As anti-diet eating disorder dietitians, we’re used to spotting signs of disordered eating in our clients. But that’s because we’ve taken countless courses on eating disorders and we spend our days supporting folks in recovery.
Whether you’re worried about your own relationship with food, or you’re concerned about someone else in your life, here are 7 signs of disordered eating to look out for, according to the eating disorder dietitians at Ruby Oak Nutrition.
1. You think about food almost all the time
Yes, today’s culture is very food-centric. We post about our favorite restaurants on Instagram, get recipe inspiration from TikTok videos, and watch cooking shows on TV. But if you find yourself always thinking about what and when you’ll eat next, it could be a sign of disordered eating.
It’s normal to be excited about trying a new restaurant for dinner. It might be normal to spend one morning at work particularly excited about the great lunch you packed. What’s not normal is having food consume almost all of your thoughts.
One big sign of disordered eating or an eating disorder is thinking about what your next meal or snack will be before you’ve even finished what you’re eating.
Or, you might find yourself thinking about food or scrolling through food accounts constantly while in class or at work.
Constant thoughts about food stem from restriction. Maybe you’re not eating enough overall and you’re hungry all the time — which might be true even if your stomach isn’t rumbling. Or maybe you’re restricting certain foods or food groups (like carbs, sugar, processed foods, or restaurant foods), which can lead to thinking about those foods way more often.
It’s a fine line between liking food and spending an unhealthy amount of time thinking about it. But if you feel like your thoughts about food have gone way up, ask yourself if these thoughts are distracting you from other things. If they’re getting in the way of your life, that’s a sign that your eating could be disordered.
2. You turn down social invitations because of the food situation
Unless you have a severe allergy or you’re observing a religious holiday that dictates what you can and can’t eat, there’s no reason to turn down an invitation to dinner or a party because of the food situation.
One of the earliest signs of an eating disorder is when someone starts turning down dinner invitations because they don’t want to eat what’s on the menu. Sometimes, people are worried that they won’t be able to weigh and measure the food in a restaurant. Other times, they’re convinced that it’s too high-calorie and will “ruin” their eating.
This particular sign is a problem because it can spiral out of control really quickly. Our relationships are one of the things that keep us happy and grounded. When someone starts having less social connection, there’s more space for disordered eating behaviors to take root and take control.
If you’re afraid to go to meals or parties with your friends and family because you’re worried about the food, seek the help of an eating disorder therapist or dietitian. (We’re in network with Blue Cross Blue Shield, which means most of our clients see us for free! Learn more about our services here.) The earlier you can nip disordered eating behaviors in the bud, the better!
3. You log everything you eat into a food tracking app
This one can be a little bit confusing, since you may have heard elsewhere that keeping track of what you eat is a good way to stay healthy.
As eating disorder dietitians, we say that’s bunk. Tracking the calories and macronutrients of everything you eat just isn’t necessary. You can eat a varied, nutritious, delicious, and satisfying diet just by listening to your hunger and fullness cues and cravings.
More often than not, tracking your food in an app like Noom or MyFitnessPal just leads to constant thoughts of food (see item number 1 on this list). It also leads you to believe that you need the same number of calories every single day, which isn’t true. And, it can even change the foods you choose for the worse. There’s nothing wrong with eating processed and packaged foods, but there is something a bit concerning about choosing to eat a packaged protein when what you really want is some fruit and nuts, because the calorie count is right there on the protein bar and therefore it’s easier to track in your app.
If you’ve been using a food tracking app for a while, try deleting it for a week and see how you feel. If it’s really hard to let go of the false sense of control the app gives you, it might be time to seek help.
4. You follow mostly food and/or wellness accounts on social media
Again, being interested in food isn’t inherently a bad thing. The same goes for wellness – if you love following a particular yoga instructor, dietitian, or therapist on Instagram, great!
