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Overcoming disordered eating: Taking a bite out of poor food habits

Kristen is a dieting pro. Well-versed on the latest best-selling diet trends, she weighs herself each day and night, calculates the fat and calories in every bite, bypasses snacks or treats at the office and never misses her daily workout—which she usually does in place of eating lunch. At first glance, Kristen may seem wonderfully health conscious. However, certain aspects of Kristen’s dieting lifestyle aren’t healthy. Her constant concern about body weight and food has led her to feel deeply unhappy with her appearance and highly critical of herself for eating any food at all. When she slips off her meager diet and binges from time to time, she fights back with a vengeance by doubling her workouts and restricting food even more.

While Kristen’s dieting began as a well-intentioned effort to regain her shape after her last pregnancy, her habits of skipped meals, obsessive calorie counting and overexercise have escalated to the extent that she now suffers from disordered eating. Not quite a full-blown eating disorder like anorexia nervosa or bulimia, disordered eating occurs when a person’s attitudes about food, weight and body size lead to rigid eating and exercise habits that jeopardize her physical and mental health.

Do you suffer from disordered eating?

We all have eating habits that can be improved. Perhaps you call your morning grande latte “breakfast” or succumb to late-night pizza splurges. However, living in our constant dieting culture may lead us across the line from healthful attempts to control weight to problem eating habits. How do you know if you’ve crossed that line? If you answer yes to any of the following, you may be suffering from disordered eating. Do you:

  • think about food all the time?
  • always try the latest diet trend?
  • skip meals to cut calories?
  • count the fat or calories in everything you eat?
  • weigh yourself often or become obsessed with the number on the scale?
  • feel ashamed, disgusted or guilty after eating?
  • avoid eating out or when around other people?
  • follow extreme diets, prefer only certain foods or practice ritualized behaviors at meals?
  • cook meals for your family or others but don’t eat them?
  • secretly binge?
  • exercise so much that you feel fatigued or have frequent injuries?
  • spend time wishing parts of your body looked different?

If you suffer from disordered eating, it’s likely your attitudes and behaviors keep you from enjoying life. You may also not be getting enough important nutrients like iron and calcium. You may be anemic or at risk for osteoporosis, or brittle bones. It’s important for your well-being that you break the cycle of dieting and dissatisfaction. Try the following tips to get back on a healthy track.

Make friends with food

Food is not your enemy; it’s your fuel. Everyone must eat to stay alive and function at his or her best. Too many fad diets call for a mere 1,000 to 1,200 daily calories plus an hour of exercise. Eating so few calories is simply not enough, and most of us who try will overeat by day’s end—not from lack of will power but from simple hunger. Furthermore, when you diet and deprive your body of the food and calories it needs, you may initially lose weight. But then your body responds by conserving energy and slowing down metabolism. Your weight loss will plateau. You may feel sluggish. Your hands and feet may feel cold.

If this happens to you, you probably need more calories than you think. Ask your doctor or a registered dietician to help you calculate how many calories you need and plan a healthier diet for you. And keep these sound food practices in mind:

  • Eat regularly throughout the day. Plan at least three meals and two to three healthy and filling snacks daily. You’ll be less likely to binge if you’re not famished.
  • Aim to eat a wider variety of nutritious foods.
  • Choose two cups of fruit and two and one-half cups of vegetables each day.
  • Consume three cups a day of fat-free or low-fat milk or dairy foods such as yogurt and cheese.
  • Don’t cut out an entire food group or nutrition category. Your body needs some fat and carbohydrates. If you are vegan, for example, be sure to get adequate protein and iron from other nutritious sources.

Find the fun in fitness

People with disordered eating may become obsessive about exercise, too. You may feel frustrated that harder and longer workouts aren’t leading to greater weight loss. If you feel fatigued and drained from your exercise routine or you suffer nagging injuries, it’s time to make some changes. Current government guidelines say most people need about 60 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity exercise on most days of the week. This means it’s OK to take a day off here and there. Keep in mind that weight control is only one goal of exercise. Others include cardiovascular fitness, bone health, disease prevention, mood enhancement, stress reduction—and fun! Follow these tips to help make your exercise work for you:

  • Plan at least one day of rest each week.
  • Try a new workout, sport or activity just for fun. Take golf or tennis lessons, join a hiking club or try rock climbing.
  • Make your exercise a social activity. Enlist a buddy to join a gym or take a new class with you.

Rebuild your self-esteem

Learning to feel happy with who you are and how you look can be an ongoing process. Punishing yourself via food and exercise isn’t going to give you the body and health you want. Consider talking with a counselor who can help you replace unhealthy attitudes with healthy ones.

In addition, try these ideas:

  • Keep a list of 10 things you like about yourself that aren’t related to your weight or how you look. Add to it as you discover more.
  • Wear clothes that are comfortable and make you feel good about yourself.
  • Become a critical viewer of social and media messages that make you feel bad about yourself.
  • Appreciate all your body can do, such as run, dance, breathe, laugh and nurture. Taking an honest look at your eating and exercise habits is an important first step. Ditch “dieting” and make healthy food choices, fitness and happiness your goals.