Disordered eating: Affects more than we realize

By Kary Woodruff

Last week was Eating Disorder Awareness week, which brings attention to the 20 million women and 10 million men struggling with clinically significant eating disorders in the United States (National Eating Disorders Association). However, not only is it important to heighten awareness of the prevalence of eating disorders – which has been increasing steadily since 1950 – but also to disordered eating.

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An eating disorder is a clinically diagnosed psychological illness that meets specific criteria set forth by the American Psychiatric Association. While there are many, many men and women who meet such criteria, there are many more who struggle with disordered eating.

Disordered eating is a sub-clinical form of an eating disorder. These are individuals who may not meet the exact criteria for a diagnosed eating disorder, but do struggle with healthy eating habits. Essentially, these are individuals who have an unhealthy relationship with food. And let’s be honest, how many people do we know that have an unhealthy relationship with food? Yes, this can include a great number of people whom we know and love.

There are many causes of disordered eating, ranging from biological, social, behavioral, emotional, psychological, and interpersonal factors (National Eating Disorders Association), just as these are causes for clinical eating disorders. And while disordered eating may not be as clinically significant as eating disorders, it does not mean that these individuals are any less deserving of resources and treatment. In fact, some may say it is just as important to treat these individuals in an effort to prevent them from progressing to a clinical diagnosis.

What can be done? 

First, we must identify when one’s relationship with food is not a healthy one. Some questions to consider are: how much time of the day do I spend thinking about food? Does my relationship with food impact my social interactions? How concerned am I about my weight? Are other areas of my life negatively impacted by my relationship with food? These are just a few. If you have any questions about your own relationship with food, your primary care physician can be a great resource to utilize. It may also be helpful to check in with a therapist or other mental health professional.

From there, there are different options for improving one’s relationship with food. Some individuals may benefit from working with a therapist, a registered dietitian, and/or a physician. Some individuals may benefit from community support groups, such as Overeater’s Anonymous, or simply working on more mindful eating. There are two great websites, www.amihungry.com, and www.intuitiveating.org, that provide lots of resources and tips for developing a healthier relationship with food and are worth checking out.

Keep in mind that we may have pre-conceptions and stereotypes of what eating disorders are, and what they look like. Not only may these images be incorrect, but there are many more individuals out there struggling with their relationship with food and do not fit any specific image. Increasing our awareness of these challenges can help to connect these individuals with the appropriate and needed resources.