Eating Disorders

Disordered Eating IS an Eating Disorder: Why We Must Stop Acting Like It’s Not

Lately, I’ve come across a bunch of literature about disordered eating that intends to separate it from “the more serious confines” of an eating disorder. As someone who has been through the gauntlet of an eating disorder, and spent ample time with others who have been through it as well, I find this perspective—that disordered eating is any less unhealthy, or for that matter, any different—to be incredibly distorted. Health-related articles—on the internet especially—are dangerous territory to tread. These in particular often make bold statements, dressed up as truths, which lack the basis of research or authors with any credibility.

To get a clearer idea of what I’m referring to, consider this description of one author’s experience with so-called disordered eating (which he wants us to believe is like the sweeter sister of a big, bad eating disorder):

For the first time in my life, I scrutinized nutrition labels. I parted company with meat and learned to love tofu and soymilk. For breakfast, it was fruits and fat-free yogurt. I’d begin my small dinners with an appetizer of boiled broccoli. No desserts. As my weekly miles piled up, my waistline started shrinking. I announced each lost pound to my wife like a sniper taking out another enemy soldier. The flattened landscape of my belly made me swoon. Food became one of my mind’s favorite topics. I got off on the sensation of my stomach grumbling and learned to fall asleep hungry. But god forbid the scale go up. If it did, I seethed.

Disordered eating differs from an eating disorder in that food intake isn’t manipulated to deal with underlying issues of depression, anxiety, self-esteem, and control. The most common forms of eating disorders–anorexia (self-starvation) and bulimia (binging and purging)–are serious psychiatric illnesses, with significant physical consequences, and can be fatal. Disordered eating, on the other hand, refers to less-severe abnormal behaviors: eliminating food groups from your diet; regularly replacing meals with energy bars or coffee drinks; excessive weighing and calorie-counting; and tacking on extra miles as punishment for, say a cheeseburger the night before. Often, the regimen includes compulsive exercising like hitting the bike after an 18-miler.

It is hard for me to not be repulsed by these paragraphs, and, quite frankly, angry. In short, they highlight how seriously ignorant much of our society is about what’s healthy and what’s not. Very few people understand what an eating disorder actually entails, and where the disorders often stem from. People are usually shocked to learn that a person doesn’t just wake up one morning and decide to be anorexic. Another misconception that needs to be debunked? The majority of eating disordered people do not wholly eliminate eating from their lives—I ate every day throughout my anorexia, just not enough, and what I did consume was quickly burned off with a grueling daily run. My thoughts, like the above author’s, revolved entirely around food and weight. I, too, read nutrition labels like a bible dictating right versus wrong—which ultimately translated to fat free versus not. Boiled broccoli? I considered that a meal once too. Flat stomach as a signifier of self-worth? Yep, I’ve been there.

But as a result of these habits I was hospitalized. The man who wrote this piece presumably weighed more than I did from the start—perhaps the changes weren’t outwardly as drastic. This, however, doesn’t mean he was doing any less damage to his body, and subsequently, his psyche. I’ve been in treatment with lots of people who don’t believe they should be there since they’re “not obviously emaciated”—even if all the doctor’s tests display that their body is breaking down inside—that they are, essentially, dying. Our society only contributes to this myth. People saw me shedding pounds I never needed to lose in the first place, and they applauded me much more often than they’d probably like to admit now.

What really strikes me—and I would find it almost humorous if it wasn’t so damn sad—is the author’s belief that his issues don’t stem from psychological problems (depression, anxiety, and self-esteem or control issues). Food issues, of every color and stripe, are always borne out of one or more of those issues. Sure, on the surface they might read simply as, “I feel fat,” but such a statement automatically implies the presence of some of the aforementioned issues, especially when it is a feeling that becomes so all-consuming.

The author continues to make the supposed distinction between DE and ED, this time regarding the female experience, by naming items that could be pulled straight from a doctor’s checklist for identifying an eating disorder:

The costs can be profound: Prolonged disordered eating can lead to anemia; loss of muscle strength, endurance, and coordination; more frequent injuries, including stress fractures; longer recovery time after intense workouts and races; anxiety; and fertility issues in women. The most worrisome consequence, however, is the onset of a full-blown eating disorder.

Yes, I’m afraid you read that correctly. Apparently, losing your period—as I did—and enduring multiple pains/injuries/anxieties—as I did—is not quite enough to place you in what you might call…deep shit. I’m left wondering what, exactly, this man believes a full-blown eating disorder entails? Death by heart attack, perhaps? Which, I might add, is a common result of every single “disordered-eating” symptom he mentions—regardless of how emaciated someone appears from the outside.

