Most people associate eating disorders with serious conditions like anorexia nervosa or bulimia, but the truth is that these complex food-related mental health issues are more prevalent than many think and they can affect anyone, regardless of age, sex, or race.
For example, the estimated lifetime prevalence of eating disorders is high, with nearly 1 in 7 male individuals (14.3%) and 1 in 5 female individuals (19.7%) experiencing an eating disorder by age 40 years, according to a 2019 study published in the JAMA Network Open journal. These conditions exist on a spectrum, ranging from an unhealthy relationship with food to habitual disordered eating and a full-blown eating disorder at the opposite end. And the non-clinically-definable issues have become so pervasive that Eating Disorders Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS) are now recognised as part of the eating disorder family.
While signs of a bad relationship with food doesn’t represent more serious conditions such as anorexia or bulimia, a person may be diagnosed with EDNOS when they do not fully meet the requirements of the other typical eating disorders, namely anorexia and bulimia. And if left unchecked, your psychological reliance on food can deteriorate and become more serious over time. This is why it is so important to be aware of the signs and take immediate action when necessary. With that in mind, here are 10 signs that you may have a unhealthy relationship with food:
FOOD IS CONSTANTLY ON YOUR MIND
Thinking about food all the time is not normal. Persistent thoughts about eating could be a sign that you’re not eating enough, or that you’re not getting the right amount of nutrients from the foods you eat. While this may be intentional to lose weight, or indicate a lack of sufficient nutrient quality and quantity in your diet, when food starts to dominate your internal mental chatter, you need to take action. Long-term nutrient or energy deficiencies can result in malnutrition and excessive weight-loss, which can be unhealthy and is unsustainable. While controlling calorie consumption is an important element in any weight and fat loss program, skipping meals or severely restricting your daily calorie intake is not the best way to achieve these goals. When you starve yourself, your body goes into survival mode, which means any calories you do eventually consume will be preferentially stored as fat to prepare for this state of starvation. Prolonged use of this calorie-cutting dietary approach will also cause your metabolism to slow as the process of digestion has a significant bearing on your basal metabolic rate (BMR). This metabolic slow-down is further exacerbated by the fact that your body will start to burn muscle for energy. This is extremely detrimental to your overall metabolism and, subsequently, your fatloss efforts.
YOU FEEL GUILTY ABOUT EATING CERTAIN FOODS
Beating yourself up overeating too much food or eating a food that you’ve dubbed a ‘no-go’ in your diet is not conducive to a healthy relationship with food. When it comes to eating for weight loss, sustainability is the key to success, but feeling deprived often sabotages the best diet plans. Cheat meals allow you to satisfy cravings and provide a mental break from strict dieting, which may make long-term adherence more manageable. It is, therefore, better to follow a balanced eating plan, as opposed to one that is based on restriction and a ‘red’ list of forbidden foods.
YOU’RE INFLEXIBLE WITH YOUR DIET AND WON’T EAT FOODS YOU DON’T NORMALLY EAT
You’re visiting a friend’s house for a dinner party only to find out that she’s only serving pizza. The problem is that you don’t eat pizza – it’s on your ‘no-go’ list – which means you’ll have to go hungry for the night, or possibly leave early to find your sustenance. This inflexibility can impact your social life and also takes the joy out of sharing a meal with friends and family, which is ultimately unsustainable. Prolonged use of this calorie-cutting dietary approach will also cause your metabolism to slow as the process of digestion has a significant bearing on your basal metabolic rate (BMR).
YOU FEEL THE NEED TO GO WORK OFF THE FOOD YOU ATE
Whether it’s a healthy meal or a not-so-healthy one, you constantly think you NEED to go to the gym or exercise in order to burn it off. While many people may consider this an admirable approach to a healthy lifestyle and a sign of dedication and commitment to training, it is in essence a form of eating disorder. The psychological need to burn calories in excess is commonly referred to as exercise bulimia and is becoming more prevalent because ‘purging’ calories through excessive exercise is a more socially acceptable.
YOU DON’T ALLOW YOURSELF TO EAT THE FOODS YOU CRAVE
A healthy relationship with food means including both foods you enjoy and foods you need. Cutting out your ‘no-go’ foods such as chocolate or pizza could end up in a full-on binge session. The resultant guilt can result in more extreme behaviour and deepens your unhealthy psychological relationship with food.
YOU CUT OUT ENTIRE FOOD GROUPS
You’ve heard about the success other people had on a low-carb diet and you’ve decided to give it a try, but you’re keen to take it to the next level and go no-carb! As a result, you would rather die than be caught eating bread or having fries with your bun-less burger. They’re the latest on your growing list of ‘nogo’ foods. What some people fail to realise is that having a balanced diet means including ALL of the food groups in the right ratios. The key is to choose healthful natural sources of fats and carbs as often as possible to get a broad range of macro-and micronutrients to support your health, recovery and muscle growth.
YOU’RE SCARED TO EAT
Experiencing general anxiety about eating and over-analyzing every meal for fear of adding weight should trigger alarm bells. This psychological response to food is a serious sign that could signify the start of a more serious problem.
YOU EAT EVEN WHEN YOU’RE NOT HUNGRY
If you dish yourself up a plate of food, you ALWAYS finish it, even if you’re full, or constantly turn to food when you feel sad, stressed or negative, you could be an emotional eater. While emotional eating is not an eating disorder in itself, it can be a precursor to more serious issues and remains a common trait among those with eating disorders. Emotional eaters often engage in overeating or binging when they experience stressful or negative events, or even boredom.
YOU OBSESSIVELY READ NUTRITION LABELS ON FOOD PRODUCTS
While there’s no problem checking food labels before you buy certain products, obsessing over the energy, carb, sugar or fat content of every food isn’t healthy. Yes, it is important to know how many calories each serving contains, along with the amount of carbs and fat it contains to know what you’re putting in your body. But an unhealthy fixation on what you eat can cause serious mental and physical issues. In fact, it even has a name – orthorexia (although it is not formally recognised in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual), which can lead to unhealthy food restrictions or food group omissions.
YOU’RE ALWAYS ON A DIET
Do you have set rules in place with regards to food and tend to just eat the same food all the time in order to stick to your ‘diet’? This could pose problems due to a lack of nutritional variety and insufficient nutrient quality. Like we mentioned earlier one, this could lead to feelings of deprivation, which often results in binge eating and its related psychological and physiological issues, or may cause serious health issues. If you found yourself checking off more than 3 items on this list, we recommend that you consult with a professional, who could help to diagnose any potential underlying psychological issues related to eating and help create healthful habits. Knowing the signs and seeking help early on could keep you from a life-long struggle with food.
Author: Logan Leigh Rix
Logan blends her passion and profession by working as a digital and social media marketer and content creator in the fitness, health and wellness industry. She’s also a personal trainer, former Face of Fitness finalist and Fitness Magazine featured athlete.