Blurring the Lines: Eating Disorders and Disordered Eating

photoshop-windy-colored-wavy-shear-windWhen I began blogging, I always considered being a disordered eater a separate entity from having an eating disorder.

After all, every woman seems to be a “disordered eater” in one way or another.

And since I never truly binged; never binged and purged (I cry when I throw up; last time was alcohol-induced, at a Dave Matthews Band concert back in 1999); and never starved myself, I was “in the clear,” so to speak … at least in my own little head.

I didn’t classify myself with the girls who threw up their lunches or worked out for four hours a day and lived on lettuce leaves.

I had a complex, thinking, “Well, I’d do anything but that …” as though that made me less culpable or something.

In my head, I wasn’t one of “them”. I just exercised a lot and watched every morsel that went into my mouth.

But I mean, really, who was I kidding? I still had a big, undeniable problem. What might sound admirable (being a militant exerciser and keeping a meticulous food journal) was hurting me –and those I love and who love me — in more ways than one.

Accepting my obsession (my disordered eating behaviors) as a problem was half the battle. Healing through blogging and professional therapy would be the second.

In truth, for well over a year I sat in my car chewing and spitting up chocolate, or home-made cookies at home.

I’d wake in the middle of the night on auto-pilot and eat (but still know enough to journal).

I’d skip social functions if food was involved, or find ways to only go to “safe” places.

I would double-up on workouts, to “counter-act” an indulgence.

I didn’t believe in rest days, and would exercise even when ill, or build my day around my workout.

I’d judge my food as “good” or “bad,” instead of thinking in moderate terms for everything — and subsequently, the foods I’d often eat during a midnight incident or a chew-and-spit session would be “bad.”

I’d keep spreadsheets in addition to journaling on Sparkpeople and Weight Watchers. I journaled my own wedding day, every vacation or holiday with my family — never skipping a day, never taking a break. Going, going, going.

(I tried so hard not to journal our wedding day — I ate whatever I wanted, which wasn’t much given our excitement levels, but I’m ashamed to admit I still added it all up the next day; you can’t unlearn these things and I have a ridiculously good memory).

I was thinking about food and exercise 24/7; it was consuming me. And I was restrictive to the point of not being fun anymore.

My obsession was taking its toll on my personal and even professional life.

Fortunately, I’m in a healing phase where I’ve curbed so, so, so many of these obsessive-compulsive, anxious behaviors over the past year or so (and especially since I began blogging and had my own awareness-awakening in therapy).

Though I have really livened up a bit lately, I’m not out of the woods yet, and might never be 100% “free”. That said, it doesn’t mean I’ll give up trying.

At the meet-and-greet at Panera on Sunday, I got into a great discussion (that I wish I had had more time for!) with MamaV from MamaVision and Steph from Back in Skinny Jeans.

Both women have overcome eating disorders and speak openly on their blogs about them as they promote healthy living. They serve, in my mind, as beacons of hope for millions of young women out there struggling with eating disorders with their wisdom and insight.

And through our chat, I learned that both Steph and MamaV think disordered eating is no different than having an eating disorder; in their minds, disordered eating isn’t a separate tree, but rather as a branch off the same tree.

In fact, they seemed surprised that I didn’t lump disordered eating into the big category of eating disorders like they did. But in the moment, I couldn’t really verbalize my argument of why they are different to me.

What I had wanted to say was that while most women would be classified as being disordered eaters to some extent, they don’t all binge, purge, or starve themselves; we just have a funny relationship with food.

But I couldn’t convey my thoughts.

In my mind, disordered eating behaviors were just that: behaviors; behaviors that could be changed once we got to the root of the problem, and not as serious as a full-fledged disease.

I guess I didn’t view it as a way of life: like anorexia, bulimia and binge eating. But in reality, these behaviors I engage(d) in could easily be precursors or the equivalent of a gate-way drug … leading to more severe and dangerous behaviors down the road.

And so the more we talked about it, the more I realized just how blurred the lines had, indeed, become. I conceded that maybe they were right; maybe they are, after all, one and the same — and all fall under the umbrella of eating disorders.

Maybe disordered eating is just a more vague term coined to describe a wide range of behaviors … a nicer way of saying, “Houston, we have a problem.”

From everything I’ve read (and please know I don’t claim to be an expert of any kind here), eating disorders are not about food, but rather about control, feeling empowered.

