how to know if your relationship with food is unhealthy

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What thought was flitting through your mind when you clicked the link to this post?

Maybe it was something like, "I am so tired of this. Maybe this isn't really 'normal.'" Or perhaps it was a variation of, "I wish she understood that what she's doing with food isn't healthy. How can I get her to see it?" Or maybe you were just curious.

Whatever reason you clicked on this post, I'm glad that you're reading this, because chances are pretty good that you and/or someone you know (make that half the people you know) have some kind of disordered relationship with food. It's hard to find accurate statistics on disordered eating, because so many people (more often women, but a fair amount of men, too) don't seek help or wouldn't meet full diagnostic criteria for an eating disorder, so they often fall between the research cracks.

What the Research Does Say...

Need some convincing? In one study published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, 91% of women surveyed on a college campus had tried to control their weight by dieting, and 22% of them dieted “often” or all the time. The same study reported that 35% of “normal dieters” progress to pathological dieting, and of those, 20-25% progress to partial or full-syndrome eating disorders.(1) This study was published twenty years ago — as much as I'd love to give more updated statistics, funding for research in this area is not where it needs to be, so these are still figures that eating disorder organizations like NEDA and ANAD are posting. And I probably don't need to tell you that things have only gotten worse over the past two decades.

In 2008, SELF Magazine collaborated with the University of North Carolina's Eating Disorders Program, polling its readers in an online survey that received over 4,000 responses from women age 25-45. SELF's then-editor, Lucy Danziger, stated that the purpose of the survey was to "discover the unfiltered reality of the eating habits of American women, and ultimately, to help women develop less obsessive, more accepting attitudes toward their bodies and a healthier relationship with food." (Sidebar: The irony here is not lost on me. Danziger authored the book The Drop 10 Diet, faced controversy after excessive slimming of Kelly Clarkson's 2009 SELF cover photo, and was let go in 2014 after the magazine mocked a woman running a race in a tutu that turned out to symbolic of her cancer battle. The PR snafu was probably just the last straw for Danziger, who was already on thin ice with Condé Nast for the magazine's slumping sales.)75% of the respondents reported disordered eating behaviors or symptoms consistent with eating disorders. You read that right: THREE OUT OF FOUR.

It's too bad the survey results weren't a wake-up call for SELF about the kind of content its readers really need. And while you could make the argument that these results are not representative of the general population since they are already readers of a magazine geared toward "women's health" (aka dieting and fitness), SELF is pretty mainstream, and I would say its reader is not terribly far from the "average American woman." The survey also found that:

  • 67 percent of women (excluding those with actual eating disorders) are trying to lose weight
  • 53 percent of dieters are already at a healthy weight and are still trying to lose weight
  • 39 percent of women say concerns about what they eat or weigh interfere with their happiness
  • 37 percent regularly skip meals to try to lose weight
  • 27 percent would be “extremely upset” if they gained just five pounds
  • 26 percent cut out entire food groups
  • 16 percent have dieted on 1,000 calories a day or fewer
  • 13 percent smoke to lose weight
  • 12 percent often eat when they’re not hungry; 49 percent sometimes do

What Are the Signs of a Problem?

Do any of those behaviors above sound familiar? Even at times before and after I had a diagnosable eating disorder, I would have answered "yes" to a lot of those questions. And here's some more that I would add for you to consider if you're wondering whether you or someone you care about might have disordered eating:

  • Do over 25% of your thoughts throughout the day revolve around food and/or your body? 
  • Do you ever weigh yourself more than once a day?
  • Do you keep clothing that has not fit for a substantial amount of time, as "motivation" to lose weight? 
  • Would you have anxiety if someone took away your scale?
  • Are you rigid with your workout routine? (i.e. if you don't get ___ minutes, RPM, calories burned, or pounds lifted, ___ times a week every week, you get anxious?) 
  • Do you think of your food intake as "clean"/"good" vs "gross"/"dirty"/"unhealthy"? 
  • Do you get anxious about birthday parties, work happy hours, etc. because of the food?
  • Do you use exercise in a compensatory way. i.e. "I ate that much so now I have to work out ___ amount"?

If your answer to some or a lot of these is "yes," just know that you are SO not alone. There's nothing to be ashamed of, because our culture basically breeds disordered eating. But also know that you don't have to accept this as your "normal."I had resigned myself to that, and I've met many other women (and some men) who have also accepted disordered relationships with food as "just the way things are."

Why It's Worth it to Work on Your Relationship with Food

It's hard for me to articulate exactly what it feels like on the other side of that hill without sounding totally cheesy, but believe me — it's worth the work it takes to get here. It feels like freedom to not be trapped inside a mental prison of FOODFOODBODYCALORIESWEIGHT all the time. It's a process of relearning how to eat and how to have a relationship with self. 

And the truth is that it's really, really hard to climb out of it alone. I might even say impossible. Developing a healthy relationship with food and body looks different for each person, but you need to have the support of people who've been in those trenches, who get what it's like, and who are far enough out of them that they're not just going to try to sell you on the latest diet or workout sensation that they're excited about this month.

If you see yourself anywhere in this post, sign up here to be the first to get details about the eBook on Intuitive Eating & Body Image that I co-wrote with dietitian Lauren Fowler, scheduled to release next month. 

Ready to go even deeper? Check out my coaching page to see if we might be a good fit for 1-on-1 work.

1. Shisslak, C.M., Crago, M., & Estes, L.S. (1995). The Spectrum of Eating Disturbances. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 18 (3): 209-219.

Graffiti photo by Duncan Hull, Creative Commons license.