Christina Scalese RDN LD
Deciphering Between Extreme Dieting and an Eating Disorder
In today’s day and age there are so many different forms of dieting and dietary preferences. There are low-carb, low-fat, high-protein, veganism, vegetarianism, and gluten-free to name a few. While dietary preferences are a personal decision, they oftentimes mask the symptoms of an eating disorder. With these different types of diets or eating styles becoming so common, someone struggling with an eating disorder may blend right in. Likewise, someone who has an eating disorder may feel their eating style is normal in comparison to how they see other people eating.
An eating disorder is a mental illness that is categorized by abnormal eating habits, which vary depending on the disorder. Some of the more common eating disorders include:
Anorexia nervosa is characterized as an individual with an intense fear of weight gain, and a strong desire to lose weight by drastically limiting the amount of food being consumed, or eliminating whole food groups all together.
Bulimia nervosa involves the same fear of weight gain, combined with eating, or bingeing, followed by compensatory behaviors such as intentional vomiting.
Binge eating disorder involves a person eating a large amount of food in a short period of time, feeling out of control while eating.
It’s important to recognize any behavioral red flags that may be on display. These red flags include:
~ Refusal to eat certain foods or food groups as a whole (ie. carbohydrates)
~ Preoccupation with the nutritional content of foods (ie.calories, fat grams)
~ Food rituals such as not allowing food to touch, flavoring food with non-caloric additives, or suddenly starting to eat abnormal combinations of food
~ Drinking an abnormal amount of water or carbonated beverages to feel full
~Taking very small bites of food
~ Cutting or tearing food, such as granola bars or sandwiches, into very small pieces
~ Being uncomfortable eating around others
~ Preoccupation with foods that are being served at events or at restaurants
~ Using the bathroom immediately, or shortly after, eating (BN)
~ Hiding food or a significant weight gain in a short period of time (BED)
It is also important to recognize that there are physical red flags that should not be taken lightly, including a heart rate of less than 60 beats per minute.
Eating disorders can cause serious medical complications and even death. If you, or someone you know, may be struggling with an eating disorder (even if you aren’t sure), you should seek help from a clinician who specializes in eating disorders immediately to get an assessment. The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) has a useful screening tool https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/screening-tool and offers resources on the website for finding treatment. Eating disorder treatment often involves a multidisciplinary team including a counselor, physician, and dietitian.
While diet trends may come and go, the act of dieting for some individuals can trigger obsessing about body image, nutritional content, or intense fear of food. Supporting balanced intake, fun activities that move the body, and letting go of judging ourselves and others for body shape and size can reduce susceptibility to diet culture and potentially the development of a serious eating disorder.