There are those lucky few folks who never seem to think about food and are naturally drawn to eat what their body needs for optimal health. For many others, however, food is a complicated issue.
If you struggle with your weight or body image and spend hours agonizing about what to eat, what not to eat, whether or not to eat, or beating yourself up over what you ate at the last meal… this article is for you.
“Disordered” eating behaviors are exceedingly common, but to truly heal your relationship with food, the newest fad diet is just not going to help. The truth is that disordered eating (not to be confused with clinical eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia) is not actually about food at all. Instead, it has everything to do with the way we feel about ourselves.
It’s important, therefore, to examine why you eat the way you do, how you treat yourself, your thoughts surrounding food, and your body image to ensure these behaviors don’t get out of hand and develop into full-blown eating disorders.
Disordered Eating vs. Eating Disorders: What’s the Difference?
So, how do you know if you have disordered eating or an eating disorder?
According to Psychology Today, research suggests that up to 50% of the population demonstrate problematic or disordered relationships with food, body, and exercise. Rates of clinical eating disorders are much lower and are estimated at only 1% to 3% of the general population .
The difference between the two often comes down to a matter of degree and intensity and how much your behaviors affect your life and your health.
Society’s perceptions play a big role, as well as disordered eating behaviors, are often encouraged and even praised in our society. As a result, these health-harming behaviors are often not addressed. Consider this scenario…
A 100-pound woman frequently skips meals and works out obsessively seven days a week with a goal of losing weight. In this case, people will generally be concerned that she’s developing an eating disorder. If a 350-pound woman does the same thing; she’s often praised for her diligence in trying to lose weight – even if these exact same behaviors are ultimately harming her health!
Depending on where you are on the spectrum of disordered eating, you may need to seek professional help to recover. But getting to a place of being able to nourish your body appropriately without drama and guilt is vitally important for lasting health and happiness. (Important note: If you know you have an actual eating disorder, please seek professional help immediately.)
Are You a Disordered Eater?
To figure out if your eating might be “disordered,” start by asking yourself some key questions:
• Do you frequently eat while watching TV, spending time on the Internet, reading, or working on the computer?
• Do you often skip meals or forget to eat?
• Do you think that you are “too fat” and need to skip the next meal or two?
• Do you reach for junk food or something sugary when you’re feeling emotional?
• Do you rely on fast food, snacks, or ready-to-go meals at the grocery store because you’re too busy to cook?
• Do you crave something sweet after every meal?
• Do you ever reward yourself with food?
• Do you reward or punish yourself by NOT eating food?
• Do you intermittent fast in response to having eaten “too much” the day before
If any (or several) of those statements rang true, you may have disordered eating tendencies.
To truly heal your relationship with food, it will require you to take a good, long look at yourself. Dig deep and be honest. Pay attention to your thoughts a little more. See what emotions are coming up for you when you think about food (and there will be some, guaranteed).
The first step is to start a journal and write down everything that comes up when you think about why you eat or don’t eat. Once you’re aware of your thoughts and feelings around food and eating, here are some further steps you can take.
9 Steps That Can Help Heal Disordered Eating
Here are some helpful steps to assist you on your healing journey with food…
1. Eat When You Feel Hungry
Whether you’re the sort who finds yourself rummaging around in the food pantry when you’re not actually hungry, or denying yourself food because you think you’re too fat, ask yourself “Am I actually hungry?” If your tummy is rumbling and you have actual hunger pangs, you are hungry. Eat something that will nourish your body. If not, try the next step.
2. Invite Those Feelings to Come Out
In cases of emotional eating – eating to avoid unpleasant emotions or situations – this serves a purpose by providing a momentary sense of pleasure and distraction from painful thoughts that make us feel uncomfortable.
Overeating can help to numb these unwanted thoughts and feelings and distract our attention away from them. In order to end this pattern, rather than eating too much and pushing those feelings away, invite them in.
Allow yourself to feel what these feelings have to tell you. It might not feel nice to be angry or sad or blue or cheated (or whatever it is). Approach your feelings with kindness and love; this is a good first step in the healing process. Stuffing your feelings down somewhere inside of you is only doing you harm.
Get help with expressing your feelings if you need to. You might seek out a therapist trained to help people deal with recurring emotions that are hard to deal with. It doesn’t mean you’re weak; it actually means you’re learning how to be stronger.
3. Do Something Nice For You
By giving yourself other ways to experience feeling good besides eating, overeating becomes less of a priority. Bodywork like massage therapy, Reiki, and reflexology can be a great help.
Not only do these modalities help to relax you, but they also help release those emotions that might be stuck in your body. Massage therapists have a saying: “The issues are in the tissues,” which refers to the fact that their clients often become aware of old emotional baggage they are carrying around when the therapist is massaging them.
