In society today, the focus on food, exercise, health, and wellness is ever present. It’s common to find folks during lunch breaks talking about the recent fad diet they are trying or new exercise routine they’ve created. For some folks it can simply stop there, but for others, it may only be the tip of the iceberg of their obsession around food and body.
But, how do you know if you have an unhealthy obsession or not? At what point do you need to be concerned about your eating habits or those of a loved one? In my over 6 years of working with people with eating disorders at the highest levels of care, I have found that it comes down to patterns of behaviors, rigidity, and purpose.
For those struggling with an eating disorder (ED), they often engage in multiple behaviors around food, body, and exercise. The patterns and quantity of the behaviors is something to be mindful of because increased patterns of behavior is one of the criteria for clinical eating disorders. Unfortunately, the increased quantity of behaviors is not the only factor in determining the severity of a person’s obsession. It is quite common for someone to eat healthy foods, eat a larger meal on a given day, or go on a strenuous hike. These alone do not qualify as an eating disorder. Yet, patterns of behavior can become negative coping skills to manage everyday stressors.
The rigidity of the behaviors, including the quantity, may tip the scale toward ED versus disordered eating. Folks struggling with an ED can engage in behaviors multiple times per week or even per day with minimal relief. The obsession around the need to engage in behaviors regularly often becomes overwhelming and all consuming. The intensity couples the quantity of behaviors and the obsessive nature of the rigid thoughts about eating, exercise, and body. This intense rigidity and the pattern of behaviors creates a greater context through which one can understand their relationship with food and body.
Finally, the purpose behind the behaviors and obsessive thoughts becomes the third component in differentiating between eating disorder and disorder eating. Eating disorders exist as a function to address underlying pain and hurt for an individual. The function or purpose of the eating disorder often varies from person to person; the purpose for the ED reveals the underlying needs that were not, or are still not, being met for the individual. Without the ED, the person feels as though they cannot survive life’s challenges. For those who have disordered eating habits, the purpose behind those habits is often unrelated to obsessional thoughts or belief that changing the body will change other life circumstances. More often than not, the purpose of the ED becomes a maintaining factor of the ED. Through therapy you can begin to explore these factors and find healing.
Why is it important to differentiate between an eating disorder and disordered eating? Well, in part because disordered eating may lead to an ED if not addressed and explored. Being able to recognize if you or someone you love is struggling with disordered eating or exercise allows you to get help sooner and move toward healing sooner. If you begin addressing eating habits now, your chances of receiving support and healing before needing to go into treatment increases. I’m here to help and support you in finding the healing you deserve!
If you’d like to find out more about how eating disorder therapy with Somatic Therapy Partners can help you find support from eating disorders, I encourage you to reach out.