They are often deep-rooted, and driven by anxiety, perfectionism. Augmented by fear of failure; fear of fat. It goes on, each woman bearing her own background history.

And because these traits fit both eating disorders and disordered eating behavior, there was truly no differentiator when I really thought about it — except that you could die from anorexia or bulimia and probably not from, say, chewing-and-spitting or midnight eating (my two scarlet letters).

I thank Steph and MamaV for their input; it really helped me see things differently. In fact, I thought a lot about this on my way home … where did my disordered eating begin?

I know for me, it wasn’t something I struggled with all my life. It literally began after I had lost weight and was maintaining, just a more slender version of myself. I was a “success story,” still me, just 35 lbs. lighter … but with a whole lot of baggage I didn’t have when I began my weight loss journey.

On the other side of the coin, MamaV was a model in Paris at the tender age of 16, and that is where her eating disorder began. It’s different for everyone.

Through counseling and therapy, many people come to attribute their eating disorder to a form of trauma, psychological issues, perfectionist tendencies/control issues, etc — perhaps one of those or a combination of several.

For other girls, as MamaV noted, it’s a temporary phase, a vanity crisis of sorts. They see airbrushed celebs with 24/7 live-in chefs and personal trainers and envy that, however unrealistic it is. For them, it’s a “how low can I go” thing. Or an “I want to indulge but I don’t want the bulge” (so they purge).

The truth is, no matter where the disease or behaviors stem from, and no matter what we call them, they all carry risks.

But with proper professional help – be it counseling, therapy, in-patient or out-patient care … we can make great strides toward recovery and healing.

That’s why I’m doing this: blogging about my experiences — for better or for worse — coupled with seeking professional help. Not only to help myself, but also to help others who might be going through similar challenges.

We’re worth it.


How about you? Do you see a clear or fuzzy distinction between eating disorders and disordered eating?

15 thoughts on “Blurring the Lines: Eating Disorders and Disordered Eating

  1. i totally agree. i think although other things like obsessing over food, rather than say making yourself throw up or not eat is just as bad. the mental pain all people who have disordered relationships with food, their image and themselves stem from the one and the same. we just go about different ways. some of us have stronger will powers but the consequences are still severe. sure you may not die, but say you dont have the willpower to stop yourself ffrom eating or wont allow yourself to throw up? the mental torment may be even more, tenfold. this mental torment can push us on to further things. i truly beliieve that. with the right triggers

  2. I have wondered about this myself. In high school I suffered from anorexia, and although I gained back the weight, my disordered eating habits took years to go away. My thought process was the same; the only difference was my life wasn’t in danger. I was like an alcoholic who still drank, just not enough to kill me.

    What’s really sad is that I wasted more than 10 years on obsessing over food and weight, and it didn’t get me anywhere. I weigh the same as I did when I was 18 after years of dieting and bingeing. A few years ago I read “breaking free from compulsive eating” by Geneen Roth, and it literally, literally changed my life. I’m proud to say I’m over my issues now. Sure, I’d still like to drop a few pounds, but I don’t obsess over it anymore.

  3. I agree with Steph and MamaV. All of my disordered eating issues stem from the same roots, they’ve just never blossomed into a full-blown eating disorder (though I did go through a binge eating phase). I feel guilt when I overeat, guilt when I don’t track… it could easily turn into something more serious.

  4. It’s kind of like alcoholism….I have friends who don’t drink everyday, they might even go a week or two without a drink. But when they drink, they have to get drunk – and they feel the NEED to drink to cope with various feelings and emotions. They might not be on the same level as alcoholics who drink everyday before lunch, but these friends still have an issue with alcohol. In my mind, they are alcoholics.

    It’s hard because it’s something we can’t take a test for, but I do agree that disordered eating and eating disorders go hand in hand.

  5. I like the alcoholism analogy, ladies — and two of you used it. It does, indeed, seem that these issues are one and the same.

    The challenge is, despite the addiction to drinking, with food … you absolutely need it to live. You won’t die without alcohol, even though recovery is not easy … but you will die if you don’t eat. So it’s risky, for sure.

  6. For the past 10 years, i had all kinds of eating disorders… Hemetophobia, anorexia, bulimia, binge eating, night eating… now im no longer any of these, because i can eat outside with friends, i can skip a day from the gym and i try to control my fears and anxiety towards food. But in my head, im still sick, and i dont see food like the way i used to when i was young. Someday, i may look like a normal girl who just eat healthy, but if people would know what goes in my head, that i count every single calorie, they would say i have a problem… and its true.

