eating disordersThere are several distinctions and similarities between eating disorders and disordered eating, but their most important commonality is the patterns of problematic eating or food-related beliefs and behaviors. Eating disorders can cause an array of other mental and physical illnesses, so professionals and non-professionals alike are strongly advised to take eating disorders or potential eating disorders seriously. This is to say that even a suspected eating disorder is something that should be discussed with your doctor. Please do not diagnose yourself with any mental illness; rather, consult a licensed medical or mental health professional.

It can be difficult to know how and when your eating is causing problems. Whether your eating can be considered “disordered”, or your behaviors meet diagnostic criteria for an eating disorder diagnosis (given by a licensed medical or mental health professional) depends on the nature of these behaviors and the extent to which they have negative consequences on your functioning. It is important to note that body size is not relevant when discussing whether eating habits are problematic or not. Thin people binge eating and larger people engaging in restrictive eating behaviors are just as in need of support as the reverse.

Possible Signs of Problematic Eating

Understanding the role food plays in your life can be a critical first step to understanding your eating habits. The following is a list of traits that may indicate problematic eating behaviors based on their severity, frequency, and impact on your functioning. This is not an exhaustive list but instead is intended to prompt reflection on your eating habits. Most people perform some of these behaviors occasionally, but if you find that several of these items are occurring more often than not for you, it could be that your eating is causing you problems or masking other problems you could more effectively address.

    • Eating when you are not hungry
    • Primarily relying on eating rather than other coping skills to manage emotional distress
    • Eating significantly larger or smaller amounts of food than others in similar circumstances
    • Feeling out of control while eating
    • Wanting to start or stop eating during a meal or snack but feeling unable to do so’
    • Experiencing overwhelming shame, regret, or guilt after eating or overeating.
    • Eating to the point of feeling very uncomfortably full
    • Eating amounts of food so small that your body indicates signs of nutritional deficiencies
    • Eating very quickly
    • Hiding food packages or other “evidence” of food consumed
    • Feeling afraid to feel hungry or full
    • Primarily snacking and grazing, rather than having any set meals
    • Eating types or amounts of food that cause you pain or discomfort
    • Going most of the day without eating and then eating one large meal or snacking throughout the evening
    • Eating when you wake up at night

Even if your eating style does not warrant a full eating disorder diagnosis, problematic eating can be improved through work with a mental health professional, particularly one that specializes in eating disorders.

What’s the Function?

Many clients want to find the “why” of their eating habits. With a therapist, you will be able to explore what function these behaviors play in your life. A therapist may ask you, “What do these behaviors do for you?” Hint: the answer is NEVER “nothing”!

Disordered Eating and Eating Disorders

Ultimately, deciding whether your eating is problematic, disordered, or indicative of an eating disorder is up to your clinical team (i.e. doctors, therapist, etc.) and you. If you suspect that your eating habits are causing you emotional and/or physical distress, please consider seeking support with an eating disorders-informed therapist or eating disorders-informed medical professional.

Want more information? Call the Bariatric Counseling Center at (210) 634-2200.