What Exactly is Disordered Eating?
Information and advice from Kat Kimber, Nude Nutrition
Too often, we’re bombarded with rules around what we “should” and “shouldn’t” eat, and how we should or shouldn’t look. This can cultivate an unhealthy relationship with our bodies. And with eating and food more generally.
You may feel like food has control of you, you’re not alone. Perhaps you don’t identify as having an Eating Disorder. However, you struggle with food obsession, cravings, binge eating, and/or emotional eating. Well, I am pleased to inform you that support does exist for this, and there is a way out.
I am a Registered Dietitian, specialising in disordered eating. I also have lived experience of having a disordered relationship with food. I am writing this blog to:
- introduce you to what disordered eating is
- how it can develop
- what you can do if you want to improve your relationship with food
- how to seek support.
What are the common signs of disordered eating?
If you are struggling in your relationship with food, eating and/or your body, then you may be experiencing disordered eating. Unfortunately, there are no solid criteria for disordered eating (unlike eating disorders).
These are some signs of disordered eating:
- You frequently diet/restrict your food intake.
- You count your food (calories, macros, points, sins etc.)
- You use exercise, or laxatives or restrict/skip meals to “make up” for food eaten.
- You often feel out of control around food.
- You label foods as “good” or “bad”, “healthy” or “unhealthy”.
- You feel guilt or shame about your eating.
- Your preoccupation with food or your body affects your relationships, and work. Or it gets in the way of you living the life you want.
- Food is your main coping mechanism for dealing with tough emotions.
- Your weight is often fluctuating up and down.
Do you resonate with any of the above? Please know you are far from being alone. Research shows that disordered eating is very common. One survey found that 75% of young women engage in disordered eating behaviours. Men get affected too. These behaviours affect people of all ages, genders, races and ethnicities.
Even as a Registered Dietitian, I was not immune to disordered eating. I struggled with these behaviours myself for many years before finding my way out. I am fortunate to now have a healthy and freeing relationship with food. It stole my time and energy for the best part of a decade. This is why I started Nude Nutrition and dedicate my career to helping others find a way out. I want you to know that if you are struggling, many effective treatments exist and this is possible for you too!
What’s the difference between an Eating Disorder and Disordered Eating?
Understanding the tipping point of when disordered eating turns into an eating disorder can be challenging.
The key fact is, disordered eating habits and clinically diagnosed eating disorders, are both associated with poorer mental and physical health.
Some argue that distinguishing between the two isn’t the most important. On the other hand, some people can only access NHS services and support, when they fit into the specific diagnostic criteria of an eating disorder. This is defined by the DSM-5, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition.
Diagnostic criteria are necessary for research, insurance purposes and authorisation of referral to support services. However, they can also leave a lot of people behind. Especially if someone is engaging and hits all of the criteria for an eating disorder, but their weight is simply not low enough. There is a risk of disordered eating behaviours becoming more severe, and enduring, leading to further symptoms and a diagnosable eating disorder.
This is why, no matter how severe you feel your symptoms are, if you’re struggling, you’re worthy of support.
How does disordered eating develop?
Many factors can lead us to develop unhealthy relationships with food and our bodies. Usually, a combination of the following is at play:
Society and Culture – Many disordered eating behaviours are normalised in our culture. This is partly due to the influence of the diet industry. We are bombarded with messages about how we should eat and what our bodies should look like. Social media is a big culprit too. Celebrities, influencers, and even our own friends post messages about eating and exercise. These can include before and after pictures. Which are not always rooted in healthy behaviours. We can also be exposed to many unrealistic or edited images on social media. These can trigger dissatisfaction with our own appearance.
Personality and Genetics – Some people are more likely to develop problematic eating due to genetics.
Stressors and Life Changes – Stressful events in life can trigger disordered eating, as it provides a way to cope. Examples include; finishing school, going to University, the death of a loved one, financial struggles, and relationship difficulties. Stressors may mean turning to food for comfort or restricting food as a means to control. This can provide a feeling of being in control when other areas of their lives are out of their control.
