Disordered eating behaviors are much more common than eating disorders. Although disordered eating behaviors are typically less severe than an eating disorder, they’re still very unhealthy. In today’s weight-obsessed world, our relationship with food isn’t always as healthy as they should be, which can cause disordered eating habits. Often, our eating behaviors are driven not by a desire for nourishment, but by emotions, societal pressures, loneliness and other factors. It’s easy to develop problematic eating habits, especially when food is used as a coping mechanism.
Disordered eating (not to be confused with eating disorders such as Anorexia or Bulimia) is a phrase describing inappropriate and unhealthy eating activities. People with disordered eating patterns may not fit the criteria for a diagnosed eating disorder as established by the American Psychiatric Association, but their eating habits may still be extremely unhealthy.
Below, we’ll explore some of the many forms of disordered eating.
Overeating: Excessive Eating Habits
Similar to eating disorders, disordered eating behaviors often fall into one of two categories: excessive eating or restrictive eating.
This is because it’s considered unhealthy to eat in excess, but it’s also unhealthy to eat too little.
Binge eating is a type of excessive eating. Binge eating is a term used to define ingesting large quantities of food, sometimes thousands of calories in one sitting, often for the wrong reasons. In today’s society, we don’t just eat for nutrition or because we’re hungry. Many of us eat excessively for pleasure and satisfaction, often as an “indulgence” rather than a necessity.
If you engage in binge eating at least once per week for over 3 months, you might have Binge Eating Disorder. However, if it’s not happening quite that consistently but it’s still happening, you have a disordered eating habit of overeating.
Disordered eating habits related to overeating can include:
Mindlessly Overeating When Bored
We associate food with feelings of pleasure, whereas boredom is an unpleasant experience. It therefore is common to counteract boredom with excessive eating. Certain foods are naturally linked to enjoyment, such as sugary foods eaten at a birthday party, or ice cream linked to celebration. When we eat these foods because we’re bored, we’re attempting to evoke feelings of pleasure derived from these ritual eating habits.
Unlike physical hunger, which surfaces gradually and can be satisfied via the use of the right nutrients, it’s difficult to satiate boredom with food. This often means people eat excessive amounts of calories, without achieving their specific goal of pleasure.
Often referred to as “stress eating” or “eating your feelings”, emotional eating is one of the most common types of binge eating. Just as eating can help distract us from negative feelings of boredom, it’s also possible to use copious amounts of food as a coping mechanism when dealing with sadness or stress. Many people seek out food as a way of combating negative emotions. (This is often depicted in movies, when you see the girl who just got dumped by her boyfriend eating a pint of ice cream straight from the container.
Emotions such as sadness, stress or fear can create a feeling of emptiness and lost control. Food is a way of filling the void and creating a sense of temporary wholeness. Unfortunately, emotional hunger isn’t easily quelled by eating. Those who eat to cope with tough emotions often end up feeling worse, because they eat large amounts of food filled with sugar and carbohydrates. It’s never a good feeling when you’re overstuffed and you realize how much food you just ate. These foods may feel comforting at first, but often lead to sugar crashes which worsen your mood, uncomfortable bloating, or feelings of guilt and shame.
Disordered Eating by Eating Too Quickly
Eating too quickly is something many of us do when we feel excessively hungry, or overly emotional. Unfortunately, eating fast doesn’t necessarily lead to quicker satisfaction. Research shows people who eat quickly are up to 11.6% more likely to develop metabolic syndrome, which increases your risk of diabetes, heart disease and stroke.
Eating too quickly also prevents your body from recognizing the sensation of fullness, which dictates when you should stop eating. It takes time for these signals to reach the brain, telling you to slow down your consumption of food.
If you eat too quickly, you may consume additional calories before you realize you’re full, leading to weight gain.
Late Night Snacking (Night Eating Syndrome)
One of the most common types of excessive eating behaviors is late-night snacking. Late-night snacking is a kind of binge eating disorder because it often involves eating more calories than you really need to get through the day. In some cases, people eat at night because they’re restricting their calorie intake too much during the day. This restriction during the day fails them when they end up caving at night, and perhaps eating double the calories they would have eaten had they not been restrictive during the day.
Other people use late-night snacking to curb emotions that tend to be more intense late at night, such as feelings of loneliness. If you’re overeating because you’re lonely, you’re not hungry for food, you’re hungry for intimacy or human connection. Sometimes it helps to first ask yourself what you’re truly hungry for, and be honest with yourself that you’re not hungry for food.
Notably, the disordered eating behavior of late-night snacking isn’t the same as Nighttime Eating Syndrome, wherein people tend to graze throughout the evening and even wake up during the night, out of their slumber, to go to the kitchen and eat. If you have Nighttime Eating Syndrome (“NES”), you likely consume over 25% of your daily calories at night.
Both NES and late-night snacking are disordered eating behaviors that can lead to weight gain and gastrointestinal issues, as it’s harder for your body to digest food correctly at night. Placing additional pressure on your body for digestion also makes it more difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep.
Now that we’ve covered some of the main disordered eating behaviors related to excessive eating, let’s talk about restrictive eating behaviors.
