• Sara Reeves

Cheeky Guide: disordered eating

To many, including myself, eating is just another one of those daily habits we have to perform in order to get through a week. We think very little of those three meals or what we put in our bodies as long as we feel full and can get where we need to go in the day. That is the importance of food. It is fuel to keep the truck running, even if the truck would really like a nap.

To others, including myself for a time, eating is a fearful act that is to be avoided where possible. Eating is a chore, and sustaining ourselves with meals is less than to be desired. We refuse to eat, or purge what we have eaten because feeling empty is more comfortable. Counting calories, exercising without a meal, pushing away plates we need. This is where the doctors and psychologists come in and call it bulimia nervosa or anorexia nervosa.

In reality, there’s another category that is ignored because it doesn’t fit directly into ‘eating disorder’ based on the psychological and medical criteria required to be diagnosed. ‘Disordered eating’ may not be a common phrase to you if you’ve never had a negative relationship with food, but you’d be surprised how many boxes you can tick when it comes to the term ‘disordered eating’ rather than ‘eating disorder’. Yes, they are different.

EatRight.org uses the term ‘disordered eating’ “to describe a range of irregular eating behaviors that may or may not warrant a diagnosis of a specific eating disorder… The most significant difference between an eating disorder and disordered eating is whether or not a person's symptoms and experiences align with the criteria defined by the American Psychiatric Association. The term ‘disordered eating’ is a descriptive phrase, not a diagnosis.” (eatright.org, 2018).

Frequently skipping meals (especially breakfast), opting for a couple of small snacks rather than full sustainable meals, chronic weight fluctuations, shame associated with eating or only taking meal replacements for days at a time are all forms of ‘disordered eating’. We often don’t realise the impact that this way of eating on our physical and mental health. The physical effects of not eating are, of course, losing weight, fatigue, blood pressure and nutrient deficiencies, but the mental effects are hidden in the seams. Disordered eating can lead to building anxiety related to food, deficiency depression (when not getting the nutrients you need to run your brain) and potentially social isolation as the effect of body insecurity or being uncomfortable with eating in front of others.

Our issues with eating are further impacted by the sickening diet culture that surrounds our society, constantly enforcing the idea of getting slimmer to be happier and dropping food groups to be healthier. While going on a diet to lose weight of maintain your figure may seem like the best option available, but the truth behind dieting culture is much more sinister than what meets the eye.

Believe it or not, most meal replacement companies that sell the idea that their bar or shake is the best possible way to lose weight fast, but it isn’t a healthy choice in the long run. Shakes and bars great for a quick fix when you’re hungry or in need of a bit more energy for the day, but they can’t be expected to properly replace a full meal. Our bodies – while all frustratingly different – tend to absorb nutrients the best from foods that are unprocessed.

When companies are constantly telling you to follow their ideals, or lose weight regardless of how it will affect your physical and mental state, what do we do to combat this? First, we need to improve our relationship with food. In any way possible.

Heathline dietician Katey Davidson offers some ways to rethink food, and start improving our relationship with eating. What you have to remember is to be kind to yourself. Fixing something that is broken takes time, and you won’t be able to improve this relationship in an instant. It will take a lifetime of work to have your best possible relationship with food.

Like any problem, it first has to be identified. You have to admit to yourself that you have a problem with food. Note why this is. Do you feel guilty about eating? Restrict certain foods even if you crave it? Count calories? Ignore natural hunger cues? Binge and purge?

Davidson says “…the telltale sign that your relationship with food could be improved is if you feel any type of shame, guilt, stress, or fear regarding the foods you eat.” (Davidson, 2020).

The hardest part of identifying disordered eating is that your relationship can change daily. Some days, you may feel unable to eat anything without feeling guilt in the act, whilst others may be entirely carefree. This isn’t good, but it is completely normal. The important thing isn’t to shame yourself for feeling this way, but it is vital to be willing to fix this.

You must be willing to allow yourself to eat unrestrictedly. Whether you’re hungry or desire a certain type of food, you need to give yourself permission to eat as your please and listen to those cues your body gives you when you’re hungry. This has been easily ignored because of dieting culture. “…diet culture has taught people to rely on an arbitrary number of calories to tell them when they’re done eating for the day instead of eating until they’re satisfied. Still, the closer you can get back to listening to your natural hunger cues, the better you can regulate your appetite and manage your food intake.” (Davidson, 2020).

Mindfulness when eating has also been an effective method of reprogramming your relationship with food. Mindfulness is not what you’re eating, but how you feel when you are eating it. Davidson recommended a list of questions to ask yourself in that moment:

  • What flavour and texture am I noticing right now? Do I enjoy it? Am I only eating it because it’s available, or because I really wanted it?

  • Has this food solved a problem like I may have thought it would?

  • How is this food changing my appetite? Do I notice my hunger going away?

  • How do I emotionally feel while I eat this? Does it bring me joy, guilt, anger?

These questions will help you narrow the problems of your relationship with food, and improve them by working on changing your patterns. I’ve found that I am more willing to eat something that I have made for myself, invested in what I have created and feeling proud of the meal in front of me, making it more emotional rather than chalking it up to a chore to stop myself from losing more weight. Cooking for yourself and for others is ultimately a rewarding experience, and believing this has greatly improved my ability to eat freely.

Lastly, be gentle with yourself. You’re only human. Being successful in this relationship is entirely up to you and your willingness. You can ask for help if you need, or do it by yourself, as long as you’re doing it for you. Food is good, even if we sometimes forget that. Try to remember it.