February 27 through March 5, 2023 is National Eating Disorder Awareness Week,
“an annual campaign to educate the public about the realities of eating disorders and to provide hope, support, and visibility to individuals and families affected by eating disorders.”
Almost 30 million people in America struggle with eating disorders. And though eating disorders are common, they receive less funding and attention than many other mental health disorders, making support options hard to come by.
Eating disorder awareness is important so that individuals who are affected by them can get help. Eating disorders tend to get worse over time, and sometimes cause long-term health problems, but early identification of an eating disorder can mitigate long-term risks.
Read on to learn how you can develop a healthy relationship with food and determine if you or someone you know may need help overcoming an eating disorder.
How do you know if you have an eating disorder?
Food is nourishment for all the complex processes your body needs to carry out. It provides energy, gives your brain fuel to think and dream, you even need food in the form of calories when you sit still and do nothing. But not everyone has a healthy relationship with food and recognizing an eating disorder can be challenging. If you find that you eat too much or too little, feel guilty when you eat, or struggle with any of the following symptoms, you should consider reaching out for help.
- Self-induced vomiting
- Taking laxatives, diuretics, or diet pills other than as prescribed by your doctor
- Chewing food then spitting it out in the trash or a napkin
- Obsessing about your food’s cleanliness
- Feeling overweight even when you lose weight or are at a healthy weight
- Obsessing about your body image
- Having low body weight
- Having impulsive or irregular eating habits such as a desire to eat only one type of food
- Misusing insulin normally prescribed for diabetics, even if you are diabetic
- Feeling depressed, anxious, guilty, or disgusted with yourself when you eat food
- Talking excessively about food
- Cooking food but then won’t eat it
- Are always low energy
- Recently suffered an emotional trauma and can’t eat because of it
- Don’t want to talk about what you eat, or don’t eat with others
If you or anyone you know is struggling with any of the above symptoms, or if you’d like more information on how to recognize an eating disorder, there are several free online tools available.
Mental Health America has a free online screening tool here. And The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) has a free screening tool here for anyone ages 13 and up.
For support, resources, or treatment options for yourself or a loved one who’s struggling with an eating disorder, you can contact the NEDA Helpline by calling or texting (800) 931-2237. You can also use their live chat option here.
Here’s how you can have a healthy relationship with food
Eating disorders are serious medical and mental health issues which can lead to long-term health problems. That’s why it’s important to speak up and spread awareness, but it’s also important to provide resources and support.
And it’s important to talk about developing a healthy relationship with food to help prevent eating disorders from developing and to help those currently struggling.
7 tips for developing healthy eating habits
- Don’t binge eat and then diet. Do eat healthy meals, consistently, several times a day at the same time every day. Not only does binge eating wreak havoc on your hormones, excessive dieting following a binge can sometimes cause you to develop an eating disorder.
While scientists are still learning to understand what exactly causes eating disorders, it's clear that people who struggle with anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorders have different brain chemistry than people who don’t, and that a binge-diet cycle can harm brain chemistry.
- Make sure you're eating enough healthy calories. If you suffer from anorexia or bulimia, you could possibly have an unrealistic viewpoint of your body. This can cause you to refuse food or eat too little. For an accurate estimate of how many calories you should consume daily to stay healthy depending on your age, height, and activity levels, check this calorie counting tool.
- Eat mindfully. Develop healthy eating habits one day and one food at a time. Do you tend to sit in front of the television with a gallon of ice cream and all of a sudden you look down and it’s gone? Don’t lambast yourself for binging, just decide to eat more mindfully, taking time to savor what you eat, without watching TV, texting, or doing anything but savoring your food. Check in with your body after each bite, and ask yourself, “Have I had enough?” We tend to eat more when we’re distracted, so you can make sure you’re not binging by paying attention to the act of eating itself.
- Choose snacks wisely. Depending on your activity levels, you may need a snack to keep your blood sugar levels from dropping. Smaller meals throughout the day are sometimes essential for athletes, people with physically demanding jobs, or people who have larger caloric needs, such as when they're breastfeeding or pregnant. Harvard suggests a healthy snack if you anticipate going several hours without food and your blood sugar levels tend to fluctuate. If you get hungry in the evening, try eating complex carbohydrates or healthy fats rather than sugary snacks. Sugary snacks can spike your blood sugar, causing cortisol levels to increase. Cortisol is a stress hormone. It can cause a “wake up” signal to travel through the brain which disrupts your circadian rhythms, or natural sleep-wake cycles, making it impossible for your body to know when to sleep.
- Get healthy sleep. A lack of sleep can cause disruptions in the creation of two important hunger hormones, ghrelin and leptin. One regulates when you feel full, and the other regulates your appetite. Without these hormones in balance, you’re more likely to overeat. There are also links between lack of sleep and obesity. Lack of sleep can also cause elevated stress levels, and some people react to stress by not eating enough.
- Write down your feelings instead of eating them. Food is a quick go-to for many people because it can relieve stress and provide relief from anxiety. When you eat sugary or starchy foods, it causes an instant serotonin and dopamine reward in the body. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter responsible for regulating our mood, and dopamine is a similar chemical hormone that “rewards” us for certain actions we take. While you can get a quick fix from eating, it’s possible to become addicted to the fast dump of these neurochemicals without realizing that what you eat may cause a subsequent cascade of less than desirable stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. Instead of getting your serotonin and dopamine from a binge session, try other positive habits that also regulate your mood and reward you with dopamine like expressing gratitude or doing light aerobic exercise.
- Journal your food intake. Try keeping a log of what you eat in a week so that you have a realistic view of how much or little food you eat. If you write down the times you eat as well as what you eat, you’ll also sometimes notice patterns, like eating out of boredom at certain times in the day, or when you feel stressed. Once you’ve written down what you eat and when, sit with the information and determine if you might be eating too much or too little. If you tend to overeat, contemplate ways to do something to assuage your boredom that’s healthy instead, like spending time in nature, or talking to a good friend that makes you laugh. If you tend to eat too little, write down why you might be depriving yourself of life-giving food. Is there an underlying emotion that needs to surface?
How to get help for an eating disorder
If you think you or someone you know may have an eating disorder, you can get help. Reach out to a medical or mental health provider near you.
If that isn’t an option for you, or it isn’t the right option, The National Eating Disorder Association has resources, support, and live help options.
There is hope
You can develop a healthy relationship with food even if you currently have an eating disorder. Be sure to reach out for help and try to slow down, eat mindfully, and give yourself time to process deeper emotions like sadness and grief by writing them in a journal. It can also help to keep a log of what and when you eat for a week, so you can have a realistic picture of your relationship with food and eating. If you or someone you love is suffering from an eating disorder, get help. You’re not alone.
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