Many people may review the symptoms or diagnostic criteria for eating disorders and conclude they don’t, in fact, have one. What they often don’t realize, however, is the potential of certain covert behaviors they possess to evolve into a full-blown eating disorder.
Like many other mental illnesses, individuals suffering from eating disorders don’t simply wake up one day with a diagnosable illness. It’s repeatedly engaging in unhealthy or disordered behaviors—many of which have become normalized by diet culture—that leads them down a precarious road to developing eating disorders like anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID), or other specified feeding and eating disorder (OSFED).
The key to not only safeguarding yourself from developing an all-consuming eating disorder but also cultivating a healthy relationship with food and your body is becoming aware of the behaviors that may put you at risk and making modifications while you still have control.
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Routine Body Checks
Most everyone takes a gander at their body from time to time, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with doing so. It’s perfectly reasonable to see if the new pants you bought pair well with your black dress shoes or to check on how your sunburn from a few days back seems to be clearing up.
However, repeated checking of one’s body to analyze perceived flaws or to discern if changes in the body have occurred can be a slippery slope in terms of your propensity to develop an eating disorder or body dysmorphic disorder (BDD). There are various forms of body checking behaviors, including:
- Constant Mirror Checking: Frequent or prolonged examination of one’s reflection in mirrors, often focusing on specific parts of the body or areas perceived as problematic.
- Taking Body Measurements: Using tape measures or calipers to measure the circumference of body parts, such as the waist, hips, thighs, or arms, in an attempt to track changes.
- Pinching or Grabbing: Physically pinching or grabbing areas of the body to assess their size or texture.
- Trying on “Skinny Clothes”: Trying on an article of clothing, commonly button-up pants, that are generally tighter-fitting to check for weight loss, weight maintenance, or weight gain.
- Filming or Taking Photos of Oneself: Taking numerous photos or videos of the body from different angles and scrutinizing them for perceived flaws.
- Seeking Reassurance: Frequently asking others for reassurance about one’s appearance, weight, or body shape.
Extreme Dieting and Restrictive Eating
Dieting can take many forms, from modest changes in eating habits to extreme and potentially unhealthy restrictions. It’s when the latter takes hold that the development of an eating disorder becomes more likely. Here’s how the process can unfold:
- Initial Dieting: Many people engage in dieting as a means to lose weight or improve their health. Dieting often involves making conscious choices about what and how much you eat.
- Caloric Restriction: Some individuals may take dieting to an extreme by severely restricting their caloric intake, eliminating entire food groups, or adopting highly restrictive eating plans. This can result in the consumption of significantly fewer calories than the body needs for basic functions, leading to malnutrition and physical health consequences.
- Obsession with Weight and Food: As restrictive eating continues, individuals may become preoccupied with thoughts of food, tracking calories, and weight. This obsession can lead to a constant focus on food and body size.
- Binge Eating or Chronic Food Deprivation: Prolonged restriction can trigger intense cravings and hunger, leading to episodes of overeating or binge eating. This can occur because the body’s natural hunger signals become dysregulated, and when access to food is finally allowed, individuals may struggle to control their eating. The restrict-binge behavior becomes a vicious cycle. Contrarily, others may continue to deprive themselves of food to ensue further weight loss.
- Physical and Psychological Consequences: Chronic restriction and binge eating can have profound physical and psychological consequences. Physically, it can lead to malnutrition, electrolyte imbalances, gastrointestinal issues, and more. Psychologically, it can exacerbate anxiety, depression, and body dissatisfaction.
- Development of an Eating Disorder: Over time, the restrictive eating, combined with the psychological distress it causes, can evolve into a full-blown eating disorder, such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, or binge eating disorder.
Obsessive Weighing and Fixation on Body Size
Many people own a bathroom scale, weigh themselves on a regular or semi-regular basis, and never develop an eating disorder. However, these individuals typically don’t possess the following traits and behaviors often seen in those who do eventually find themselves struggling with an eating disorder:
- Frequent Weighing: Everyone’s weight fluctuates for various reasons (e.g., water retention, hormonal changes, length of time since last meal), yet some people find themselves weighing multiple times a day, creating an unhealthy, obsessive attachment to the number.
- Allowing Weight to Dictate Mood and Self-Worth: Being at a weight higher than the desired number can cause immense anxiety, distress, anger, insecurity, or feelings of failure.
- Compulsion to Compensate: If the number on the scale is unsatisfactory, some individuals take extreme measures in the short-term to bring it down, such as food restriction or fasting or excessive exercise.
- A Desire to Lose More: Even when the number on the scale is satisfactory, some people may be compelled to go lower, and lower, and lower due to the formation of body image disturbances.
Constant Body, Food, and Exercise Comparison
We all have our own individual physiques, dietary constraints, and food preferences, but being able to accept and honor these unique aspects of ourselves can be difficult in a world fraught with comparison. It’s human instinct to want to mimic the people you admire, but doing so to the extent you neglect your own body’s wants and needs can pave the way to disordered eating or an eating disorder.
Some examples of unhealthy comparisons include:
- Always waiting to see what everyone else orders at a restaurant before you order.
- Learning your friend is one pant size smaller than you and feeling compelled to lose weight without considering differences in genetics or natural build.
- Noticing your co-worker always has a salad at lunch so choosing to do the same despite your desire for different foods.
