There is no shortage of myths about eating disorders out there that continue to prevail — but the truth is that people of all ages, genders, and body types can develop an eating disorder.
With recent research showing that a third of adults are unable to recognize common eating disorder symptoms, as well as our cultural fixation with disordered habits like fad diets, weight loss transformations, and beauty treatments designed to fix perceived “flaws,” it can be alarmingly easy to develop an eating disorder without even realizing it.
INSIDER spoke with three mental health experts who told us how seemingly harmless (or healthy) habits can turn into a full-blown eating disorder.
Exercise becomes rigid, regimented, or punishing.
Exercising can certainly be a healthy habit that benefits both your body and brain, helping you feel stronger both physically and mentally, and even better able to tackle stress in your daily life. But plenty of seemingly harmless exercise habits can be missed signs of an eating disorder, especially in an era where gym selfies and fitness goals are lauded by friends, family, and even doctors.
“It gets tricky to know when you might be developing an eating disorder because we live in a culture where discipline with food and exercise are applauded, and it can seem like there’s a fine line between what’s considered normal and what’s actually disordered,” explains Carla Korn, LMFT, a licensed psychotherapist.
Licensed psychologist Dr. Ashley Hampton agreed, adding that each person’s relationship to exercise will vary and that while having a workout routine in and of itself isn’t disordered, “an individual exercising for multiple hours in the morning, again at lunch, and then again at night would be problematic.”
Any sort of extremes around exercise can be a “sign” of disordered habits, with Dr. Hampton adding that “another possibility could be someone with bulimia bingeing on food and then using exercise to try to ‘work off’ the binge.”
Not listening to one’s body and working out through fatigue, illness, or past the point of injury is another signal. “The important thing to consider here is the rigidness of the exercise,” Dr. Neeru Bakshi, the medical director of Eating Recovery Center Washington told INSIDER. “The person is engaging in exercise at the expense of all other things, including their own health. The need to exercise is so great, that the person is unwilling to let injuries heal, thereby further injuring themselves.”
Researching fad diets or new ways to lose weight becomes more common.
There are always trendy diets on the horizon — from “clean eating” to the keto diet — that most people won’t bat an eye at someone trying them. But aside from avoiding certain foods due to allergy or intolerance, these diets often become a slippery slope to an eating disorder.
“For many people who are developing an eating disorder, they might find themselves constantly researching the next fad diet and trying new ways to lose weight,” explains Korn.
If you’re becoming preoccupied with weight loss treatments, products, or regimens, you might be verging into disordered territory.
You’re experimenting with diet pills, medications, laxatives, or weight loss supplements.
If you’re not simply researching new (and potentially dangerous) ways to lose weight but actually trying them, you might be delving into disordered patterns.
As Dr. Hampton points out, “While this is typically an advanced technique that is indicative of an active eating disorder, one may be experimenting with diet pills or laxatives to attempt initial weight loss at the beginning.”
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