Eating Disorders vs. Healthy Eating

(Thank you to BetterHelp.com for sponsoring this post, with their link on anxiety included in the final paragraph. I received compensation as a thank-you for my participation, and believe offering links to resources like this may be of help to some.)
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Let’s say a friend chooses to order a salad while the rest of your friends order pizza. Is this friend restricting calories to lose weight? Or does he want a salad right now because pizza doesn’t sound appetizing at the moment?

Some people may eat in a way that makes others think, eating disorder.

But you can’t point to every raw foodist and claim they have an eating disorder. You can’t claim every vegan is masking a bigger problem. And you don’t want to assume that just because someone eats a seemingly balanced diet that they don’t have disordered eating. Some may eat in restrictive ways to avoid food allergies or find that they feel better eating this way, while others use “gluten intolerance” or “raw food diet” as an excuse to carry out their eating disorder behaviors in a more convincing way.

There is a difference between eating healthy to feel better physically and mentally and eating healthy out of intense fear of weight gain or being “poisoned” by “bad” food (orthorexia).

Eating disorders are difficult to identify in others–and sometimes even within ourselves–due to shame, denial, and fear. And when most of us hear “eating disorder,” we may automatically think of the skin-and-bones white girl in the hospital hooked up to an IV. We may feel even more ashamed to try to identify ourselves with the label of an eating disorder, even though we are bingeing, restricting, or only allowing ourselves to eat certain foods at certain times, or chewing and spitting behind closed doors.

We can’t see inside someone’s head. Eating disorders are based on the mental perceptions and anxiety surrounding food. And any of us who are not medical or eating disorder professionals are not in a spot to diagnose anyone.

In the case of the pizza-salad scenario, one way of eating doesn’t necessarily indicate an eating disorder:

Possible orthorexia: This person refuses to eat a bite of pizza and instead orders the salad. He may want to taste the pizza badly, but he feels it will poison or cause fat weight gain. He sticks with the salad and eats it, while perhaps telling everyone about why he shouldn’t be eating it.

Healthy attitude: This eater decides to have a slice of pizza with friends because it sounds good, and it’s what everyone else is eating. Or this person might not feel like pizza that night, so this person may happily order the salad without thinking twice about eating any pizza–just because the salad sounded more appetizing.

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Possible anorexia: This person may refuse to eat dinner with friends, or only sits down to the salad. They may choose to eat large amounts of the lowest-calorie foods so that it looks like they are still eating (and eating large amounts at that). Or they could have eaten very little or nothing all day, and limit themselves to one slice of pizza they are slowly eating.

Healthy attitude She may not feel hungry, likely due to a large lunch earlier that afternoon (no guilt associated with that). So she just orders the salad and doesn’t eat much that evening with friends. She might have a few bites of pizza. She might eat more later when she gets home if she starts to feel hungry.

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Binge/Purge: This person may indulge in the pizza with friends and look seemingly okay with it all. But he will feel the guilt consume him and possibly purge it through vomiting or exercise. Or the binger may order a salad, only to binge on their own pizza later, and possibly purge.

Healthy attitude: She has had a long day at work without much food and she comes back home to eat more food than her stomach may be comfortable with. She may feel a little bloated. She knows she ate more than she should, but she doesn’t feel guilty about it. She carries on with the night knowing that this happens once in a while–it’s part of normal eating.

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Eating disorders vary between people (how it starts, what works for recovery, and what their “rules” or “safe foods” may be). If food comes to the point of obsession (you avoid social situations, you are constantly thinking about food, and feel anxiety about what or how much you have eaten), it’s time to look closer at your “healthy” eating habits and consult with an eating disorder professional (the NEDA hotline is a great place to start). We always want to raise awareness and catch possible eating disorder behaviors sooner rather than later, but also understand that it’s not as easy as looking at how much someone eats or what they weigh.

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8 replies
  1. Lily
    Lily says:

    Beautifully written post! You’ve hit on a lot of hazy ideas that people generally have and have very much managed to clearly and concisely structure them. Great insight for people researching the social aspect of eating disorders or eating disorder symptoms.

  2. Alison
    Alison says:

    These are good distinctions! You mapped them
    out in a very clear way. When thoughts about food take over the mind, seems to be the dividing line. I crossed that line in high school and into college. Some of the “old thoughts” have tried to come back here and there, but I’ve managed to recognize them for what they are and stay closer to normal than abnormal.

    A friend (who has a history with eating disorders) and I were talking about how hard it is to identify who is sick and who isn’t. Stereotypes exist, but they aren’t universal. I am glad to have friends and family with whom to give and receive honesty and love–we know each other well enough to see what is normal for that person and what might be the start of a veer from the good path.

    Blessings to you! –Alison

  3. Karen
    Karen says:

    I feel like using the excuse “I’m a raw-foodist” or “i’m vegan” is a great excuse to not eat that pizza.
    When I first became vegetarian, I thought “This is awesome! All this food I never wanted to eat, I no longer HAVE TO eat!” Being vegetarian/vegan definitely helps with excuses for not eating (it’s much easier if you’re eating out with friends/family who know your background) but it doesn’t always win you points.
    There is going to be a plus side and a bad side to every food decision one makes when any sort of diet is involved. People are always going to secretly blame YOU for their own body issues. Let the haters hate, i suppose, and do what you want to do for yourself.
    Karen (yeah, you know me)

  4. Annabel
    Annabel says:

    These are all very interesting thoughts. Do you find now on your journey that you have less of these thoughts? Or does your path of thinking take a bit of a different course now?

    • rachael
      rachael says:

      I think I have just as many of these negative thoughts. That seems to be the problem with eating disorders–it never leaves you for good. However, as I’ve learned to recognize these thoughts as part of my eating disorder, I know they are not rational. They are just as frequent, but I know how to respond to them in my mind in such a way as to reassure myself that everything will be “okay” if I eat a certain way or a certain type of food. It will take time to improve of course, but I am making progress. It’s about learning to live a “normal” life with these problems; like any other mental or physical illness, you recognize the signs and learn to deal with them the best you can.

  5. Jacquelynn Bourdon
    Jacquelynn Bourdon says:

    This is actually really informative for me. I know basics of your ‘common’ eating disorders, but beyond that, not much. Being a vegetarian I always get the question of whether I do it to lose weight, which is never the case with me. People are so fascinated with other peoples eating habits, and all these special diets that you see ‘trending’ are proof enough that people are willing to try anything to become thinner. If I (and other vegetarians) were to tell more people “Yeah, I lost a ton of weight from cutting meat out of my diet” one, I’d be lying and two, more and more people would be rushing to cut meat out of their diets.

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