    I also use the same comparison with alcool or drugs… except, like Lissa said, you dont NEED drugs or alcool to live, which make disordered eating much more complex.

  7. Nikita, I am so glad to hear how many of these things you’ve overcome. Likewise, my head is always churning. I’m already thinking about our special anniversary dinner this weekend at the Melting Pot!! Food is always on my brain — but I think now it’s more about balancing … like, I know I’m going out for a special dinner, so I’ll eat a good breakfast, exercise that day, and enjoy a meal out with my husband.

    What usually freaks me are unexpected plans that pop up. In fact, I have dinner plans W and Fri and Sat., and our holiday lunch at work Thurs. But you know what? I know about them, and will account for them — in my head. We can’t turn off our hardware. But we can learn to live with it. Dr. G would be so proud! (I see her Thurs.)

  8. Eating disorders are characterized of an obsession with weight, food, etc., A manifestation of these thoughts will result in action or a behavior, not all of them being so common like binging or purging, or starving even. All of those ACTIONS are TRIGGERED by THOUGHTS, and the thoughts are different for everyone but under the “same tree” as MamaV said. Negative thinking patterns about oneself, anxieties over food, etc. In order to change behavior, we need to change thoughts. It seems as though you are on the right path, Lissa. Keep doing what you are doing, feel guilty not for tracking your food, i have been journaling for 7 straight months and know i will not stop anytime soon. it is a process, embrace it for now.
    Great post!

    Nikita- or lissa- what is Hemetophobia? I am really curious!

  9. Exactly — in my case, it’s anxiety/anxious thoughts preceding behavior. Therapy is helping me come to terms with those thoughts, learn how to deal with them.

    LOL — I’ve journaled every morsel for almost 5 years … it’s not exactly something to be proud of. (I’m still not back at goal!)

    Seems hematophobia is fear of blood.
    (I googled it)

  10. What I mean is, there comes a point where it’s beyond obsessive. There was a big story recently in the news about how food journals are keys to weight loss — I agree, it’s how I lost weight and have kept (most) off. But it also made me more OCD about my weight, too — and created my disordered thoughts about food. I wrote to the editor of the segment on Good Morning America and never heard back — trying to present the other side. .. oh well!

  11. I seem to pretty consistently skirt the line between disordered eating and eating disorder… but there are some clues I seem to get lately about which side of the line I’m on. For example, if I think a LOT about how I am too fat, I really need to lose weight, I absolutely cannot eat too much even once or I’ll get fat, or need to purge… this is the side of the line which indicates eating disorder to me. Most of the time I am engaging in binging and purging, but when I get more obsessive, more controlling of my intake between b/ps, more anxious about food, etc, I feel much more eating disordered, rather than just having disordered eating.

    So, yes, I very much feel that disordered eating can and often does lead to a full-fledged eating disorder somewhere down the road. So many EDs begin with a simple and seemingly innocent diet… and then move, or plunge, from cutting back a little to a determination to lose as much weight as possible, and an all-out war on the body.

  12. My counselor compared some of what I am going through to alcoholism today, more so in the way that the first step is admitting I have a problem and that I am powerless to solve it on my own. I agree that a lot of the underlying problem with eating disorders is about control, so it’s hard to say I am powerless about anything. My head says I am powerless, my my body and heart doesn’t want to let go of the fact that I can control myself.

    However, in this time when academically I know I need help I am reaching out to a counsellor and am also now researching outpatient programs in the area to maybe get involved with group therapy.

  13. Isn’t that the irony, Niika — how an innocent diet can lead to an ED for some of us. I hope together, we can win this war.

    Sheena, so glad you are taking these steps — it’s wonderful to hear!!! And I am happy to hear your therapist also mentioned the alcoholism analogy — it seems to hit home for many of us.

  14. I pretty much get addicted to everything I do. My goal now is to enjoy and learn moderation. Being medium about things. I love to go all out. I lost 130 lbs, that is extreme. I run 50 miles all at once, thats extreme. I am trying to practice balance in my health now.

  15. Balance, balance … def. not an easy thing to come by!! It’s not easy to be “medium” with things when we’re used to going all out. Eventually, I believe we’ll all find it. It just takes time and experience. Health is key.

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