But if your entire feed is flooded with food and wellness accounts, it could be a sign of disordered eating. It could mean that you’re hungry and thinking about food all the time, which leads you to follow tons of food accounts that show you tasty pictures of food you probably won’t allow yourself to eat.
It could also mean that you’re looking to wellness accounts for inspiration and accountability for your not-so-healthy behaviors. Plenty of wellness influencers actually push really disordered eating and exercise habits, like totally avoiding certain food groups, eating a very low calorie diet, or exercising multiple times per day.
When you’re looking at these unhealthy wellness accounts all day, it’s easy to convince yourself that your disordered eating behaviors are positive. But if these accounts lead you to fear or avoid certain foods, put a ton of time and energy into what you eat, buy expensive supplements (which generally do nothing), or prioritize nutrition and exercise over all else, that’s a sign that your behaviors — and your social media feeds — are disordered.
5. You avoid food or food groups even though you’re not allergic to them
This one’s a toughie, since there are some legitimate, non-disordered reasons why people might choose to avoid certain foods. Some people are vegetarian or vegan because it aligns with their beliefs on sustainability and animal welfare. Others avoid certain foods for religious reasons. And sometimes, medical issues other than allergies might play a big role in what you eat and what you don’t. (For example, someone with Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis might have to limit certain types of food. Someone with Celiac disease must avoid gluten even though it’s technically an autoimmune condition, not an allergy.)
But if you’re avoiding sugar because you think it’s addictive or “toxic,” you’ve ventured into the realm of disordered eating. Yes, eating too much sugar can have negative health effects, but there’s no reason to avoid it completely. Including sugar in your diet is totally fine, and it’s possible to get all the nutrients you need while also enjoying sweetened yogurt and some candy. In fact, if you’re an endurance athlete, candy and sugar gels could actually be essential.
The same goes for avoiding any particular food in the name of health. You just don’t need to do it. Making a certain food off-limits will probably make you want it even more, which can lead to an unhealthy and tough-to-break cycle of restricting and binge eating.
6. You skip meals on purpose
Because of the popularity of fad diets like intermittent fasting and OMAD (one meal a day), skipping meals is totally normalized. I work with plenty of high school students, and many of them report that skipping breakfast and eating a snack for lunch is what most of their friends do. This blows my mind, and also makes me sad.
Skipping meals is not, in fact, normal. Your body and brain needs regular energy in order to function properly. In reality, eating at least 3 meals a day can help you eat a more nutritious and balanced diet overall, since it means never getting SO HUNGRY that you’ll eat the first thing you can find.
Eating 3 meals a day helps keep your blood sugar regulated, your brain and muscles energized, and your hunger levels in check. If you’re intentionally skipping meals, you might find yourself thinking about food much more often (because your hungry), which could lead you to believe that you’re “addicted” to or “obsessed with” food. This false belief only makes you feel like you need to control your food intake even more, which in turn makes the problem even worse.
Give yourself permission to eat 3 full meals a day, plus snacks when you’re hungry in between meals.
7. You’re binge eating
Too many people see binge eating as a sign of no willpower. In reality, it’s often a symptom of food restriction.
Most people who binge do so because they don’t eat adequate food at regular intervals. You can learn all about the binge-restrict cycle, and how it creates shame and keeps itself going, here.
If you struggle with binge eating, seek out the help of a qualified registered dietitian who can help you stabilize your eating habits and get to the root of what’s causing your binges. The answer isn’t to exert more control over your food intake. It’s to get comfortable eating real meals throughout the day, snacking when you’re hungry, and not making any foods off-limits.
If you or a loved one is struggling with disordered eating, let us help!
We’re a group of anti-diet dietitians who specialize in eating disorders, disordered eating, perinatal nutrition, intuitive eating, and general health concerns. We pride ourselves in our collaborative, compassionate approach to nutrition counseling. Our clients feel heard and validated by our work together, and they get the support they need to make lasting changes to their habits and their relationship with food. Learn more about nutrition counseling here.
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