- Monitoring others’ workouts and seeking to train longer, harder, more frequently, etc.
- Looking at old photos of yourself and wanting your “skinny body” back even though it may not be healthy or realistic.
In addition to the potential development of an eating disorder, consistent comparison of yourself to others in terms of your body’s shape or size, your food choices, and your exercise habits can lead to exacerbated body image issues and psychological distress. It’s inevitable you’ll always find someone you deem fitter, thinner, healthier, etc., making it virtually impossible to feel adequately satisfied with yourself.
High Consumption of Image-Centric Media
Media is an integral and largely unavoidable part of our modern-day lives. At this very moment, billions of people are watching television, scrolling their social media feeds, or surfing the internet.
The act of consuming media itself isn’t necessarily a risk factor for developing an eating disorder, but a high consumption of image-centric media has the propensity to negatively affect the way you view your body and appearance overall.
- Promotion of Unrealistic Beauty Standards: Media often portrays idealized and unrealistic beauty standards, featuring thin, lean, and often digitally altered models and celebrities. Constant exposure to these images can create a distorted perception of what is considered a “normal” or “desirable” body, leading to body dissatisfaction and a desire to attain such standards.
- Encouragement of Dieting and Weight Loss: Media frequently promotes diets, weight loss programs, and products promising quick and dramatic weight loss. These messages can lead to an unhealthy focus on weight, dieting, and the pursuit of thinness as the ultimate goal.
- Influence of Influencers: Social media platforms are rife with influencers showcasing their bodies, diets, and exercise routines. Followers may feel compelled to emulate these behaviors, even if they are not suitable for their individual needs or health.
- Triggering Content: Media can contain triggering content, such as images or discussions of eating disorders, self-harm, or extreme dieting. For individuals who are vulnerable to these issues, exposure to such content can reinforce disordered thoughts and behaviors.
- Misinformation: Media can spread misinformation about health and nutrition, promoting fad diets, unrealistic exercise regimens, or unproven weight loss supplements. This misinformation can lead to unhealthy practices and beliefs about food and health.
To help mitigate the negative impact media can have on you, it’s important to practice media literacy and critical thinking. Make an effort to curate your own media consumption in a way that doesn’t endanger your self-worth. Seek out social media accounts and television shows that lift you up rather than bring you down. Of course, you can’t avoid triggering content entirely, so when a weight loss ad or thinspiration reel makes its way to you, feel empowered to look the other way or keep scrolling.
Incessant Negative Body Discourse
The way we speak to ourselves and others about bodies is one of the most powerful tools for both cultivating and preventing the development of eating disorders or body image disorders. Negative body discourse, which involves harmful or critical discussions and conversations about body size, shape, and appearance, can have serious impacts on one’s relationship with food and their body, including but not limited to:
- Negative Body Image: To no major surprise, negative self-talk contributes to the development of a negative body image. Individuals with eating disorders often perceive their bodies as flawed, unattractive, or unacceptable, which can lead to a desire for drastic changes, often through unhealthy means.
- Normalization of Disordered Behaviors: When negative body discourse is prevalent in a person’s social circle or environment, it can normalize disordered eating behaviors and unhealthy body-related obsessions. These behaviors may include extreme dieting, excessive exercise, or other practices aimed at achieving an idealized body shape or size.
- Emotional Impact: Speaking negatively about your own body or the bodies of others can have a profound emotional impact, including increased anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem. These emotional responses can trigger or exacerbate disordered eating behaviors.
- Reinforcement of Negative Thoughts and Beliefs: Ongoing intrusive thoughts and exposure to negative body discourse can reinforce any negative emotions and beliefs you have about your body, which can further fuel disordered eating behaviors.
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What Matters More Than Just the Behaviors Themselves
After reading the above, you may be thinking, I know tons of people who’ve dieted, who own a scale, or have made less than kind comments about their body, and they don’t go on to develop an eating disorder, and you are right. Everyone, at some point and time in their life, has engaged in one or a combination of risky behaviors that can lead to an eating disorder, but there’s a key caveat to keep in mind.
They’re not obsessive-compulsive, chronic users of the behaviors.
Notice the modifiers attached to each of the behaviors listed in this article:
- Routine Body-Checking
- Extreme Dieting and Restrictive Eating
- Obsessive Weighing and Fixation on Body Weight
- Constant Body, Food, and Exercise Comparison
- High Consumption of Image-Centric Media
- Incessant Negative Body Discourse
The behaviors performed to any degree can be catalysts for developing an unhealthy relationship with food or body dissatisfaction, but it’s when they become compulsive behaviors that their risk level greatly increases.
For example, taking the occasional glimpse at your body as you’re changing clothes and not loving what you see but also not letting it ruin your day is very different than intentionally checking your body multiple times a day, judging and scrutinizing every perceived flaw, and feeling an immediate need to “fix” it.
When the behavior is happening at a high frequency, feels obsessive or compulsive, or has a direct impact on your mood or self-worth, it becomes more risky.
Lastly, it’s important to note that eating disorders and body dysmorphia are complex mental health conditions with a variety of contributing factors, including genetics; experiences of physical, emotional, or sexual trauma; and a family history of disordered eating. While the above behaviors can be contributing factors, they’re often one part of a larger web of influences that are beyond one’s control.