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A coworker tells you over lunch that they’ve stopped eating carbs.
Your cousin falls silent at the dinner table to log their meal in a weight loss app.
And your best friend texts the group chat that they’re hitting the gym to “earn” the brunch you’re meeting up for later.
Scenarios like these have become normalized, but they’re all behaviors that a growing number of healthcare professionals consider signs of disordered eating.
For many, it’s difficult to know when habits — particularly those that diet culture has labeled “healthy” — fall into this category.
This is especially true for people who don’t match the stereotypes surrounding eating disorders, such as People of Color, men, and people at higher body weights.
But whether you’re experiencing disordered eating, dealing with a full-threshold eating disorder, or just hoping to improve your relationship with food, resources and support abound — no matter who or where you are.
What is disordered eating?
The term “disordered eating” refers toTrusted Source food- and diet-related behaviors that don’t meet diagnostic criteria for recognized eating disorders (EDs) but may still negatively affect someone’s physical, mental, or emotional health.
Chelsea Levy, MS, RD, CDN, is an Intuitive Eating counselor and weight-inclusive dietitian in New York City who works with people recovering from disordered eating and EDs. She told Healthline that disordered eating and full-threshold EDs fall along a spectrum.
“On one end is healthy eating, or just regular old eating, and then all the way on the other side of extreme or unhealthy behaviors would be an eating disorder,” she said. “Disordered eating would be somewhere in between.”
Disordered eating habits may include:
-avoiding entire food groups, certain macronutrients, or foods with specific textures or colors without a medical reason
-engaging in compensatory behaviors, such as exercising to “make up for” food you’ve consumed
-exercising compulsivelyTrusted Source
-cutting food into small pieces, slowing down the pace of eating, or otherwise attempting to trick yourself into feeling fuller from less food
-fasting to lose weight
-feeling guilt, disgust, or anxiety before or after eating
-following strict food rules or rituals
-intentionally skipping meals or restricting food intake — including skipping meals before or after you’ve consumed a large meal, food you consider unhealthy, or alcohol
-opting to eat only foods you consider “clean” or healthyTrusted Source
-participating in fad diets to lose weight
-engaging in purging behaviors, such as using laxatives or making yourself vomit to control your weight
-tracking foodTrusted Source or calories to the point of preoccupation
-weighing yourself or taking body measurements often
-While disordered eating isn’t considered an eating disorder by itself, people who engage in disordered eating are at high riskTrusted Source of -developing EDs over time.
And even when disordered eating doesn’t lead a clinical ED, it’s associated withTrusted Source long-term mental and physical health problems such as psychological distress and poorer overall health.
What about fad diets?
Many fad diets encourage eating habits that are considered disordered — so much so that some professionals suggest that following any diet to lose weight is a sign of disordered eating.
Wait, what’s a fad diet?
A fad diet is a usually drastic change in eating patterns meant to cause weight loss. These diets typically become popular quickly and may be promoted by influencers or endorsed in mass media.
Fad diets often involve fasting, cutting out entire food groups without medical necessity, eating only one food, restricting calories, or eating nonfood items in an effort to lose weight.
Some examples of popular fad diets are the ketogenic (keto) diet, Whole30, the Atkins diet, the “Paleolithic” (paleo) diet, gluten-free diets, intermittent fasting, and cleanses.
Note that some diets, such as keto and gluten-free, are helpful or even medically necessary for people with certain health conditions, and people with allergies may need to avoid certain foods or food groups.
However, the weight loss industry has co-opted these practices and markets them as quick pathways to weight loss for people who don’t have any health conditions that require a specific diet. Following fad diets is linked toTrusted Source developing EDs.
Learn more about fad diets and how to tell them apart from evidence-based nutrition advice.
Rebecca Eyre, MA, LMHC, is an eating disorder therapist and the CEO of Project HEAL, a nonprofit that offers direct services to help people overcome systemic and financial obstacles to accessing eating disorder treatment.
To her, intentional weight loss efforts are inherently disordered.
“Dieting doubles your risk of an eating disorder, and I think what that really means is disordered eating doubles your risk of an eating disorder,” she told Healthline. “It’s really dangerous to toy with that, especially when you consider how rarely dieting leads to the desired outcomes.”
She pointed to research indicating that most people regain more than 50%Trusted Source of the weight they lose within 2 years of starting a diet.
That weight regain can lead to weight cycling — a pattern of dieting to lose weight, gaining weight back, and attempting to lose it again via dieting.
Levy said that our bodies have a set point weight that’s largely defined by genetics. Dieting forces a body away from its set point, and once the diet has ended, the body will do what it can to return to the set point, such as slow down metabolism and increase appetiteTrusted Source.
Among adolescents, dieting is the most important predictor of developing an ED. Those who diet moderately and those who follow extreme restrictions are 5 and 18 times more likely, respectively, to develop an ED than those who don’t diet.
Not to mention, dieting and weight cycling are associated with other negative health outcomes, such as nutritional deficienciesTrusted Source, cardiovascular and metabolic harmTrusted Source, hormonal imbalancesTrusted Source, and depressive symptomsTrusted Source.
Everything You Need to Know About Disordered Eating
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