“Everyone is a little disordered, right?”
I’ve been asked this question a countless number of times by friends and family when they discover that I want to work in the field of eating disorders.
Sometimes the person posing the question is referring to the fact that everyone occasionally overeats, eats based off of their emotions, or is unable to stick to a diet.
However, this type of eating is not disordered; this type of eating is normal.
It’s normal to go out with friends and eat a little more than you usually would sometimes. It’s normal to enjoy an extra cookie or two over the holiday season. It’s normal to enjoy the food that you eat. It’s normal to not be on a diet. It’s normal to be flexible around food, and it’s normal to have an imperfect diet. This type of eating is not disordered.
Other times, however, the people that ask me that question are really implying that it’s normal to count calories, restrict food, binge/purge, and manipulate our bodies through dieting and excessive exercise.
As common as that behavior may be in our culture, it is not, and will never be “normal”.
There’s a difference between being mindful about what we eat vs. being obsessive. There’s a difference between being scheduled vs. being rigid. There’s a difference between tweaking your diet to improve your overall health vs. restricting food to lose unnecessary body weight. There’s a difference between eating healthy portions and going to bed hungry. There’s a difference between exercising because you enjoy it and exercising because you feel like you have to. The latter of the two behaviors will never, ever be healthy.
In her book Almost Anorexic, Jenni Schaefer explains, “Not everyone who worries about what he or she eats and weight has a problem with food. And not all attempts to eat healthfully are bad. But crossing the line from normal eating to almost [anorexia, bulimia, or binge-eating disorder] -even just a little, can be a big problem. When food and weight begin to consume your life, joy is often what gets cut out to make room for all of that obsessing.”
The “almost” eating disorder is dangerous because if it goes undetected and unchecked, it puts us at a serious risk for developing a full-blown eating disorder. Here’s an example of how my “almost” eating disorder took a turn for the worst:
When I first began to diet, it started as an innocent attempt to consume more fruits and veggies and exercise a little more. No big deal. The first 6 months of my diet, I didn’t lose any weight. The situation seemed pretty normal to me.
However, after those 6 months, I began to wonder why I hadn’t lost any weight, and why all of my hard work was going to waste. I decided to cut back on calories and certain food groups in order to lose the weight. I also increased my physical activity, working out twice a day. I began to lose some weight, and usually went to bed hungry. I stopped having my period, and began getting compliments on how good my body looked. The compliments and weight loss motivated me to work harder and harder, and lose as much weight as I could. Some of my close family questioned my workout habits and diet, but I quickly wrote them off, labeling them as “over dramatic”. This was the beginning of my experience with “almost” anorexia.
I went online to check out the diagnostic criteria for anorexia just to be sure that I was doing OK.
I did stop having my menstrual cycle, however, I hadn’t lost too much weight yet- or so I thought. I did occasionally binge-eat, but I didn’t attribute that to calorie restriction. I was convinced that I lacked self-control and that binging was just a moment of weakness. I didn’t meet criteria for an eating disorder-whew! I told myself that I was good and that I didn’t need any help, even though my mind was slowly being taken over by an obsession with calorie counting, food restriction, and excessive/compulsive exercise.
A year went by, I still didn’t have my period, and by that time I had lost a significant amount of weight. My mom and I decided to seek out the advice of a registered dietitian nutritionist to make sure I was still doing OK.
I shared with the registered dietitian nutritionist that I thought I may have a problem with eating (this was a big step for me, to admit that I thought I had “almost anorexia”), however, the dietitian quickly dismissed my concerns and told me that I was at a normal weight, and that I didn’t binge or restrict enough to have an eating disorder. This terrible, horrible advice only fueled the fire for my eating disorder, giving me permission to restrict and exercise even more so than I was already doing.
By the time I sought treatment for my eating disorder, I did meet criteria for anorexia, which made my road to recovery even more difficult than if I sought help when I first began showing warning signs and symptoms of disordered eating. However, I was still considered to be at a “normal” weight for my height during most of my recovery, and I looked very much “normal” to individuals who didn’t know how I previously looked before my eating disorder. There was no one in my life (myself included) that was educated enough to recognize my “almost eating disorder” for what it was, which is why I am so adamant about sharing my story.
Anorexia is not a glamorous illness by any means. If I could go back in time, I would have sought help from an eating disorder dietitian the second I realized that my relationship with food was off. Not because I met criteria for an eating disorder, but because I would have been able to prevent it. I would have been able to prevent the thousands of dollars that my family spent on treatment and medications. I would have been bale to prevent the pain of the refeeding and nutritional restoration process. I would have been able to enjoy college a lot more than I actually did. I would have been able to do a lot of things that my “almost eating disorder” (and eventual eating disorder) took away from me.
When in doubt, seek help.
There is no certain weight loss expectation or weight limit.
There is no certain physical appearance or body shape.
There is no certain gender, race, religion, or nationality.
If your relationship with food, your body, and your exercise routine is disturbing your well-being, on whatever level that may be, you deserve help. Coming from someone who did, don’t wait to seek help.