control, exercising to “earn” food, having feelings of guilt surrounding food or avoiding certain food groups altogether. An unhealthy relationship with food, according to dietitians Gabriella Goodchild RD, and Sarah Almond Bushell RD, can also entail eating when you are not hungry as a way to deal with negative emotions.
Unhealthy relationships with food are fairly prevalent. According to Intermountain Healthcare, up to 50% of Americans had a “disordered” relationship “with exercise, their body and food” in 2015. The number of people suffering from disordered eating is increasing. A June 2020 New York Times article notes, “the pandemic has created new hurdles for those managing difficult relationships with food”. Due to the greater sense of anxiety and uncertainty created by the pandemic , it is “even more challenging to maintain healthy eating patterns”, writes American Society for Nutrition. The pandemic, along with the prevalence of diet culture and the vast amount of damaging dieting information on social media, make it easy to understand why unhealthy relationships with food are so common. Despite its normalisation, disordered eating can have severe consequences for one’s physical and mental health, notes National Eating Disorders Collaboration. Disordered eating can lead to “metabolic problems, fatigue, muscle cramps or the development of a clinically diagnosed eating disorder”. Disordered eating may also lead to depression, anxiety, “[f]eelings of guilt, shame and failure”, as well as “fear of socialising in situations where people will beeating”. While a “disordered approach to eating is rigid”, according to Huffpost, “a healthy approach takes into account not only the physical effects of food but also the social, emotional and mental effects”.
If you are struggling with your relationship with food, Huffpost suggests reaching out to a therapist or a registered dietitian. Nina Mills, an Australia-based dietitian, also suggests that you should immerse yourself in podcasts, books and social media accounts that call out disordered eating habits and promote healthier ones. Body positive support groups, online resources or support from your family and friends can also be helpful in your recovery, notes Verywellmind. There are countless options for anyone who would like to work on their relationship with food, regardless of the resources that they may have available.
Disordered eating is particularly prevalent among university students. According to Mike Gurr, a licensed professional counselor and executive director at The Meadows Ranch, an eating disorder treatment and recovery center in Arizona, 40% of students have a troubled relationship with food upon entering university. According to him, the increase in students’ unhealthy relationship with food is related to the massive change that occurs when starting university which can be a source of anxiety for many students. Many students also have a tendency to compare themselves to others, which also contributes to an increase in unhealthy eating behaviours. “The stress of a college schedule, managing a new social context, and dealing with independent living can trigger re-emergent anxiety or, in some cases, a new mental illness”, explains Dr Douglas Bunnell, clinical director of the Monte Nido treatment center in New York. “If you have a heavy dose of anxiety and you’re in a social environment, and you’re constantly exposed to the thin body ideal, that’s a perfect storm convergence of factors that can drive a vulnerable individual into an eating disorder”.
While disordered eating may appear to be completely normal or even harmless, it can have a serious impact on a person’s quality of life. As Healthline states, “[t]hough it may seem impossible to fix your bad relationship with food, it’s possible to get to a state in which food no longer controls you and instead fuels your overall well-being”. Eating should not need to be a constant source of stress and anxiety in anyone’s life and everyone should feel free to seek the help that they deserve.
Illustration: Cassandra Eardley