Disordered Eating: What It Is & What to Do About It

Food and exercise seem like two topics that are constantly being discussed in the media. Whether we’re talking about which celebrity is going paleo or which one spends hours a day on the elliptical, our society is pretty obsessed with what people are eating and how they’re working out afterward.

When we live in a society that idealizes certain body types (and shames others), it’s understandable that many of us have complicated relationships with both food and exercise. But how can you identify when your relationship with food and exercise may actually be an eating disorder?

We reached out to Christie Dondero and Ashley Kula of Rock Recovery, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that supports the journey to freedom from disordered eating, to learn the truth about what disordered eating is and what we can do about it.

What is disordered eating?


When most of us think of eating disorders, we think of anorexia and bulimia. But those two singular eating disorders don’t tell the whole story.

Ashley Kula, Community Relations and Development Specialist at Rock Recovery, uses a formal explanation when describing disordered eating. “Disordered eating can refer to a number of abnormal behaviors, such as food restriction, binge eating, purging, use of diet pills/laxatives, belief that one’s self-worth or self-esteem is based on their body shape/weight, body dysmorphia, excessive exercise, obsessive calorie counting, anxiety about foods or food groups, etc.,” Kula explains.

That explanation includes a lot of behaviors, but Christie Dondero, Executive Director at Rock Recovery, offers a simpler definition of disordered eating: using food to cope with life.

“There’s nothing wrong with the extra ice cream cone during a breakup or paying extra attention to how many greens we’re eating from time to time,” Dondero says. “But when food and/or exercise become the primary coping tool or focus in our lives and take away from relationships and physical/mental health, there’s a problem.”  

And this is how people can get confused about what constitutes disordered eating. To many people, the term “eating disorders” is restricted to cases where people are purging after each meal or are starving themselves—but that’s not what disordered eating is all about. Not at all.

“If I can’t listen to my best friend’s story over lunch because I am obsessed over whether or not to have that dessert, there’s a problem. If I find myself skipping plans with a friend to run a few extra miles because I am concerned with how many cookies I ate that day, there’s a problem,” Dondero says.

According to the most recent statistics from NEDA, college students have some of the highest prevalence rates for disordered eating. An estimated 95 percent of individuals who suffer from eating disorders are between the ages of 12 and 26. This means that college-aged students are a high risk population. Statistics have shown that roughly 91 percent of females on college campuses have attempted to control their weight utilizing various dieting practices, and 25 percent report using dangerous methods (such as binging and purging) to lose or control their weight.  

Misconceptions about disordered eating

One common misconception about eating disorders is that to have one, you have to look a certain way: stick thin. This kind of misconception is detrimental to those who are caught up in disordered eating.

Related: Binge Eating: The Invisible Eating Disorder

“Some struggling with eating disorders who may be considering seeking help can be discouraged because they think they aren’t ‘sick enough.’ Insurance companies, in their own way, contribute to this myth by routinely denying coverage to those struggling with eating disorders because ‘they aren’t sick enough,’ even though early intervention is one of the most effective methods of preventing someone from having a full-blown eating disorder,” Kula says. “There is no ‘sick enough.’ If an individual is regularly exhibiting disordered eating behaviors, help is needed.”

Another common misconception about disordered eating is that it’s a “white woman’s disease.” But the truth is, eating disorders transcend gender, sexual orientation, race, and age. Anyone can struggle with an eating disorder. This myth contributes to the hesitance of marginalized communities in getting the help they need. NEDA’s Marginalized Voices Project is working to spread the message that everyone’s experience is equally valid and equally deserving of care and recovery.

Addressing signs of disordered eating

In someone you know  

There are a number of ways that you can look for signs of disordered eating in those around you, whether it be a friend, roommate, family member or significant other.

Kula notes that one of her best friends was the first person to recognize her disordered eating behaviors. Her friend addressed the issue upfront and demanded that she get the help that she needed.

“She noted my habit of counting calories, spending excessive hours in the gym, and literally weighing my own self-worth by what number was on the scale,” Kula says. “Because she had struggled with an eating disorder in high school, she recognized what I was doing and confronted me about it.”

Like many who struggle with disordered eating, she denied that there was a problem. But the truth was that it was a behavioral pattern that had been playing itself out since high school, when she first began exploring dangerous weight loss behaviors.

So, what can you do if you see signs of disordered eating in someone you love?

“The worst thing family and friends can do is accuse, criticize, or tell someone to ‘just eat’ or to ‘just stop eating,’ or to say that what they’re doing is ‘gross,’” Kula says. “Those aren’t helpful, and they aren’t solutions for someone who is struggling with an eating disorder.”

Related: What to Do When Your Friend Has an Eating Disorder

The best thing you can do is to educate yourself about disordered eating before you address the issue at all. It’s important to understand that eating disorders aren’t a choice that someone makes.

