Experts are seeing a tremendous increase in disordered eating in all age groups. But the signs are not always big and obvious. Many more subtle signs may be present.
In fact, what looks like healthy eating may not be when you look deeper.
While relatively few will meet the criteria of a diagnosable eating disorder, it’s important to recognize these more subtle signs as even mildly disordered or dysfunctional eating can stand in the way of both health and happiness.
Here are 5 subtle signs of disordered eating to watch for:
1. Having anxiety around food
The dieting and wellness messages that surround us can lead to anxiety when faced with food and eating choices. Instead of relaxing and enjoying your food, you may find yourself tense and worried.
This anxiety is counter-productive to health. It not only takes away the pleasure you should feel in eating but it adds stress that interferes with appetite signals and the ability to make good choices.
This stress can also lead to GI symptoms which become a self-reinforcing cycle.
In its more severe form, the idea of limitless tempting food availability can be so frightening that you avoid parties or events with food such as weddings or funerals.
In this way, life becomes restricted because of fear and anxiety around food.
2. Difficulty knowing what to eat or how much
Another subtle sign of disordered eating is difficulty in knowing what to eat or how much. If you stare at a restaurant menu for long periods or find yourself standing in the kitchen stymied it may be that you are disconnected from your body.
The same is true if you have difficulty knowing if you’re getting hungry or approaching fullness.
This disconnection arises from being bombarded with dieting advice that imposes artificial limits from the outside as to what and how much you can or should eat.
In its milder forms, you may find yourself not only confused but also disappointed when your final choice turns out not to be what you really wanted.
You may end up too full or overly hungry afterward or find yourself seeking the food you didn’t choose.
More seriously, you may find yourself binge eating. Or you may skip from diet to diet or expert to expert seeking to be told what to eat.
3. Picky eating
Over our lifespan, we internalize many beliefs about food based on the food rules in our youth as well as our experiences in the world. Sometimes, these internalized beliefs about food lead to picky eating extending into adulthood.
Picky eating is characterized by being unable to experiment or deviate from a limited set of preferred food choices.
In its less serious forms, picky eating gets in the way of enjoying meals, can limit social interactions, and can interfere with relationships. In more extreme forms, it can hinder nutritional intake and lead to physical illness.
In its most extreme form, picky eating is an eating disorder known as AFRID (avoidant-restrictive food intake disorder) which has multiple drivers, including sensory issues.
While it’s normal for children to be picky eaters, if you’re an extremely picky eater as an adult this is a sure sign that there’s a degree of disordered eating present.
4. Eating differently in public than in private
Another area where internalized food rules lead to distress is when you eat differently in public than in private.
You may have picked up food rules about it not ladylike to have an appetite or have given morality to food choices such that you don’t want to eat “bad” foods in front of other people. The result is that your public and private eating are vastly different from each other.
This can take the form of choosing different food options when you’re alone than you would with others. It may also lead to hiding or hoarding food, eating what you really want later after eating with others or binging in secret.
It can also lead to undereating or avoiding eating when alone. In its most serious form, eating differently in private can be a cover for an eating disorder.
If you can’t honestly answer that you make the same eating choices in public as in private it’s time to take a deeper look into why.
5. Obsessing over healthy eating
Healthy eating is great, right? Not so fast. Choosing food that satisfies your nutritional needs is important, but going overboard is actually a sign of dysfunction.
Not every food has to be objectively “healthy.” There’s plenty of room in our daily eating for food choices that are mainly for pleasure or emotional satisfaction.
If this is a mild obsession you may find it causes unnecessary stress and anxiety, interferes with relationships, and takes pleasure away from travel or social occasions.
In more severe forms. it may indicate the eating disorder informally known as orthorexia which is an unhealthy focus on eating healthy. Or it may be a cover for another eating disorder.
If you turn down food that others made with love or special occasion treats (hello, birthday cake!), avoid social occasions where the food you deem unhealthy will be showcased, or have diet rules so strict that you have to bring your food (life-threatening allergies excepted), know that these are signs of disordered eating.
Any or all of the above can contribute to feeling out of control when it comes to food. This feeling is a sure sign of disordered eating. It’s the primary driver of the yo-yo dieting cycle which is in itself a form of disordered eating.
The bottom line is that disordered eating doesn’t have to rise to the level of a diagnosable illness to cause harm.
Research shows that as many as three-quarters of women, as well as many men, exhibit some of these subtle signs. And research also shows that the Covid pandemic has led to a separate pandemic of new disordered eating.
If you recognize yourself in any of these subtle signs, know that beliefs and fears about food that give rise to disordered eating are often not supported in reality.
Your experience with food can change for the better and many forms of coaching and counseling can help you sort it through.
Eating disorders are very common.
According to the ANAD (Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders), eating disorders affect 9 percent of the population worldwide, and 28.8 million Americans will have an eating disorder in their lifetime. Eating disorders disproportionately affect BIOPC, LGBTQ+, and people with disabilities. Second to only opioid overdose, eating disorders are among the deadliest mental illnesses with 10,200 deaths each year as the direct result of an eating disorder — that’s one death every 52 minutes. If you or a loved one are struggling with disordered eating, contact the National Eating Disorder Helpline’s toll-free phone number: 1-800-931-2237.
Lisa Newman, MAPP is a positive psychology practitioner and certified intuitive eating counselor specializing in helping women end the cycle of yo-yo dieting.