Someone asked me recently how when I’m working with clients, I strike the balance between promoting positive, healthy behaviors and distinguishing unhealthy ones that are present in eating disorders. A solid wellness plan includes all aspects of your physical and emotional health, and includes eating well, engaging in body movement, and nurturing your whole self with your relationships, work, and spirituality. This plan is certainly always individualized, and needs to be individualized even more so when working with clients with eating disorders.
Eating disorders are bio-psycho-social illnesses, meaning they have genetic components, psychological features, and are socially influenced. No one cause of eating disorders exists and no one plans to have an eating disorder. More often than not, folks who develop eating disorders start out innocently. They decide they want to eat healthier, exercise more, or lose a couple of pounds, something many people do in the quest for health. So when does this become a problem and how does it spiral to being disordered?
Most professionals define healthy eating as striking a balance between all major food groups and focusing on eating nutrient rich foods that provide our bodies with what they need. Simply put, this means consuming enough fats, starches, fruits, vegetables, dairy and protein to keep our bodies functioning well. What we also consider in healthy eating is being intuitive in providing our bodies with what they are craving. Craving a big, leafy salad? Great. Yearning for some salty, soft pretzels? Awesome. Healthy eating allows space for both. Healthy eating becomes disordered when it’s rigid. This happens when we start to implement rules around eating, such as how much or how little we’re allowed to eat of specific food groups or when we cut out entire food groups. Disordered eating often sets goals around caloric intake (or more recently, counting macros), in an effort to reduce and control how much we are eating. Cutting out food groups can be taken a step further, where foods become categorized as “good” or “bad,” and when we consume a “bad” food, it impacts the way we view ourselves. We may even begin assessing our days, mood or success on how well we are sticking to these rules, telling ourselves we are “failures” if we eat a “bad food” or are “good person” when we follow the rigid food beliefs.
Body Movement (Exercise, Working out, etc.)
When people choose to begin working out, they may set a schedule. They may over time, have things that come up that get in the way of being able to adhere to their schedule. Or, they encounter an injury that impacts their ability to engage in the same level of movement they once did. When these things happen, they adjust, take the time off, and prioritize other aspects of life. On the other hand, in eating disorders, there is a level of inflexibility that plays a role. People with unhealthy exercise habits will refuse to attend a social gathering if it interrupts their routine. They may fight through an injury, sometimes even making the injury worse, to continue to meet their goals. They may engage in activities they don’t like, but do because the exercise burns the most calories. The key is to examine the goal of exercise. Is it to punish, burn off calories, or manage body image distress? Or, are we enjoying the movement and doing activities that are fun, all while practicing flexibility with our goals?
If you notice yourself relating to some of the potentially disordered or unhealthy attitudes and behaviors above, think about what you want your relationship with food, exercise, and your body to be. Jot down some thoughts and create some intentionality around those points. Then, each time you eat or engage in exercise, take a mental assessment of why you’re doing what you are. Does it align with what you want your relationship to be? If not, make a plan to start addressing that misalignment. If you find yourself struggling to address these behaviors on your own, it’s okay to seek out professional support to talk through how to get back on track with leading a more balanced life.