In our culture of dieting, weight loss and obsession with food, it can be difficult to know when a focus on food, calories and body weight becomes disordered. In reality, there is a wide range of irregular eating behaviors that may or may not qualify for a diagnosis of a full-blown eating disorder. These are often referred to as disordered eating or “below-threshold” eating disorders, and they are a significant cause of serious medical and psychological complications.
Eating disorders are characterized by an extreme preoccupation with food and weight. They can include restriction of certain foods and a lack of nutrient intake, which can lead to malnourishment and other health problems. They are associated with feelings of guilt and shame and can result in social withdrawal as people fear going to places where they might be pressured into eating. The main types of eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder. These are defined by specific, narrow criteria outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition, or DSM-5. In addition, there is another category called Other Specified Feeding and Eating Disorder or OSFED, which includes disorders that do not meet the criteria for anorexia nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, Binge Eating Disorder or Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder.
Some signs of disordered eating are limiting the groups of foods one is willing to eat, feeling anxiety or shame if diet rules are broken, using food as a reward, restricting social events and bringing only food that fits the diet rules, avoiding weight-related activities and checking the number on the scale regularly, or avoiding a meal when out of the house because they are afraid of “failing.” Insecurities about body size or shape are also red flags.
There are a variety of risk factors that can contribute to the development of eating disorders, including family and cultural influences, depression or anxiety, stressful life events, and a history of abuse or trauma. Certain populations, such as adolescents, are at increased risk of developing an eating disorder. In addition, eating disorders are more prevalent in women and girls than in men and boys.
Fortunately, recovery from an eating disorder is possible. In order to prevent relapse and long-term consequences, it is important to seek support early on. The right treatment can help a person change their unhealthy relationship with food and improve their overall wellbeing. This is especially true for people from marginalized communities, such as People of Color and Sexual Minority Youth. Eating disorders can impact all genders, ages, races and ethnicities, sizes, sexual orientations, and socioeconomic statuses. It’s time to take action and make a positive change.