What leads to disordered eating and how to spot it
Eating disorders are a key concern in the modern world, with an estimated 1.25 million people in the United Kingdom living with an eating disorder1. But what if you’re in the middle of the eating behaviour spectrum – not experiencing a healthy relationship with food and your body, but not at the point of a diagnosable eating disorder? This is where disordered eating may come in.
We have previously written about the distinction between disordered eating and eating disorders in a previous post which details the two definitions. The main distinction to make here is that disordered eating does not yet have a clinical definition and is rather a group of behaviours that can be included under the umbrella term.
It is difficult to estimate how many people currently experience disordered eating, although it is becoming seen as a “normal’ part of many people’s lives to experience its symptoms.
Have you ever felt guilty or anxious when it comes to food to the point that you’re dieting often, setting yourself food rules and/or tying your self-worth to your body shape/weight?
Today’s blog post explains what disordered eating is, the causes and relevant consequences, and how you can get help to heal your relationship with food.
What causes disordered eating?
Disordered eating can be caused by the feeling that our body is inadequate. This causes us to embark on a diet and pursue weight loss as an ‘easy fix’ to liking our bodies. Food restriction is common in dieting, leaving us feeling unsatisfied and unfulfilled. When we inevitably come off the diet and reintroduce ‘banned foods’, we may experience guilt or shame for breaking food rules imposed by the diet.
These feelings contribute to the initial feelings of inadequacy that led to the diet to begin with, and soon we will try a new diet or mechanism to deal with these feelings – mechanisms that can be seen as disordered.
This diet cycle as it is known feeds into disordered eating and has been around for a long time. Diet culture can be traced back to Ancient Greek society, so if you have found yourself sucked into the world of quick fixes and #bodygoals you are the latest in a long line. And the Ancient Greeks didn’t have social media!
There is a sociocultural model of disordered eating which states that when we internalise the ‘thin ideal’ we compare and become dissatisfied with our body, inevitably leading to disordered eating.
Saunders and Eaton noted that whether you’re using social media for work or actively looking for dieting / body image posts you are likely to encounter things that will engage with this model, especially if you spend more time on social media. Those who use social media to post updates relating to their image, exercise, food etc. are more likely to engage with posts that do the same2.
In the last few years, the COVID-19 pandemic has also contributed to the increase in disordered eating.
Increased stress, financial worries and abrupt changes in our lives and their schedules have all contributed to this increase in disordered eating, with some individuals losing their appetite and others “eating to cope”.
In a study of young adults there was a marked increase in eating disorder symptoms with one individual commenting that not gaining weight was extremely important to them during the pandemic and led to them restricting and trying a new diet, another commented that COVID-19 stress led to reduced appetite and not eating4. If you’ve found your relationship with food changing in the last few years know that this is common and has been experienced by many individuals.
There may be many reasons someone develops disordered eating behaviours, and just like eating disorders, those affected can be of any race, age and gender. If you or someone you know is experiencing disordered eating, know you are not alone, and it is not a conscious choice you have made.
Why are disordered eating habits dangerous?
A study in 2017 found that disordered eating in young adults can lead to long term health consequences, both in terms of physical health and psychological health, both of which can greatly affect your quality of life2.
Experiencing disordered eating can be stressful psychologically, but it can also act as a predictor of future psychological distress and any ensuing physical illness.
Physically, disordered eating often includes deprivation and taking away key food components from your diet. This has the potential to lead to nutrient deficiencies as well as fatigue, headaches, and gastrointestinal problems. Physical symptoms of disordered eating increase with the scale of disorder and vary according to whether the individual is restricting, binging or purging.
Disordered eating is also a risk factor for developing an eating disorder, especially if behaviours such as purging, or binging are present. Whilst disordered eating habits aren’t immediately life-threatening, eating disorders such as Bulimia Nervosa and Anorexia Nervosa absolutely can be, and are much more difficult to deal with once they manifest. The earlier someone can access help and start recovering from such behaviours, the greater their chances of full recovery.
How to identify disordered eating
Disordered eating is a spectrum as opposed to one disorder. Whilst Bulimia Nervosa and Anorexia Nervosa have quite narrow criteria for diagnosis, many behaviours fall under the disordered eating umbrella. Some examples of disordered eating behaviours include a strict approach to food and eating with a focus on dieting, fasting, or detoxing – sometimes restriction or binge eating can also occur. Compensating for calories eaten through exercise or behaviours such as vomiting or laxative use can also be considered a disordered eating behaviour.
A preoccupation with food and body image are also indicators of disordered eating. Much of the recent research focus is on the mental health aspect of disordered eating, with some professionals classifying disordered eating as a mental health condition. If you’re experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression around food this may mean you’re experiencing disordered eating. Making a note of how you’re feeling around food such as a mood and food journal can be a useful self-monitoring tool to identify disordered thoughts around food.
How to get help with disordered eating
If you are experiencing disordered eating know that you’re not alone, disordered eating has been on the rise since 19985 and it is estimated that 1.25 and 3.5 million people in the UK may be affected by an eating disorder6 – not including those that do not meet the clinical threshold for diagnosis. Any of the symptoms of disordered eating can majorly affect your quality of life and it may be time to seek support to help your relationship with food and your body.
It can be easy to think that as these behaviours aren’t classed as an eating disorder you don’t need help, but you are worthy of support. The most important thing is that you seek support from a practiced health professional. At Embody Health London our team of dietitians specialise in helping people restore their relationship with food and normalise their eating habits.
You can contact us at email@example.com to request a free enquiry call to chat about how we can help you to improve your relationship with food and your body.
Kacie Shoulders, ANutr
- Beat Eating Disorders, Statistics for Journalists. Available: https://www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk/media-centre/eating-disorder-statistics/
- Kärkkäinen,U et al 2017, Do Disordered Eating Behaviours Have Long-term Health-related Consequences?, European Eating Disorders Review, 26(1)
- Saunders and Eaton 2018, Snaps, Selfies, and Shares: How Three Popular Social Media Platforms Contribute to the Sociocultural Model of Disordered Eating Among Young Women, Cyberpsychology, Behaviour and Social Networking, 21(6)
- Simone et al 2021, Disordered eating in a population-based sample of young adults during the COVID-19 outbreak, International Journal of Eating Disorders, 54(7)
- Mitchison et al 2012, Time Trends in Population Prevalence of Eating Disorder Behaviors and Their Relationship to Quality of Life, PLoS One, 7(11)
- Priory Group, Eating Disorder Statistics, Available: https://www.priorygroup.com/eating-disorders/eating-disorder-statistics