There are lots of signs of an eating disorder, yet how to know if you have one can be tricky. One of the main reasons you may not know if you have an eating disorder is due to Diet Culture. More about that in a moment.
How to know for sure if you have an eating disorder? Ideally, an informed physician or psychologist would conduct an evaluation of your symptoms. Unfortunately, education and training for eating disorder treatment is woefully inadequate, especially among medical doctors.
Even worse is that a lot of medical professionals don’t actually know how to correctly diagnose an eating disorder. Instead they resort to stereotypes and myths, such as using weight as a main indicator. Or believing that only white teenage girls develop eating disorders.
By the way, in the United States, an estimated 30 million people of all ages and genders have an eating disorder.
So, how do you know if you have an eating disorder?
Knowing if you have one is complicated. Being diagnosed with one can be even more complicated. Again, eating disorders are easily misdiagnosed. And often overlooked by professionals. Many in the medical and psychiatric field do not have training in eating disorders. Or in nutrition. (Can you tell it’s a pet peeve of mine?)
Consider too that an eating disorder is often downplayed by the person suffering from one. S/he may not want it to be identified. Or not recognize that her thoughts and behaviors are part of a bona fid eating disorder.
By the way, you can’t tell by looking at a person if she has an eating disorder. Body size is not an indicator, nor is any specific sign a slam dunk indicator. Girls and boys, nonbinary people, women and men suffer from eating disorders.
You definitely can’t tell by looking at yourself in the mirror if you have an eating disorder. Often your own perception of your body size and shape is distorted.
What is the main challenge of knowing if you have an eating disorder?
A huge challenge for how you know if you have an eating disorder is Diet Culture.
In reality, Diet Culture makes it nearly impossible to distinguish between “normal” and “abnormal” eating and body image. What is considered ‘healthy’ in Diet Culture is often anything but.
Haven’t heard of Diet Culture before? It’s a system of beliefs that equates thinness with worth as a human being. Through the lens of Diet Culture, you’re taught to feel bad about your body. And to judge other people’s worth by their body too. Diet Culture is often disguised as “healthy lifestyle”, “eating clean”, or “Intermittent Fasting”.
No wonder eating disorders are so rampant. Or that what is and isn’t an eating disorder can be tricky to determine.
Diet culture’s solution to any problem is: “Lose weight and you’ll look better, feel better, and be better.”
Taking this insidious message to heart puts you on a fast(er) track to an eating disorder.
Of course more factors than Diet Culture are at play. Regardless, Diet Culture’s messages are pervasive and detrimental. To the point where you may be unaware you’ve internalized them and are being controlled.
Social media has fueled Diet Culture’s impact. (Instagram is considered the most influential. although I suspect TikTok is a contender for first spot.)
What follows is a list of potential indicators of an eating disorder. This is not a complete list! (Resources are also available online to help you determine if you have an eating disorder.)
Possible indicators that you may have an eating disorder include:
1. Preoccupation with food, weight and/or the shape of your body.
- Thinking about food all day – what you ate, wish you could eat, wish you did not eat, and how to compensate for what you ate.
- You’re constantly thinking about your body and comparing yourself to others, especially to people on social media.
- You weigh yourself often, and the number on the scale determines your mood and how the day goes.
2. Not eating certain foods for fear that something bad will happen to you.
- A common example is cutting out particular food groups out of fear that they will cause you to ‘get fat’.
- Another example is believing myths, such as sugar is toxic or addictive.
3. Feeling out of control over the amount of food you’ve eaten, at least once a week.
- You might have binges. If you feel a loss of control when eating, you’re bingeing.
- Bingeing is usually secretive. And is inevitable after a period of restriction.
- Sometimes you may think you’ve binged because you’ve eaten more than you planned.
4. Worrying about the nutrition and calorie content of foods.
- People with an eating disorder tend to get stressed about eating out. They may look at menus online in advance of going to a restaurant.
- More than others, people with an eating disorder are influenced by calorie information on menus.
- Someone with an eating disorder is likely to avoid going to restaurants, or to compensate before and/or after they eat.
- Avoiding social occasions if food is involved is common.
5. Feeling disgusted or anxious when looking at your body or seeing it in a mirror.
- A person with an eating disorder is likely preoccupied with looking at herself in the mirror. Or may go out of her way to avoid seeing her reflection.
- People with certain forms of an eating disorder may wear oversized clothing as a way to hide their size or shape.
6. Constantly comparing your body to friends’, social media influencers, and people you see at the gym.
- And feeling worse about yourself, regardless of the comparison.
- You long for your body to look more like so-and-so’s body. You may even think that if you could look like so-and-so, everything would be perfect! You’d be happy, then. (But not really.)
7. Feeling guilty after eating.
- Food is often categorized as good or bad. In reality, all food is just food. It doesn’t have moral quality.
- Having an eating disorder often means rigid rules.
- Violating any rules leads to guilt. Especially when the rules involve food.
- All-or-nothing thinking is common.
8. Intentionally making yourself vomit or exercise excessively so you don’t gain weight.
- These are called compensatory methods. They’re habit forming. And dangerous.
- The purging methods are secretive.
9. Being very aware of calories.
- You’re vigilant about the calorie or macro content of food, and/or the amount of calories you burn.
- You have rules about how many calories you’re allowed, and you may track the information in your head, on an app, or with pen and paper.
- The less you’ve eaten, the better the day. And the more successful you feel.
10. Needing to check your body’s appearance throughout the day.
- You may frequently mirror check, weigh yourself often, or pinch areas of your body to assess the amount of tissue.
- These are called checking behaviors and can become automatic.
- You engage in these behaviors for reassurance that body parts have not gotten larger.
11. Having other symptoms as a result of your behaviors.
- There are a myriad of medical symptoms and risks involved.
- “Everyday” physical consequences include headaches, fatigue, dizziness, light headedness, irregular heartrate, gi distress, and constipation.
- Depression, anxiety, and other mental health problems are common. Or become worse.
12. Treating your body as if it is an object, rather than as a beautiful expression of your life.
- When you focus on your weight, you are objectifying your body, as if it is a mold of clay to size and shape.
- Withholding food from yourself is punitive.
- What about practicing embodiment? BEING in your body as if your body were the instrument through which you live your glorious life?
Ok. So now what?
Early evaluation and diagnosis, as well as effective treatment, stack the deck favorably for recovery.
And, full, complete recovery is possible!
What if you’re still not sure if you have an eating disorder? Consider talking with a specialist on a hotline through one of the national organizations such as the National Eating Disorder Association.
Whether or not you have an eating disorder, educate yourself on topics such as fat stigma, privilege and other social injustices that make up Diet Culture.
Let’s ditch Diet Culture together. And delight in size and shape diversity.
Imagine actually enjoying food? Welcoming other pleasures? And feeling comfortable in your body?
This IS possible. As you learn to love yourself more, you’ll break free from the constraints of Diet Culture.
As you become more accepting of yourself, you teach others to be more accepting of you too. And of themselves. Before you know it, you’ll be teaching others to break free from Diet Culture too.
Greater inclusivity will reduce the rate and impact of eating disorders. And lead to unprecedented freedom FOR YOU to let your body be.
I’m reminded of Margaret Sanger’s words: “No one can consider [themselves] free who doesn’t own…. [their] own body.”
The first step toward freedom in your body is to admit having an eating disorder.
By letting go of the shackles of Diet Culture, you’ll be able to experience your life – “happiily full” and with abundance. .
Hi! I am Dr Elayne Daniels, a MA licensed psychologist with a passion to help people of all sizes and shapes improve their relationship with food and their body. If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, live in MA, and want help, please contact me here.