Make time for other pleasures too. Have that relaxing aromatherapy bath. Spend an hour just sitting and thinking. Get a pedicure. Take the day off from life and wear your pyjamas all day. Spend an afternoon reading your book in a hammock. Many times emotional eating is caused by a deep-seated desire to just experience something pleasurable.
4. Make Time For Healthy Meals
Plan for being hungry. Be well prepared so that when you do feel hunger, you are eating real, healthy, and nourishing foods. This avoids the “I’m- too-hungry-to-wait-and-eat-something-healthy” binge. If you wait until you’re starving the chances, you will pick something healthy to diminish radically.
Create a weekly menu including healthy recipes that are quick and easy to prepare. Go out and buy the ingredients so when you come home hungry and tired, you have everything you need to whip up a nutritious meal.
5. Don’t Starve Yourself
If your body isn’t receiving high-quality nutrients on a consistent basis, it can go into fat-storing mode. Weight-loss guru and author of The Gabriel Method, Jon Gabriel, calls this “starvation mode.”  Our bodies become very efficient at storing fat when they don’t know when the next meal will be.
It’s a method of self-preservation and it can result in weight gain, widespread inflammation, and many associated health complications. By eating regular meals, you keep the nutrient level high, blood sugar and hormone levels balanced, and the body is less likely to store those calories as fat.
6. Recognize What Triggers Disordered Eating and Be Prepared
By knowing what triggers the desire to overeat or binge, you can strategize your own intervention. Does it happen when you’re feeling depressed? Lonely? Stressed? Whatever the trigger, write yourself a plan and post it somewhere visible. Some of the things on your list could be:
• Have delicious, nutrient-dense snacks close at hand
• Play uplifting music
• Call a friend
• Write in your journal
• Read an inspirational book
• Take a walk in nature
• Spend time with your pet
• Do some gardening
• Inhale essential oils
• Drink a cup of your soothing herbal tea
7. Begin to Understand That You Are Beautiful Just As You Are
This is probably the most difficult step of all. If you feel ugly or too thin or too fat, and your feelings about this are affecting your eating habits, please seek some additional help in the form of counseling.
Self-love is the most important step of all and often the missing piece in addressing disordered eating. It is deeply vital to care and love your beautiful self. If you feel the need to argue with that statement, please seek some help. You are not damaged; it only means that you care enough about yourself to delve a little deeper into why you feel the way you do.
These feelings may go all the way back to your childhood when someone made an offhand comment that you were ugly or fat or skinny or had too many freckles or (fill-in-the-blank). Now is the time to unload that negative thought pattern and understand that you are perfect just as you are.
8. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Can Help
In many cases, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can be extremely beneficial. CBT is an evidence-based therapy and considered to be one of the most efficacious therapies for eating disorders such as bulimia and anorexia nervosa . It can help with disordered eating by addressing behaviors now to ensure they don’t progress into an eating disorder.
CBT works on the basis that a person’s emotions, thoughts, and behaviors are interconnected and can be restructured in such a way as to support healthier thoughts and actions.
Guided by a trained therapist, CBT focuses on educating patients, helps them observe the factors that are maintaining their disorder, set personalized goals, and offers skills that help patients gain a thorough understanding of themselves and their eating disorder – allowing healing to occur.
- Cognitive factors constantly include over-evaluating body shape and weight, poor body image, beliefs about self-worth, perfectionism, and negative self-evaluation.
- Behavioral factors include restricting food, binge eating, purging, self-harm, and body avoidance, to name a few.
9. Helpful Phone Apps
Turning your smartphone into a personal trainer can be of great assistance too. There are some phone applications devoted to helping people heal their relationship with food. Just a few examples include:
• The Mindfulness App  helps to create a peaceful mind and encourages more positive internal conversations.
• The Eat Right Now app  combines neuroscience and mindfulness to help reduce cravings and binge eating.
• The Rise Up + Recover app  works with CBT and is a comprehensive program designed to assist with recovery from eating disorders.
If You or A Loved One Has an Eating Disorder
Eating disorders can cause a lot of suffering, both for the individual with the disorder and for the people who care about them. Those with eating disorders will often do their best to hide or disguise the problem from loved ones, thus delaying detection, necessary treatment, and recovery.
If you have a friend or loved one whom you suspect may have an eating disorder, educate yourself first. Be aware of the signs and symptoms, and help them to get appropriate counseling.
It’s important to understand that eating disorders are a type of illness. They are not simply someone making bad decisions. No matter which type of eating disorder a person struggles with, it’s important for loved ones to understand that the disorder has become the person’s way of coping with intense emotions and often trauma. The eating disorder temporarily provides the person with a feeling of being in control, so it can be difficult for them to stop the behavior without treatment. If this is you, please seek help.