When Does Eating Become a Problem?
Laura Aylward, PhD; West Virginia University School of Medicine
Madeline Konsor, MS; Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science
Everyone eats, and yet eating habits are so different among people. Eating behavior is incredibly complicated because it’s influenced by culture, habits, friends, family, physical cues, and emotional cues, and it’s necessary to sustain life. The purpose of eating, at its core, is to fuel your activity. But, it’s not very common these days to just think of food as fuel.
Food is often tasty and can be fun to make. Unique recipes and dishes can look aesthetically pleasing! Food also affects all our senses—we see it, smell it, feel it, taste it, and even sometimes hear it (e.g., a sizzling steak).
Over time, the associations we have with food become solidified. We celebrate birthdays with cake, we celebrate soccer game wins with pizza parties, and we make ourselves feel better after a breakup with a pint of ice cream. Because it’s so commonplace, people don’t take the time to think about their own eating habits such as what they eat, when they eat, and why they eat. Beyond that, people might not have a good gauge on when their eating habits are entering a danger zone. So, let’s talk a bit about when eating becomes a problem and why.
When Does Eating Become a Problem?
If you think about food all day: Of course, you’re going to think about food from time to time, especially if you’re eating multiple times a day. But, it might be “too much” if you’re thinking about food the time leading up to and following a meal. A preoccupation with food occurs when food is on your mind very often and might interfere with focusing on other things. Is food a constant consideration, like it’s always on in the background? If so, it might be a sign that food is becoming too much of a focus.
If your self-esteem fluctuates based on your eating habits: Eating might be becoming a problem for you if your sense of meaning, value, and/or self-worth seems tied to food choices and quantity. This may look like having a “bad” eating day and feeling like a failure or feeling dislike towards yourself for a food choice. Food choices and eating habits should not be a high-stakes activity. So, if you’re noticing an overemphasis on eating habits, this might indicate a more problematic relationship with food.
If you feel the need to hide from people while eating: Eating in secrecy usually indicates that someone feels ashamed of what they’re doing and that their actions are worth hiding from others. If this becomes a habit, it’s worth asking yourself what do you think is wrong? Are you concerned that you would be judged for the food choice, the amount, or the pace of your eating? Wanting to eat in privacy repetitively means that there may be a problem with your eating behavior.
If you feel like you’ve lost control: Feeling like you can’t control the pace or amount of food you’re eating can be an indication of binge eating. Experiencing a loss of control while eating is a hallmark of binge eating disorder. Pay attention to your pace of eating and how you feel when you plan to stop eating or are getting close to finishing what’s on your plate. Repeatedly going back for unplanned servings can be a behavioral sign of feeling like you cannot stop yourself from eating.
If it’s causing you distress: If you notice that you feel bad before or after eating, that’s something to tune into. Feeling afraid of food and the effects of food (i.e., weight changes) leading up to a meal may indicate a problematic relationship with food. If you feel embarrassed, ashamed, regretful, sad, or discouraged after eating time and time again, that may be a cue that something has gone awry.
If it interferes with functioning: And of course, if your eating is getting in the way of other areas of your life, it’s a sign there might be a problem. For example, you might miss or cancel plans to stay home and eat in private, or you may call off work because you’re sick from overeating. Often, interference is the last thing to occur because by then, the intensity of the problem has shown up in other ways first. But nonetheless, it’s still worth considering if your eating habits negatively affect your life in any of these major ways.
What are eating disorders?
Eating disorders include persistent disturbances of eating and/or eating-related behaviors that impact the consumption of food, significantly impairing physical health or psychosocial functioning (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).
The three most diagnosed eating disorders are
- Anorexia nervosa
- Bulimia nervosa
- Binge eating disorder
The 12-month prevalence of anorexia nervosa is approximately 0.4% among females, 1%-1.5% for bulimia nervosa, and 1.6% in females and 0.8% in males for binge eating disorder (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). Eating disorders and/or disordered eating behavior are often comorbid with other mood or anxiety disorders.
When to Seek Help
Becoming aware of a problematic relationship with food can be difficult. If you find yourself thinking about food all day, unable to control yourself, or find that food impacts your social life, it might be time to seek help. Disordered eating behaviors are treatable with the right resources and help.
NEDA Helpline: https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/help-support/contact-helpline
Eating Disorder Hope Resources: https://www.eatingdisorderhope.com/information/resources-for-anorexia-bulimia-and-binge-eating-disorder