Eating disorders and disordered eating behaviors have sadly become common in our modern era. According to one survey, sixty-five percent of women between ages 25 and 45 reported disordered eating behaviors. Why is disordered eating so widespread, and what can we do about it?
Perhaps one of the biggest underlying causes of eating disorders is the negative way we view and talk to ourselves. In our culture infiltrated by social media and constant advertising, it’s easy to develop an unrealistic body image. The sad consequences come when we believe that image is realistic, and do everything we can to achieve it no matter the cost to our mental and physical health.
Let’s look at some of the root causes of disordered eating so we can begin to understand and correct the negative cycle that is taking place:
Not Loving Your Body
It may seem obvious, but one of the main risk factors for developing an eating disorder is not accepting and embracing your own body. Whether you have disliked your body from a young age, or you have had major bodily changes such as gaining weight from stress or having a baby, not loving your body can lead you to make poor food decisions to try to control your weight.
Maybe you grew up very weight-conscious because your parents or significant people in your life often made comments about your body. Or perhaps you struggle with body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) and have always seen yourself as too heavy, even when other people tell you you are not overweight.
Whatever the reason is that you don’t love your body, the answer is not to restrict food intake. You can help ease your body image issues by taking care of yourself nutritionally and getting proper exercise, as well as seeing a trained therapist who can talk through it with you.
Comparing Yourself to Others
If you are on social media, it is almost impossible not to compare yourself to others. Social media and advertising portrays everyone as perfect, because most people only post the best versions of themselves online, and advertisements work by displaying images of happy, healthy people that you want to be like.
If you find yourself often comparing yourself to others, try to limit your social media time as much as possible, or even take a break from it until you feel like you are in a better mental space. If you already feel insecure in your own skin, social media will only exacerbate that feeling.
Limiting social media alone will not solve the problem of comparison, however. Comparison is a deeper-rooted issue that stems from insecurity and needs to be addressed either with trusted friends and family or a trained therapist. Although it’s a natural human tendency, it only steals our joy, so the more we can learn not to compare, the happier we will be with ourselves and our lives.
Self-Soothing with Food
Often during stressful times in life we turn to food for comfort. While this isn’t always wrong (an occasional ice cream can have its place), it can turn into an addiction or a dangerous eating disorder called binge eating disorder (BED) if it gets out of control.
If you notice your coping mechanism for stress is eating, it may be helpful to analyze and retrain your brain in those moments of stress not to turn to food. Find other things that bring you joy and help calm your mind such as going on a walk, painting, doing your makeup or hair, or meeting up with a friend.
It takes time to change your habits, especially if they are longstanding, but it is possible. If you can’t do it alone, once again seek help and accountability from loved ones or a counselor who specializes in eating disorders.
Finally, perhaps one of the most dangerous reasons for developing disordered eating habits is self-punishment. Whether you are restricting your food intake because you ate a bit of cake at a party, or punishing yourself by restricting food for any other reason, this kind of behavior can lead to very serious consequences.
Self-punishment is a significant part of the eating disorder bulimia, when one forces themselves to throw up the food they binged on as punishment for eating too much. But it is characteristic of almost all disordered eating.
If you feel like this is the reason you have developed your eating disorder and feel like you can’t stop punishing yourself, please seek help immediately, as self-punishment can be serious and potentially life-threatening.