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.