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  • Maya

What is Disordered Eating?

Disordered eating is a broad category that is not clearly defined, but appears to demonstrate common thought and behaviour patterns for those that struggle with it (and it’s very common).

Have a look at the following, and consider how many of these behaviours or attitudes apply to you.

Multiple factors can influence both the development and continuation of disordered eating behaviours. Body dissatisfaction and disordered eating appear to exist in a cycle with low self-esteem and depression. That is, the more you have an issue with your body image, the more likely you are to be depressed or have low-self esteem (with these feelings working interchangeably). Further, the more you experience these emotional difficulties, the more likely you are to engage in disordered eating behaviours, which then perpetuate the cycle.

This is why it’s so crucial to address mental and emotional health when working addressing your nutrition.

Compensatory behaviours (eg. Going hard at the gym after feeling like you’ve over-consumed food) and preoccupation with body image also have a tendency to affect self-esteem and can easily affect mood and cause a reduction in social contact, for fear of judgement from others. If weight and shape give a sense of control or the individual considers these aspects highly valuable as a part of their identity, regular and normal weight fluctuations will tend to have a hugely distressful impact and often lead to individuals isolating themselves from others. However, social avoidance causes a withdrawal of social support, which is actually precisely what can often be useful to alleviate depression.

Various mechanisms are at play when it comes to the onset of a binging episode. These episodes can arise as a result of poor self-esteem and can be triggered by other stressors, as well as extreme and powerful neurological and gastrointestinal hunger cues due to prior attempts at restrictive eating. The temporary relief provided by ‘comfort eating’ is then typically followed by feelings of shame, depression, frustration and helplessness.

Dieting is also a broad term, and has wide ranging effects that are largely dependent on the individual involved. For those who are pre-disposed (various researchers suggest that mental health struggles as well as a history of dieting may be the most susceptible to negative effects of dieting), dieting may lead to binge eating. This is because attempts to abstain from eating more than desired, physiologically, by relying solely on cognitive control can notably increase the risk of disinhibited eating episodes as soon as difficult emotions surface or are triggered.

So, it should be clear by now that a significant issue is the various cycles of behaviour and attitudes that seem to sustain disordered eating. This could be any of the following:

  • I haven’t lost weight - feelings of disappointment - food serves as comfort - binge eating - I feel awful, I’m going to start my diet again tomorrow - repeat cycle

  • I haven’t lost weight/I’m not happy with my weight - I need to eat less - restriction goes too far - binge eating - I feel awful and hopeless

  • I have lost weight - I feel successful - next time I tried weighing myself, I hadn’t lost anything/I had gained weight - feelings of frustration, disappointment - binge episode to comfort eat or, alternatively, more restriction, leading to a future binge episode

  • I want to lose weight so can’t eat that - eventually tries ‘bad’ food and feels extreme lack of self-control - binge episode - feelings of shame, failure, lack of willpower - that food is confirmed as ‘bad’, restriction continues

In all of these examples, we can observe some major issues. Firstly, the heavy focus on weight as a measure for success and self-worth. Secondly, the level of restriction taken too far, leading to extreme feelings of hunger and perceived lack of control around food. Thirdly, there are no emotional coping mechanisms in place for the emotional challenges that are presented.

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