Recognizing Disordered Eating

I recently went to a conference that was advertised as promoting health and wellness, but it ended up being a landmine of eating disorder triggers. My head was ringing for much of the conference; I had to talk myself down several times after people repeatedly said, “I work out X hours a day,” “I don’t eat X, I heard it’s really bad for you,” and a vendor commented that the yoga pants I was wearing weren’t fitting me properly, and suggested that the yoga pants she was selling would smooth out my “bumps and lumps.”

Midway through the conference, a 12-year-old girl approached my booth with a handful of balloons floating above her head. 

“This is Patricia,” she said, pointing out a gold deflated balloon, “She’s having a rough day.” 

I instantly recognized a shift in my mood when the girl started talking to me, and she seemed to pick up that I enjoyed her. For the rest of the conference, she hovered around my booth, taking little jabs at the ridiculous diet culture that was so pervasive at this event. 

When lunch came for the vendors, she scrunched up her face, “That’s lunch? That ain’t lunch. That’s a snack.” 

I had to laugh. She was saying all the things I wanted to say, but she was less inhibited to do so because she hasn’t been programmed to think her desires are wrong.           

Following her lead, we found some “real” food at the event, and as we are standing in line, I told her, “You know, you’d make a really good boss someday.”


“Yeah. You know, some girls feel like they can’t be bosses. Why do you think that is?”

She thought for a second. “Maybe because boys are taller? I don’t care about that though. There’s a tall boy in my class, taller than the ceiling, and I can beat him up no problem.”

She needed to be the keynote speaker at this conference. She was eons beyond the people who were promoting disordered behavior as “health”. It took me years of self-exploration to get to the place that this 12-year-old knew so naturally. I was both impressed and envious of how easily she laughed in the face of diet culture.

Towards the end of the conference, when I was about to leave, the girl gave me a necklace she made at another vendor’s station, a pendant that had “#Girlboss” stamped on it. 

During this event, I started to think about how normalized disordered eating and thinking is. If you are not conscious about what eating disorders are, you may not even find a problem with what this conference was promoting, but if you are in recovery or in the field of eating disorders (or both), you know exactly how harmful these types of events are. 

Because diet culture is so normalized, I wanted to point out some signs you may have disordered thoughts, behaviors, or emotions. You may find that you have more issues in this area than you thought, and unfortunately, you’re not alone. According to a survey from SELF Magazine in 2008, 75% of women across cultures reported having eating disorder thoughts, feelings, or behaviors. This number is very disturbing, but as eating disorder professionals know, it is also not surprising. Our culture around food and bodies is very disordered. To help you determine if you are part of this statistic, consider the following signs:

1. You think about food, exercise, and your body a lot. This can range from a low-level anxiety about whether you’re “healthy” enough, to obsessing about food intake, weight, and exercise constantly. If it’s on your mind a lot, then it’s causing you a lot of distress, and it’s likely a problem.

2. You have tried many ways to lose weight or change your body. Unfortunately many of us buy into the idea that changing our appearance will drastically change our internal worlds, but this could not be further from the truth. Yes, it will distract you from the problems you think you’re going to solve, but the problems will still be there if you lose the weight. Changing your body in this way also works in the opposite way than we think it does. Your body has a “set point” which is the natural, healthiest weight for you. When you spend much of your life dieting and trying to lose weight, this natural “set point” actually moves to a higher weight. This is why some people gain weight back and some after they lose a lot of weight. Your body is course-correcting.

3. You would be upset if you gained a few pounds.Our bodies’ natural weight ebbs and flows all the time. This is normal and has nothing to do with whether we are healthy or not. If gaining a few pounds would be detrimental to your emotional well-being, or even put you in a bad mood for a few hours, it is very likely that you have a disordered relationship with your body. 

4. You describe food and bodies as “healthy” and “unhealthy”. Just like people in any body can have an eating disorder, people in any body can be healthy. Just because someone has a larger body does not make them unhealthier, and the reverse is true with people in smaller bodies. Likewise, there is not a hierarchy of food; food is only healthy and unhealthy given the context. We crave certain foods mostly when our body needs the nutritional and emotional benefits of those foods. Craving a cheeseburger is not bad; it likely means that you are craving the umami flavors, the warmth of the meat, and the nutritional elements that a cheeseburger gives you (protein, carbohydrates, etc.). You may also be craving something “juicy” in your life—a good book, a new romance. There is no morality attached to what you like to eat. If this is a consistent problem for you, I suggest looking for a dietician that specializes in Intuitive Eating.

5. When you don’t exercise “enough”, you feel shame. Your body will tell you if you’ve had enough movement. Some days you need less movement than others, but if you are finding that you need a specific amount of exercise and are rigid about this, it’s time you take a look at this. If you’re unsure whether this applies to you, ask yourself: what if I didn’t do my exercise routine for a day? A week? A month? If you feel taking a break from your routine would cause too much distress for you, talk about this with a professional.

The first step towards recovery is awareness, and unfortunately, our society promotes diet culture so persistently that we don’t even realize how disordered it is. However, unearthing your natural, intuitive potential opens up your life in ways that are so, so worth the pain.