themighty logo

5 Disordered Food Habits That Might Be Affecting Your Mental Health


While some may think the discussions surrounding National Eating Disorder Awareness Week have nothing to do with them, here’s an important truth: you don’t have to have an eating disorder to have a disordered relationship with food. In fact, while 20 million women and 10 million men in America develop an eating disorder at some point in their lives, research suggests 50 percent of the population demonstrate problematic or disordered relationships with food, body and exercise.

Sometimes, “disordered eating” can actually mimic eating disorder behaviors, but they tend to be less severe. According to Dr. Carrie Gottlieb (a clinical psychologist who wrote a piece about disordered eating in Psychology Today), some signs also include: basing your self-worth on your body shape and weight, experiencing anxiety about certain foods and obsessive calorie counting. “Non-disordered” eating, on the other hand, is defined by eating a variety of food when you’re hungry and stopping when your full or satisfied. This may sound deceivingly simple, but in our diet-obsessed weight loss culture, it’s often easier said than done.

While of course not everyone who practices disordered eating habits will develop a full-fledged eating disorder, you don’t have to have an eating disorder to work on your relationship with food, and to reduce the stress and anxiety you may have around eating.

So what food habits are considered “disordered”? We talked to Valery Kallen, anti-diet dietitian and intuitive eating coach, about some common disordered eating habits to be aware of.

1. You make arbitrary rules around food. 

Example: I can’t eat after 8 p.m., no matter how my body feels. 

“In my experience, the more rules you have around food, the more stressed you will be around food,” Kallen told The Mighty. “Often, people will create various food rules from a place of uncertainty or fear, in order to feel more in control over food and prevent something bad or unexpected from happening.”

While these rules can make people feel less anxious about what/when they should eat, Kallen says often, they backfire. Life is more spontaneous and unpredictable than “food rules” would like, so you end up breaking your rules and struggling with guilt, or missing out on parts of your life. To break free of food rules, Kallen suggests asking yourself the following questions: What purpose do the rules serve? Do these rules add true value to my life? Are the rules based on facts or fears? Do the rules allow for any flexibility? What would happen to me if I stopped following the rules?

One way to develop a more mindful relationship with food might be to let go of the food rules, and allow yourself a little more flexibility.

2. You label foods as “good” and “bad.”

Example: You say and think things like, “I’m bad for having an extra cookie,” or “I did good today, I had a salad for lunch.”

How many times have you heard someone put moral value on their food? While we may not think of this when we flippantly comment how “bad we were” for eating dessert last night — that is what we’re implying. Because when we start to label foods as good or bad, we often start to feel we are good or bad when we eat those foods, Kallen explained. And when we label foods as bad, they actually become more powerful.

The issue is, just because we label a food as “bad” doesn’t mean we won’t ever want to eat it again. On the contrary, the bad foods now become very powerful because the more we try to resist them, the more we have the urge to eat them. It’s like when we’re kids and our parents tell us not to do something – we tend to want to do it even more because now we feel deprived. On top of that, every time you do eat the “bad” foods, you will feel terrible about yourself because you will feel like you’re “being bad.” It really sets up a terrible cycle of deprivation and guilt that is completely unnecessary and also very “all or nothing” – what about the gray area in the middle?

Kallen said when you fall into this trap, the best thing to do is try viewing all foods as neutral — neither good or bad. This doesn’t mean some foods aren’t more nutritional than others, it just means that doesn’t make them “better” than other foods. 

“Sometimes you will eat foods that are more ‘nutritious’ and other times you will eat foods that just bring you joy – and both are completely acceptable reasons to eat a food!” Kallen said.

3. You compare what you eat to others.

Example: You gauge if you’re eating “too much” by comparing yourself to people around you.

With everyone and their mother posting what they eat on Instagram, it can be hard not to compare your home-brought lunch with what other people are eating. But it’s important to remember every person’s body is unique, and there are tons of factors that influence how much food someone needs to eat in a day, or at a given meal. Playing the comparison game says nothing about how much or what you need to eat to feel satisfied. “By making eating decision based on comparisons, we are essentially ignoring our own complex internal cues,” Kallen said.

When you find yourself eyeing your neighbor’s plate, she suggests instead reminding yourself that you have no idea what that person ate earlier in the day, just as you have no idea how different their metabolic process is to yours. Instead pay attention to your own fullness cues — your body will let you know how much to eat, not your neighbor’s.

4. You use food as reward/punishment.

Example: “I worked out, so now I can have this treat.” 

Although eating food is a biological need, we sometimes act as if we need to earn what we eat. Or at least, earn certain food groups. Doing this, Kallen explained, is another example of giving your food too much power.

If you only allow yourself to eat a certain food (ie: pizza or ice cream) on days when you work out, what happens on the days that you’re craving pizza but don’t have time to exercise? You either ignore your internal cues or you give in to them but feel extreme shame over not “earning” that slice. Bottom line: you are not a dog and food is never a “treat” – you always deserve to eat, no matter what other activity you have or have not accomplished.

5. You limit yourself to only “safe” foods.

Example: You eat the same thing for dinner every night, because it feels safer than having to make a decision.

This may seem like an innocent habit, but if you find yourself eating the same thing every day, or sticking to only certain kinds of foods, it may be time to look a little deeper. Not only could you be missing certain nutrients by limiting the food you eat, you’re also setting yourself up to feel anxious or guilty when you do end up breaking out of your pattern.

“Having such a rigid relationship with food is not realistic because real life is too unpredictable,” Kallen said. “There will always be situations concerning food that you won’t be prepared for, and this is where being flexible with food is super important. The healthiest relationship you can have with food is a flexible one.”

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

Getty image via lolostock