Undiagnosed Eating Disorders

It occurred to me the other day that I probably suffered from an eating disorder the whole time that I thought I was just terrible at controlling my food. It never occurred to me that disordered eating was my real problem because I always thought my problem was being the wrong size.

And since I thought that trying to change my body was normal, and because I never got thin enough to concern anyone, I never realized that I could have gotten help for my suffering much earlier than I did.

That is why it is so important to me for people to understand how backward our thinking is when it comes to food and weight and bodies.

Many people think it is more important to be focused on weight and a definition of health that means "not fat" than it is to be concerned with our true physical health and our mental and emotional health.

Many people also think they may be focusing on weight in order to improve their health when in reality they are harming themselves by focusing on weight.

For example, someone might not eat enough food and enough variety and have a whole host of physical issues that they think comes from not eating healthy enough. So they double down on restriction and "healthy" eating only to bring themselves further away from health.  The stress and fear alone can have a bigger impact than anything they eat. 

Some people might restrict and then binge and eat more than their bodies need - also causing all sorts of physical and emotional discomfort.  The source of the discomfort is the initial restriction but the person thinks that it's the binge that is making them so uncomfortable and they continue to beat themselves up and vow to never do it again. And the cycle continues.

Some people might also be eating exactly what their bodies need, but feeling so guilty and bad about it that they are still suffering.

Meanwhile, the world around us supports this behavior by making us fear fat.

This is the world I lived in and I thought it was normal.

I remember talking to my sister about it once and being surprised that she didn't think about food as much as I did.

"But she isn't as big as me, so why would she have to?", I thought. 

I thought what I was doing was necessary and it was normal to be vigilant and preoccupied with food and body. It was healthy - right? 

It never occurred to me that it's not normal behavior no matter what size you are.

I also always assumed that since I eventually did eat the burger and fries or the ice cream (foods I had deemed as "bad") that my problem was not an eating disorder but that it was a lack of willpower and control.

Later, I was shocked by how much I identified with what I was reading in books about healing from eating disorders. I could relate to so much of it.

I realized that everyone who has an issue with food is struggling with some kind of eating disorder, whether clinically diagnosed or not.

A few resources that I have run across recently have validated this idea. Check out this book and this article: Does Every Woman Have an Eating Disorder? and Highly Functioning Eating Disorders.

This is why it's so important to spread the word about the dangers of dieting and what it leads to and why it is not and should never be considered normal or desirable behavior.

According to the National Eating Disorders Association website: In a large study of 14– and 15-year-olds, dieting was the most important predictor of a developing eating disorder. Those who dieted moderately were 5x more likely to develop an eating disorder, and those who practiced extreme restriction were 18x more likely to develop an eating disorder than those who did not diet. I have included a link to their page on Statistics and Research around Eating Disorders. 

The website also tells us that: 

  • The best-known environmental contributor to the development of eating disorders is the sociocultural idealization of thinness.
  • 79% of weight-loss program participants reported coping with weight stigma by eating more food.
  • 62.3% of teenage girls and 28.8% of teenage boys report trying to lose weight. 58.6% of girls and 28.2% of boys are actively dieting. 68.4% of girls and 51% of boys exercise with the goal of losing weight or to avoid gaining weight.

What strikes me as even more significant is how many people are out there like me? People who have not been diagnosed with an eating disorder but are still dying inside a little bit every day as they continue to deny and restrict themselves and mistakenly focus on food as the root of the problem and blame themselves?

And then, to think healing is only about exploring how we eat, doesn't go nearly far enough.  The danger in this is that we might not see or heal underlying issues with anxiety or perfectionism or low self-esteem because we are preoccupied with getting the food "right". 

We might not see how our food behaviors have become coping mechanisms for feelings and emotions we would rather not face.

We might not see how the culture has shaped us and the enormous influence parents, teachers, society and weight stigma has had on how we see ourselves. 

Healing is not just about the food.  It's about who we are as human beings and what kind of world we were raised in. It's about finding ourselves and finding our inner truth and strength. 

It's about adult development and somatic practices and emotional intelligence and spiritual awakenings. It's about how we relate to our bodies and how we relate to people around us. It's about taking our power back from external influences and trusting the wisdom of our own bodies. 

Our relationships with food and body are complex but it's been a relief to realize this. I was not broken, there was just way more going on then I realized. It was never simply black and white.

Understanding the complexity actually brings me a sense of relief.  It hasn't been me failing over and over again to get my eating under control, it's been eating that has been controlling me and I just didn't see it because I was raised in a culture that celebrates and encourages so many aspects of disordered eating. 

If you have spent more time than you would like beating yourself up over issues with food and body, I urge you to reach out for support - from a book, hotline, support group, podcast, blog, therapist, dietitian or coach.  Need a resource? Let me know.

Even though it has been normalized, disordered eating is not normal -  but it's not your fault, you are not alone and healing is possible.