To be sure, I do believe that a less-intense level of disordered eating exists—but it is not what this man, or most of society, assumes it to be. Those who go on fad diets once in a blue moon, or worry about their weight occasionally [but don’t let it control their lives], may be “disordered eaters.” But when it reaches the extremes described above, a person is not just inching their way towards a disorder—they’ve hit home plate.

The article continues its twisted, pseudo-fact-telling:

Leslie Bonci, R.D., director of sports nutrition at Pittsburgh’s UPMC Center for Sports Medicine, says the most common sign of disordered eating is when food choices become about what not to eat.

“A lot of people have their good-food list and their bad-food list,” Bonci says. “Nothing high in fat, nothing fried. They’ll eat only organic, only local, won’t touch anything processed. They might start to avoid social situations because they don’t know what the food will be.”

Now, I don’t want to imply that people who lean heavily towards organic foods or who don’t want to shove Twinkies down their throat are disordered. However, if a person’s food rules are so unwavering that they refuse to touch food that’s non-organic, no matter how hungry they might be, they’re on a very slippery slope. Such extremes lead people in a very unhealthy direction more often than not. But Bonci’s last point is what’s most notable, as it’s blaringly incorrect. If a person is avoiding social situations because of their food fears—as I did many, many times—they are entrenched in an eating disorder, and they—without a doubt—need to get help.

Expecting that those who should seek treatment are solely the people who eat virtually nothing, or look like they’re crossing the pond to death, is a huge societal misstep (especially when the near-death look is becoming hard to identify thanks to its fucked-up normalization). This collective belief feeds into eating disorders, nurturing the insanity rather than assuaging it. It was incredibly easy for me to deny having a problem as a result. When my friends found out I had to be hospitalized, some—though not all—were genuinely surprised. “I thought you just worked out a lot,” they would say, or, “But I’ve seen you eat…salads only…but still.” To put the absurdity of this in perspective (though I by no means blame my friends for said-absurdity, and rather society as a whole): my doctors were so worried for my life when I was placed in treatment that I was not allowed to leave my bed for the first week.

It’s frightening to me that the majority of our society is so far off the mark when it comes to diagnosing these life-threatening, food-related issues. So many factors contribute to the build-up of an eating disorder, and while I would never blame the outside world entirely, it does make a huge contribution. If disordered eating was a famous athlete, society would be its number one sponsor, what with its deluge of cleanses, the glorifying of uber thinness, fat-shaming (or curvy-shaming, for that matter), etc. I can’t think of many friends, male or female, who haven’t struggled with these issues on some level—and lots of them in very extreme ways. In a recent writing workshop I took, someone shared a story about their struggle with bulimia. Afterwards, 11 out of 12 people in the group shared their own stories re: disordered eating. That is not a fact to be taken lightly.

We need to start facing this issue head on, rather than swimming in denial simply because it’s easier than dealing with the totally disturbing truth. We need to expect and demand more from health writers and gurus who preach to us regularly from their own corrupt, ignorant perspectives. Half of them lack any credible authority on the issues and speak from their own disordered perches. Allowing these myths to prevail is akin to allowing a deadly virus to spread, despite having the tools to make it stop. These disorders can and will swallow people whole if they aren’t attacked, hollowing a person out until they are merely a shell of themselves, and perhaps one day, just not there at all. I personally don’t want to be a party to that, do you?


This is part of an ongoing series aimed at unveiling unspoken truths behind eating disorders and taking the shame and secrecy out of discussing them. In many ways (though mostly re: physical appearance) I am recovered, but it is an ongoing struggle—a point that I feel is important to make to readers.

12 replies »

  1. Brilliant, bunny!

    “Its” versus “it’s”. A couple of them need to be corrected


    On Thursday, September 19, 2013, T w e n t i e s – C o l l e c t i v e wrote:

    > ** > Twenties Collective posted: “Lately, Ive come across a bunch of > literature about disordered eating that intends to separate it from the > more serious confines of an eating disorder. As someone who has been > through the gauntlet of an eating disorder, and spent ample time with > others”

  2. So nice to have a grand daughter who 1) teaches me something every time I communicate with her and 2) is so willing to share herself with others! Color me proud!

  3. I think it’s difficult to navigate eating disorders in our society because of the extremes we’re exposed to, too. I’ve always been scared to wake up one day weighing 500 lbs. I’m also scared to wake up one day and weigh 100lbs (which, for my body, is dangerously low.) Where is the “healthy” between six big macs a day and six celery sticks a day? Know what I’m sayin’? It’s not a thing I’ve ever really seen.

    Sharing my own psychological problems:
    After reading this, I want to go out and eat a whole box of Twinkies, just to prove I’m more grown up than that middle school girl who literally only ate celery for a while. But that’s not healthy, either! When can we EVER feel good about the food we eat?

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