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Carol Cottrill

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What is Disordered Eating?
by Carol Cottrill   
Rated "G" by the Author.
Last edited: Thursday, April 26, 2012
Posted: Thursday, April 26, 2012

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Experts explain what exactly disordered eating is, and how it relates to eating disorders. This is part one in a two-part series exploring disordered eating and its relation to other irregular eating behaviors.

Eating disorders are popular in celebrity news, and they’re also being brought to the forefront with awareness weeks like the National Eating Disorders Awareness Week that’s coming up at the end of February 2012.

However, while eating disorders affect a smaller percentage of the general population, disordered eating affects many people (and is arguably a “normal” but unhealthy part of life because so many people struggle with it).

Experts explain what exactly disordered eating is, and how it relates to eating disorders. This is part one in a two-part series exploring disordered eating and its relation to other irregular eating behaviors.

<< What is disordered eating? >>

Carol Cottrill, a certified nutritional consultant, said in an email that many behaviors can be considered disordered eating, but there is one broad definition.

“Any behavior that negatively affects your physical and emotional well-being and interferes with your daily functioning is a red flag that you may be engaging in disordered eating,” Cottrill said.

“The bottom line is that even though disordered eating behaviors don’t necessarily include potentially fatal outcomes like anorexia or bulimia, women suffer a wide range of emotional and physical distress because of disordered eating. And disordered eating is always a side-kick of eating disorders. Even as an individual recovers from life-threatening eating disorders, disordered eating often takes its place.”

The idea of disordered eating can be considered controversial, she said.

“A significant problem lies deep within what has become a compelling cultural norm, for we are a nation obsessed with attaining an unnaturally thin body, a nation whose renowned health and fitness experts condone and endorse restrictive dieting as safe, even compulsory behavior for weight management while turning a blind eye to the facts,” Cottrill said.

She said that a majority of women are disordered eaters and a smaller portion have severe eating disorders that could be fatal if untreated. In fact, “more than six in ten women are disordered eaters,” Cottrill said.

“Another one in ten struggles with more serious and potentially lethal eating disorders.” These statistics come from a survey.

“Eating habits that in today’s world are considered ordinary and predictable approaches to weight management are actually disordered eating behaviors,” Cottrill said. “Banishing carbohydrates, skipping meals, and the latest craze — cleansing fasts — are, truth be told, disordered eating.”

But the more extreme dieting behaviors are not the only behaviors that are considered disordered eating, according to Cottrill.

“Disordered eating includes obsessive calorie counting, naming foods ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ becoming a vegan or vegetarian solely with the hope of losing weight, smoking for weight loss, weighing oneself compulsively, thinking of food more than half the time, fear of gaining even a pound, exercising no matter what (even during illness), following strict food rules, eliminating entire food groups (outside of religious reasons), dieting for more than half of one’s life, eating the same safe foods every day, using diet pills and abusing laxatives, avoiding food after a certain time (like 7 p.m.), avoiding social situations where it’s difficult to adhere to a limited eating plan, keeping a stash of special diet food wherever you go, and counting anything — points, fat grams, carbs, or calories — obsessively,” she said.

If you think about it, everyone around you probably is a disordered eater in some way. In fact, all of my female friends have engaged in one or more of these behaviors that Cottrill labels as disordered eating.

Amy Bourdo, the executive director of the Eating Disorder Foundation, defined disordered eating through an email.

“Disordered eating is a persistent low-grade preoccupation with food and body image that involves a combination of dieting, restricting, and/or overeating/binging in an attempt to manage emotional distress,” Bourdo said. “Activities of daily living can be minimally impaired.”

Renee Clauselle, the founder and head psychologist of the company Child and Family Psychology, and the founder and director of School Mental Health at St. Johns University, said an email that disordered eating in her opinion includes binge eating disorder.

“Unhealthy behaviors, such as binge-eating, chronic overeating, and chronic dieting are termed disordered eating behavior,” Clauselle said. “Binge-eating disorder is the most dangerous of them. It can cause significant weight gain, leading to all the associative health problems.”

Karen Koenig, a licensed clinical social worker, an expert on the psychology of eating and the author of “Nice Girls Finish Fat,” said in an email that she prefers to use a different term instead of “disordered eating.”

“I prefer the word disregulated because overeating (or under-eating) is a problem of self-disregulation,” Koenig said. “The opposite of disregulated eating is regulated eating, which means not too much and not too little, within a comfortable range. The opposite of disordered eating, ordered eating, makes the process sound too rigid and prescribed.”

Bonnie Brennan, the clinical director of Eating Recovery Center’s Adult Partial Hospitalization Program, considers some behaviors that are thought by some to be diet tips to be disordered eating.

“Disordered eating can be behaviors, rules, diet tricks, etc., that are
outside of normal eating behavior,” Brennan said. “For example, many diet tricks are considered disordered eating, such as chewing each bite a certain number of
times, taking a sip of water between every bite or avoiding foods of a
certain color or nutritional make-up.”

<< Strategies to overcome disordered eating >>

Cottrill has some tips for overcoming disordered eating:

  1. “Recognize the disorder and give up the diet du jour. Choose sanity over scarcity.”
  2. “Since disordered eating is all about extremes, even out your eating. Aim for balance and moderation rather than absolutes and deprivation.”
  3. “Accept that the answers you seek won’t be found in the refrigerator — so go ahead and close the door. Look for solutions where they really exist. Take all the time you need (without the preoccupation of a diet) to reflect upon the emotions that deserve your attention.”
  4. “Opt for self-care over self-punishment. Indulge in only the best. Raise the bar. Take each day slowly, and relax in the comfort of knowing this: The food that is here today will be here tomorrow — because you’re no longer dieting. Evaluate your responses and food selections with curiosity and awareness rather than with reprimand and harsh self-judgment.”
  5. “Remember that diets simply do not work. What does work is relinquishing rules and eating authentically. It may take some time to unravel your disordered eating patterns, but when you do you’ll find your natural, healthy weight along with freedom of choice and peace of mind.”
  6. “Finally, and most important, the answers that you hunger after are hiding in plain sight — your own inner wisdom is all that you need. And to think, you’ve had it all along.”


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