Eating Disorders Vs. Healthy Eating

Let’s say a friend chooses to order a salad while the rest of your friends order pizza. Is this friend restricting calories to lose weight he doesn’t need to lose? Or does he genuinely just want a salad right now because pizza doesn’t sound appetizing at the moment? But what if this person does need to lose some weight and is working on a healthy weight loss plan?

Some people may eat in a way that makes others think, eating disorder. But this is a touchy accusation. You can’t point to every raw-foodist and claim they have an eating disorder. You can’t claim every vegan has eating disorder issues. And you can’t assume that just because someone eats a seemingly balanced diet that they don’t have an eating disorder. Some may eat in restrictive ways to avoid actual food allergies or find that they feel better eating this way, while others use “gluten intolerance” or “raw food diet” as an excuse to carry out their eating disorder behaviors in a more convincing way.

There is a difference between eating healthy for health reasons, and eating healthy out of intense fear of weight gain or being “poisoned” by “bad” food (i.e. orthorexia). There is a difference between stepping on the scale twice a day, and some body discontent we may feel once in a while and making small, manageable goals to change it.

Eating disorders are so difficult to identify in others, and sometimes even within ourselves, because of shame, denial, and fear. And when most of us hear “eating disorder” we may automatically think of the stereotypical 80-pound girl in the hospital hooked up to an IV. We may feel even more ashamed to try to identify ourselves with the label of an eating disorder, even though we are secretly bingeing, restricting religiously, only allow themselves to eat certain foods at certain times, or chew and spit behind closed doors.

So how do we know when someone who suddenly starts eating salads is not falling into an eating disorder, but only hoping to drop a few pounds and has no means of trying to drown themselves in the health food dogma?

We can’t see inside someone’s head. Eating disorders are based on the mental perceptions and anxiety surrounding food. Thus, refer back to the pizza-salad scenario:

Orthorexic: This person refuses to eat a bite of pizza and instead orders the salad. He may want to taste the pizza badly, but he feels it will poison or fatten his body if he decides to do so. He sticks with the salad and eats it, while perhaps telling everyone about why he shouldn’t be eating it. He may feel pious for not eating the “junk.”

Healthy: This eater decides to have a slice of pizza with friends as a break from the normal grilled chicken and salad routine. Or this healthy eater might not feel like pizza that night, so this person may happily order the salad without thinking twice about eating any pizza–just because the salad sounded better.

Anorectic: This person refuses to eat dinner with friends, or only sits down to the salad. Some anorectics may choose to eat large amounts of the lowest-calorie foods so that it looks like they are still eating (and eating large amounts at that), even though the meal may be something like less than 200 calories (this is often what I did in deep restriction).

Healthy: She may not be feeling very hungry, so she just orders the salad and doesn’t not eat much that night. She might have a few bites of pizza. She might eat more later when she gets home if she begins to feel hungry.

Binge/Purge: This person may indulge in the pizza with friends and look seemingly okay with it all. But he will feel the guilt consume him and possibly purge it through throwing up or exercise. Or the binger may order a salad, only to binge on their own pizza later, and possibly purge.

“Normal”: You’ve had a long day at work without much food and you come back home to eat more food than your stomach may be comfortable with. You may feel a little bloated and you know you ate more than you should but you don’t feel guilty about it. You carry on with the night knowing that this happens once in a while.

Eating disorders vary between people (how it starts, what works for recovery, and what their “rules” or “safe foods” may be). If food comes to the point of obsession (you avoid social situations, you are constantly thinking about food, and feel anxious with what or how much you have eaten), it’s time to look closer at your “healthy” eating habits.

8 replies
  1. Lily
    Lily says:

    Beautifully written post! You’ve hit on a lot of hazy ideas that people generally have and have very much managed to clearly and concisely structure them. Great insight for people researching the social aspect of eating disorders or eating disorder symptoms.

  2. Alison
    Alison says:

    These are good distinctions! You mapped them
    out in a very clear way. When thoughts about food take over the mind, seems to be the dividing line. I crossed that line in high school and into college. Some of the “old thoughts” have tried to come back here and there, but I’ve managed to recognize them for what they are and stay closer to normal than abnormal.

    A friend (who has a history with eating disorders) and I were talking about how hard it is to identify who is sick and who isn’t. Stereotypes exist, but they aren’t universal. I am glad to have friends and family with whom to give and receive honesty and love–we know each other well enough to see what is normal for that person and what might be the start of a veer from the good path.

    Blessings to you! –Alison

  3. Karen
    Karen says:

    I feel like using the excuse “I’m a raw-foodist” or “i’m vegan” is a great excuse to not eat that pizza.
    When I first became vegetarian, I thought “This is awesome! All this food I never wanted to eat, I no longer HAVE TO eat!” Being vegetarian/vegan definitely helps with excuses for not eating (it’s much easier if you’re eating out with friends/family who know your background) but it doesn’t always win you points.
    There is going to be a plus side and a bad side to every food decision one makes when any sort of diet is involved. People are always going to secretly blame YOU for their own body issues. Let the haters hate, i suppose, and do what you want to do for yourself.
    Karen (yeah, you know me)

  4. Annabel
    Annabel says:

    These are all very interesting thoughts. Do you find now on your journey that you have less of these thoughts? Or does your path of thinking take a bit of a different course now?

    • rachael
      rachael says:

      I think I have just as many of these negative thoughts. That seems to be the problem with eating disorders–it never leaves you for good. However, as I’ve learned to recognize these thoughts as part of my eating disorder, I know they are not rational. They are just as frequent, but I know how to respond to them in my mind in such a way as to reassure myself that everything will be “okay” if I eat a certain way or a certain type of food. It will take time to improve of course, but I am making progress. It’s about learning to live a “normal” life with these problems; like any other mental or physical illness, you recognize the signs and learn to deal with them the best you can.

  5. Jacquelynn Bourdon
    Jacquelynn Bourdon says:

    This is actually really informative for me. I know basics of your ‘common’ eating disorders, but beyond that, not much. Being a vegetarian I always get the question of whether I do it to lose weight, which is never the case with me. People are so fascinated with other peoples eating habits, and all these special diets that you see ‘trending’ are proof enough that people are willing to try anything to become thinner. If I (and other vegetarians) were to tell more people “Yeah, I lost a ton of weight from cutting meat out of my diet” one, I’d be lying and two, more and more people would be rushing to cut meat out of their diets.

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