Past Trauma – Some people have a history of emotional trauma. This is either a one-off event or chronic abuse, bullying, discrimination or humiliation. Disordered eating can be a way to numb emotions, feel in control, or distract from painful memories.
Mental Health Disorders – Symptoms of mental health disorders like depression, anxiety, or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) may drive unhealthy eating habits or worsen existing habits. For example, anxiety can lead to gastrointestinal issues and depression. This is linked to both appetite loss and comfort eating.
What you can do if you’re struggling with disordered eating.
There are many wonderful resources and supports available to you. Some people find self-help tools like workbooks and apps enough to help them. Others may need one-to-one support. Registered Dietitians, Doctors, or Therapists specialising in disordered eating can help.
Here are my top 3 tips that you can start implementing today:
- Try a self-help workbook – These free information sheets and self-help workbooks can be worked through on your own, or alongside a carer or health professional. They are designed to help you improve your relationship with food and your body.
- Clean up your social media feeds – Research tells us that exposure to unrealistic images on social media can contribute to body dissatisfaction. Be mindful of how what you are scrolling through each day makes you feel. You have the power to curate your feeds to be ones that make you feel good and empowered.
3. Learn about Intuitive Eating – Intuitive Eating is a newer evidenced-based approach (it’s been around for about 25 years). It is proven to help people break out of a negative relationship with food. When beginning to learn about Intuitive Eating, the idea of letting go of dieting tools, food rules and restrictions can feel quite uncomfortable. I hear you.
There are many people co-opting intuitive eating into a diet, so be careful who you learn from.
- Check out these books: Intuitive Eating, Anti Diet and Just Eat It
- This workbook is a wonderful self-paced resource to try at home
- Learn from credible sources, like Evelyn Tribole, Christy Harrison, Shana Minei, Dr Asher Larmie.
- Read my other articles on “how to stop dieting and eat normally“, and “how to start intuitive eating“.
When to seek support.
No matter how big or small your eating problems feel, you deserve support if you would like it.
Don’t suffer alone. I remember thinking that I was very alone, and felt “not sick enough” to be worthy of seeking support. I didn’t identify with an eating disorder, but felt very alone, ashamed, and didn’t know where to turn either. I have provided some options below.
It is especially important to seek support if you have:
- lost weight and/or are engaging in:
- Purging (using compensatory measures such as vomiting, misusing laxatives, taking diet pills, or engaging in excessive exercise as a means of managing calorie intake)
- binge eating
This is because you may be at medical risk.
Your GP is one place to start. This article from BEAT tells you how to approach your doctor about your eating struggles.
Speaking to a Registered Dietitian or Therapist who specialises in Disordered eating can help. I run a private practice with a team of Dietitians and a Psychotherapist. We can help you navigate healing your relationship with food. You can find out more about that here on our website Nude Nutrition, for online nutrition support. You can also get in touch for a free 20-minute discovery call.
Further support and Links
- Dorset Mind offers group support that can also help with your well-being. The group offers peer support. They help to reduce stigma by normalising conversations about mental health. You can also check out further support for stress and mental health here. You’ll find links for 1-2-1 and groups of mental health support we offer here.
- If you’re in a crisis, treat it as an emergency. Call 999 immediately or The Samaritans, FREE on 116 123. NHS Dorset’s Helpline ‘Connection’ can be reached on 0800 652 0190. It’s also available 24/7.
- Low cost and free counselling services Dorset:
- Redlands Counselling Service set up as an affordable service to those on low income
- YMCA Bournemouth offer low-cost counselling options.
Today’s Guest Blogger
Thank you to guest blogger, Kat Kimber, an Online Dietitian Nutritionist based here in Dorset, who has kindly written this blog to discuss the difficult topic of disordered eating with lots of information and signposting to help if you need it.
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Dorset Mind is a self-funded local charity that helps people in Dorset experiencing mental health problems access the vital support they need. The charity is at the very heart of our communities shaping futures, changing and in some cases literally saving lives.