So it seems I have this habit of having an idea for a post, but then deciding everyone needs to be on the same page with some background info before I can really get into the nitty gritty of the next post (hence this entire series about hunger hormones, fasting/fed metabolism, and keto diets, etc). Today I’m planting a seed for a future post: we are going to be roughly defining the differences between normal eating, disordered eating, and eating disorders so we can discuss how to truly live a healthful fulfilling life and maintain a healthy diet, in a future post.
These topics are fragile ground and may bring up certain emotions or reactions. My only goal is to help educate. I hope you find this useful in some way and use it to check in on yourself or others, or use it to simply be a better-educated and self-protecting consumer of classic and social media.
Disclaimer: As always, this is general information. Please never replace individualized clinical care with generalized health information you read online. If you or someone you know suffers from an eating disorder, please see the National Eating Disorders Association website or text ‘NEDA’ to 741741 for 24/7 crisis support.
Now, let’s get onto the differences between normal eating, disordered eating, and eating disorders.
There is no definition of “normal eating;” however, normal eating involves eating a variety of foods when one is hungry, and stopping when one is full, most of the time. Normal eating involves no “off limit” foods (aside from those avoided due to allergies, religious, or ethical reasons). A normal eater sees does not see food as “bad,” and does not feel guilty for eating indulgent foods on occasion.
Normal eaters are flexible. They enjoy food as a part of life. Food does not cause anxiety or stress to normal eaters. Food is just food.
I like to think of my Italian grandma as a normal eater. She loved to eat. She ate well, both in terms of nutritional balance and in terms of cuisine (she was an amazing cook). She enjoyed food for fuel and as a part of social or celebratory situations.
Eating disorders are serious and sometimes deadly mental illnesses* in which an individual is functionally impaired due to severe disturbances in their eating behaviors and food-related thoughts. Food and body-related issues frequently impact the emotional status of the individual. Often times, people with eating disorders become preoccupied with food and their body weights.
Eating disorders include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, among others. Eating disorders are each diagnosed with specific criteria.
Eating disorders cause severe and impairing emotional, behavioral, and physical signs and symptoms including preoccupations with food and body size, food rituals, frequent dieting, mood swings, fatigue, weight fluctuations, amenorrhea, feeling cold all the time, muscle weakness, electrolyte imbalance, GI upsets, social isolation, depression and anxiety.
Anorexia nervosa is characterized by dramatic weight loss (or lack of weight gain in growing children and teens), distorted body image, and restrictive behaviors around food. Bulimia nervosa involves purging of calories by fasting, vomiting, or extreme exercise regimes.
Binge eating disorder is characterized by consumption of large quantities of food in short periods of time, often in the absence of hunger, with a feeling of a loss of control over the volume or speed of food being consumed.
Otherwise Specified Feeding or Eating Disorders (OSFED) is a catch-all diagnosis for other eating or feeding disorders that have symptoms not precisely captured by the three most common diagnoses above. I have actually recently become interested in atypical eating or feeding disorders and may do a separate post about underrepresented EDs. Stay tuned.
There are a few other eating disorders, including pica (eating substances that are not food such as wool, soil, and hair) and rumination disorder. You can learn more about them and all the above mentioned eating disorders here.
Orthorexia is another disturbed eating pattern that involves being so regimented in maintaining a certain type of ‘pure’ or ‘healthy’ diet and spending many hours per day thinking about food. It is currently not yet considered an eating disorder diagnosis, but can cause significant distress to individuals. I am also planning a whole post about orthorexia.
One important thing to keep in mind: people with eating disorders do not make the choice to have an eating disorder; rather, they are sick.
It’s also important to realize that many people with these illnesses do not really realize they are sick. Anorexics rarely eat nothing, but rather eat a rigid and small amount (such as a certain amount of calories – like 800 to 1200 per day) and/or have extreme exercise regimes.
Often times, the person may think they are being healthy, and others may encourage or reinforce their behaviors or changing body sizes.
Eating disorders do not have a single cause. They are complex illnesses that likely manifest due to a variety of contributing causes, including genetic, biological, psychological, social, and environmental factors.
Which brings me to the next topic…
*anorexia kills more people than any other psychiatric illness
Disordered eating is characterized by an unhealthy or stressful relationship with food.
Signs and symptoms of disordered eating include frequent dieting, feelings of guilt and shame associated with eating, preoccupations with food and/or body image, anxiety associated with specific foods or meals, rigid rituals and routines surrounding food or exercise, and a feeling of a loss of control around food.
Disordered eaters may also use fasting, rigid diets or extreme exercise to “make up” for a large or “unhealthy” meal.
While an individual who experiences disordered eating characteristics may exhibit many of the same thoughts, symptoms, and behaviors as an individual with an eating disorder, it is usually to a lesser extent.
However, it may still greatly negatively impact their physical, mental, and social well-being.
Disordered eating may lead to eating disorders of all kinds, as well as increased anxiety, poor bone health (from overexercising and under-fueling), reproductive complications, depression, and social isolation.
Much popular culture almost applauds or normalizes disordered eating, which can make it difficult to realize if it impacts you.
Putting it all together:
Okay, now for the “so what?” What is useful about knowing all of these definitions?
I wanted to write about this and bring attention to this topic primarily because I feel so strongly that society today makes it difficult to be a normal eater.
Popular culture frequently promotes the ideas that restricting food intake and exercising to micromanage one’s physique is somehow honorable.
In my opinion, disordered, restrictive eating or thoughts are often applauded or idealized.
It’s common to hear people compliment each other avoid avoiding food for having good “self control,” around food or avoiding food, and to high-five each other for extreme workout regimes. (“You worked out twice today? Wow, you’re so good, I was so bad; I ate ice cream or chips.”)
I can’t tell you how upset I feel when I see all these ‘Influencers’ on social media or YouTube profiting off their “weight loss” or “toning up” routines to young impressionable audiences. While their intentions may be pure, these topics can be triggering and lead one to question their own body or encourage disordered thoughts about food and exercise.
On the other end of the spectrum, some internet or entertainment food challenges often glamorize overeating or eating beyond satiety to a point of discomfort (seriously – the 10,000 calorie or 20,000 calorie in a day challenge is definitely a ‘thing’ on the internet).
I feel like all of the noise makes it difficult for many of us to actually listen to our bodies and actually eat properly for our needs, take rests when we need them, and take care of our mental health.
I wanted to separate normal versus disordered eating versus eating disorders to spread awareness about how we approach and talk about food and body size and our aesthetics versus our health.
I have worked hard in recent years to try to refrain from speaking about food and working out as something that has moral value as to try to abstain from contributing to the excessive diet culture in which we steep.
My goal here is to encourage others to do the same, or at the very, very least, illuminate some awareness about these topics to help you consume media more safely.
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- Celery juice: what does the science say?
- How much protein do you actually need?