Kula’s friend was particularly helpful, since she had experience with disordered eating herself. “She was able to give me a lot of valuable information and resources, first about accepting that I needed help and preparing myself to ask for and accept it, but also about the various programs that our university had, as well as outside professional help,” Kula says.

That doesn’t mean that you won’t be able to help your friend if you haven’t experienced disordered eating yourself. Even if you don’t have personal experience, you can still be a strong support system for your friend by making sure you are available for them when they need it, to help them work through all of the treatment and counseling options, and by not stigmatizing your friend (or disordered eating) throughout the process.

For many family members and friends, it’s easy to think, “it’s not my place,” or “they’ll ask for my help when they need it.” But the truth is, eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. It’s never too soon to get help.

In yourself

Those struggling with disordered eating also generally have a history of (or are at risk of experiencing) depression and/or anxiety. Prevalence of depression and anxiety in those with eating disorders makes sense, since dealing with disordered eating can be such an isolating experience.

When Kula got to college, she watched as her relationships (both romantic and platonic) began to fall apart. She spent more and more time at the gym, and less time studying or cultivating new friendships that would be benefitted her during her first year away at college“As I began to see my grades drop, my relationship continuing to deteriorate, and myself sink into a state of depression and anxiety, I started spending entire afternoons at the gym and became even more obsessed with what I ate,” Kula says. “I was very lonely, but found satisfaction in the control I thought I was exhibiting over my life.”

But despite those feelings of depression and/or anxiety, some of those struggling with disordered eating still can't bring themselves to reach out or ask for help. “Some struggle with accepting or asking for help, or even recognizing that they need it, despite how isolating struggling with disordered eating can be,” Kula says. “These are the ones who don’t or won’t ask for help and may need help from family and friends before embracing help.”

If you are experiencing similar feelings of isolation and are concerned that some of the behaviors that you have been exhibiting may be signs of an eating disorder, please consider taking this online screening test. This assessment is totally anonymous and will allow you to assess your risk of an eating disorder. The screening takes just a few minutes. All of the questions were developed by treatment professionals in the eating disorders field and are designed to assess whether or not clinical help is necessary based on your responses.

If you would prefer to talk to someone about whether or not your behaviors might indicate disordered eating, you can also call the NEDA hotline at 1-800-931-2237 anytime.

Dealing with disordered eating


Treatment options  

There are several different options when it comes to treating disordered eating or an eating disorder in either yourself or someone you love.

For those based in Washington D.C., Rock Recovery offers an excellent outpatient recovery program. This program offers the benefits of group meals, therapy groups, and experiential therapies in a community setting.

“Rock Recovery bridges the gap in treatment that is available for disordered eating and the overall understanding of the illness,” Dondero says. “We are passionate about helping to decrease stigma and getting people the access to care they need and deserve to recover.” The program is designed to enable individuals to prioritize their recovery, while realizing most are unable to forfeit their jobs/studies." For more information on Rock Recovery’s Individual Recovery Program, click here.)

Another great option is to visit NEDA’s treatment options and support groups database to find the help and support you need to get through this experience, whether you’re struggling with disordered eating firsthand or are supporting a loved one who struggles with disorderd eating.

Supporting the cause

One of the best ways that you can help in the fight against disordered eating, whether or not you’ve personally been affected by an eating disorder, is to help create a safe space free of stigma and misconceptions about eating disorders.

Related: I Discovered That Eating Disorder Recovery is Possible

You can spread awareness about disordered eating by encouraging your local community to actively promote a healthy body image and healthy relationships with food and exercise, to encourage businesses to have body-friendly marketing practices (appealing to consumers without promoting dangerous behaviors or practices), and providing education opportunities from a young age. The more we know about eating disorders, the better.

Education

Education is one of the best ways that you can support the fight against disordered eating. You can educate yourself using the massive amount of materials available on NEDA’s website, spanning from general information about disordered eating to recovery issues and beyond.

You can also find an educational program to come to your school, organization, or community to teach you about the dangers of disordered eating and how to develop a positive body image and health relationship to food and exercise. Rock Recovery’s “Hungry for What?” college education series addresses disordered eating behaviors and dispels myths that otherwise normalized eating behaviors—like counting calories, restricting yourself, abusing diet pills or laxatives, etc.—are NOT normal, and are in fact unhealthy.

The program helps to establish healthy and safe ways of approaching food, exercise and body image, and helps to engage college students in a conversation that enables them, at times, to recognize and address their own disordered eating behaviors. The program leaders also provide information for relevant resources and work to get counseling services on campus involved so that students know whom they can go to if they need help.

With roughly 91 percent of females on college campuses attempting to control their weight and 25 percent of them using dangerous methods (such as binging and purging) to lose or control their weight - we don’t have time to wait. Now is the time to educate yourself and those around you about the dangers of disordered eating. Visit NEDA or Rock Recovery for more information now.