Food Deprivation: Restrictive Eating Habits
While many of the forms of disordered eating behaviors are linked to eating too many calories, there are also people who struggle with eating too little. Restrictive eating behaviors aren’t always severe enough to be classified as an eating disorder such as anorexia, however, they can have a huge impact on your life.
Unlike mindful eating, where people choose their meals carefully based on their health and nutrition goals, restrictive eating involves obsessing over everything you eat.
Forms of restrictive eating include:
Obsessive Calorie Tracking
Health and fitness apps allowing users to track their intake and expenditure of calories are intended to help with weight and health management. However, they can also lead to obsessive tracking of food intake. If you find yourself checking your calorie app dozens of times a day or holding yourself to unrealistic standards about how many calories you should be consuming, this could indicate a problematic relationship with food, and with your body.
People who engage in excessive calorie tracking live their lives by the number of calories they consume, and often connect their self-worth to the number of calories they eat.
Food Restriction Diets
In some cases, restricting or eliminating a certain food from your diet can be helpful. If you’ve recently discovered you may have a food intolerance from your DNA test, elimination diets can help you to determine which foods you’re more sensitive to.
However, eating restricted diets for no real reason can be a form of disordered eating. Restrictive diets can be dangerous, as they may lead to malnutrition, and often reflect an unhealthy relationship with food.
Skipping meals is a dangerous activity in the wrong circumstances, which could indicate the emerging signs of an eating disorder. Some people assume they’ll be able to lose weight faster or achieve their fitness goals by simply eating one meal per day instead of the more common three meals.
This isn’t the same as intermittent fasting, which is not typically classified as disordered eating. Eating too few meals in one day is usually a behavior driven by poor self-image, or a desire to fit in with perceived social expectations.
Alternatively, intermittent fasting involves choosing when you get your recommended calorie intake each day to improve bodily function. Three meals are often eaten during a smaller time frame when a person is intermittent fasting.
Tasting Food and Spitting it Out
One episode of “Sex and the City”, where the ladies visited LA, depicted a man tasting food and spitting it out to avoid consuming calories.
If you’re tasting food but not swallowing it, this is definitely a disordered eating behavior.
Social Eating Anxiety
Many restrictive eating behaviors are influenced by the people we surround ourselves with. The social pressure people feel when it comes to eating food can mean they skip entire meals when around other people. There have even been examples of this in pop culture.
Holding yourself to unrealistic standards or following rules about food based on what you see in the media or your social circle can be dangerous. Often, this kind of eating leads to malnutrition, and poor relationships with food, which may lead to eating disorders.
Fixing Disordered Eating Behaviors
Disordered eating behaviors may not be officially classified as “eating disorders” according to medical standards, but they can still be extremely unhealthy or even dangerous. Binge eating or consuming too much food for the wrong reasons increases your chances of obesity, as well as various weight-related conditions including diabetes, stroke, and heart attack.
Restrictive eating habits, such as skipping meals, strictly sticking to a very low number of calories, or eliminating certain foods from your diet, often leads to malnutrition. Lack of access to the proper amount of nutrients creates problems such as fatigue, damaged immunity, poor concentration, and problems with your blood sugar.
Disordered eating behaviors can also be a red flag indicating severe issues with your relationship with food. If your interactions with food are unhealthy now, they could worsen over time and progress to the stage of an eating disorder.
Many eating disorders started with disordered eating behaviors such as the ones listed in this article. This is why getting a handle on your problematic eating habits is crucial.
If you think you might be struggling with a disordered eating behavior, it’s important to:
- Seek medical help: Speak to a doctor or psychologist about your eating habits to ensure you do not have an eating disorder which needs specific treatment. Most doctors will recommend cognitive behavioral therapy or support groups such as ‘overeaters anonymous’.
- Work on your self-image: Many disordered eating behaviors come from issues with self-image. You may restrict your eating because you’re worried about your weight, or you might binge eat because you’re unhappy with yourself. Working on your self-image and limiting negative self-talk is often helpful in looking at food from a new perspective. You can practice daily affirmations that are positive to help improve a negative body image.
- Assess your mental health: Aside from low self-esteem, there are various mental health conditions which can cause disordered eating behaviors. If you’re feeling overly sad, stressed, or angry, and these emotions are influencing your eating behaviors, seek therapeutic help. Instead of turning to food, try a healthier stress-relieving activity.
Becoming more mindful about your eating habits can also be helpful. Paying attention to why you eat and how you feel when consuming foods can highlight particular triggers of disordered eating. Try some of these tips for mindful eating.
Overcoming Disordered Eating Behaviors: The Bottom Line
The relationship we have with our bodies and our relationship with food can be complex.
Difficulties with everything from managing our emotions to self-esteem issues may change how you eat. Often, overcoming disordered eating behaviors starts with first overcoming these mental health and self-confidence issues.
Changing your eating habits is definitely not easy, but it can be accomplished. It’s common for it to take at least 3 weeks for a new habit to stick, so the first few weeks will be the hardest when it comes to changing your eating habits.
If you’re concerned about your eating behaviors, speaking to a doctor is the best way to begin the path to a full recovery.