What is disordered eating?
Disordered eating is different from an eating disorder. The main difference between the two, according to the Australian Eating Disorder website, is “…the level of severity and frequency of behaviors” (Eating Disorders Victoria). Disordered eating behaviors include everything from dieting to binging, from self-induced vomiting to obsessive calorie-counting, from misusing digestive medicine to skipping meals. Because of American culture around body image, eating habits and exercise, Psychology Today cites that disordered eating behavior is surprisingly high. “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, estimated from 1% to 3% of the general population” (Gottlieb)
“Disordered eating” is a bit of a misnomer, because not all versions of it are cause for concern. Someone can follow a diet in order to become healthier–and that can mean eating more, less, or different types of food. Students and professionals may skip meals or change their eating habits during stressful times, like finals or while preparing for major presentations. While this is obviously not healthy, they usually return to their regular patterns once the stressor is over. Menstruation can change cravings, or the frequency and amount that someone eats. Sometimes a pregnant woman’s partner develops “sympathy” dietary habits.
So how do you know when to step in and talk to a loved one about a disordered eating behavior?
“Those with disordered eating develop poor eating habits that occur inconsistently or less frequently, typically caused by a particular event. Those with an eating disorder have a constantly occurring illness that can consume their lives.” (Rogers Behavioral Health)
This quote from Rogers Behavioral Health shows where to begin when a friend or family member is showing signs of disordered eating. In order to know whether the behavior is situational or persistent, you will have to talk to the person about more than just their eating habits. While there are symptoms you can watch out for, those who suffer from eating disorders often hide their behaviors to avoid suspicion. If you are talking with the person regularly and understand some other elements of their life, you may have a better chance at understanding their disordered eating.
Dr. Gottlieb explains that to determine whether a disordered eating behavior has evolved into an eating disorder, “…it is important to explore how and to what extent disordered eating is affecting an individual’s daily functioning” (Gottlieb). Things to examine include concentration/focus, a restricted or eliminated social life, using food as a coping mechanism, and whether or not food causes discomfort and/or anxiety.
What are some ways to approach a conversation with a loved one who you think may have disordered eating?
The website Help Guide has advice on what to say, and what to avoid saying, if you try to talk to your loved one about their eating behaviors. In the article “Helping Someone With an Eating Disorder”, this advice includes being strategic with your timing, explaining your concern, being prepared for denial or resistance, and being patient and supportive (Help Guide). When you decide to have this conversation, do it in private during a time of “emotional calm” with limited distractions. This will help you with the other pieces of advice. Dedicating yourself wholly to the conversation, without others around and without anything else pressing on your mind shows the other person you are focused on them.
The article points out that “…this conversation likely feels very threatening to your loved one” (Help Guide). Bringing up your concern in private shows you are not trying to make them into a spectacle, and minimizes the potential to make your loved one feel attacked or like you’re ganging up on them. If they deny or resist talking about their struggle, then you can rely on another piece of advice: explaining your own feelings. When you put the discussion in terms of “I” language versus “you” language, it shows that you have thought about the other person and allows you to get specific. This tactic also helps you avoid some of the major mistakes in talking about disordered eating.
When you use “I” language, it’s easier to avoid any shaming or blaming language (instead of “you are hurting me”, saying “I feel scared and sad that I know you’re struggling, for example). It also helps you ask questions instead of making statements about a problem you may not fully understand. The Help Guide article recommends you avoid giving simple solutions for this very reason. It also recommends avoiding ultimatums and commenting on your loved one’s appearance or weight. The latter could be triggering or make the disorderly behavior worse, especially if the person you’re talking is already trapped in a cycle of arguing with themselves over their illogical behavior, then punishing themselves for not being able to “fix” the problem. Giving someone an ultimatum is also problematic, as you cannot force anyone to change their behavior or seek treatment.
Regardless of how they respond, the article reminds you to “Make it clear that you care, that you believe in them, and that you’ll be there in whatever way they need whenever they’re ready” (Help Guide).
When Disordered Eating Becomes An Eating Disorder
If your loved one has developed an eating disorder, you can help them find professional help. Continuing to discuss their struggle with you and other trusted family or friends is only the beginning to managing or treating their disorder. The National Eating Disorder Association has many helpful online resources for treatment, which include guides to finding in-person help.
Treatment for an eating disorder can include medical treatment for health issues, nutritional counseling, and therapy in individual, family, or group settings. Each individual case is different, and your loved one may need only one of these solutions in their treatment plan.
Beyond the doctor’s office or therapy space, you can continue supporting your loved one in their daily life. By taking care of yourself and your eating habits, you set a good example if your loved one is younger, especially if they are a child still learning how to manage healthy behaviors. You can be mindful of triggers and help your loved one navigate those triggers coming from other sources. Listen to your loved one, without judging them, and continue to support their recovery by understanding their disorder as well as their treatment plan. Understanding what to do in cases of relapse, and what kind of behaviors are cause for concern, make you a more effective ally and trusted confidant.
Be prepared to contact a healthcare professional or emergency service immediately if needed. Knowing the number for your loved one’s doctor and/or therapist, and being able to communicate the situation with them effectively, can help keep you calm and prepared in a serious situation. Knowing this information also shows your loved one that they are safe with you, and that they can trust that you know what you are doing.
“Disordered Eating and Dieting.” Disordered Eating & Dieting | Eating Disorders Victoria, Eating Disorders Victoria, www.eatingdisorders.org.au/eating-disorders/disordered-eating-a-dieting.
“Disordered Eating VS Eating Disorders.” Rogers Behavioral Health, 9 May 2013 rogersbh.org/about-us/newsroom/blog/disordered-eating-vs-eating-disorders.
Gottlieb, Carrie. “Disordered Eating or Eating Disorder: What’s the Difference?” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 23 Feb. 2014, www.psychologytoday.com/blog/contemporary-psychoanalysis-in-action/201402/disordered-eating-or-eating-disorder-what-s-the.
“Helping Someone with an Eating Disorder: Advice for Parents, Family Members, and Friends.” Help Guide: Trusted Guide to Mental Health, www.helpguide.org/articles/eating-disorders/helping-someone-with-an-eating-disorder.htm.