Six Ways to Tell Whether your Relationship with Food & Exercise is Disordered
By Abbie Womack, R.D.
Hi there! My name is Abbie, and I’m an eating disorder dietitian. I work every day with clients whose obsession with food, exercise, and their bodies has significantly impacted their lives, and in some cases, severely compromised their physical health. Sarah (an amazing person and one of my best friends!) talks a lot on her blog about the dangers of disordered eating, and you may be wondering — what’s the difference between disordered eating/exercise and an eating disorder?
Truthfully, disordered eating and exercise are just mini eating disorders. Check out the spectrum below:
Eating disorders are partly genetic, so someone with disordered eating may not ever develop a full-blown eating disorder; however, any form of disordered eating is dangerous and threatening to a person’s health and well-being.
Disordered eating/exercise is not a good thing. But it is completely normalized by our culture today, which can make it very tricky to know when you’re falling into it. So here’s a couple of ways you can know that things are starting to head in the wrong direction.
1. You find yourself constantly thinking about food/your body.
We were not meant to spend every waking moment thinking about what we are going to eat and how it might affect our bodies. Our brain space needs to be used for so many other things! If you find you are always planning what your next meal will be or worrying about how your body looks, you might have an unhealthy relationship with food and/or exercise.
2. You rely on external rules to govern what you eat and how much you exercise.
If you count calories, track macros, follow a certain meal plan (outside of eating disorder recovery), or abide by any set of regulations that tells you what, when, or how much to eat, you’re in dangerous territory. Your body is the master at letting you know when and what to feed it as well as when and how much to move around, and if you’re not listening to those cues, something is going wrong.
3. You can’t go a day without exercise (or break your exercise routine).
If skipping exercise makes you feel anxious, it is no longer a helpful coping skill in your life. If you have to exercise for 45 minutes every single time you work out, you’re not listening to your body. Again, this following an external rule (whether it’s an amount of time, days, or calories burned) instead of listening to your body.
And just an aside — if you are using some sort of fitness tracker to look at calories burned during exercise consistently, just stop. Not only is the number likely inaccurate, it can also be super triggering and cause all sorts of disordered behaviors (whether you’re eating less because you feel you didn’t burn enough calories or you’re eating more because you think you deserve it).
4. You never feel hungry/full except in extremes.
If the only time you feel hunger is when you’re ravenous and ready to eat anything in sight, or the only time you feel full is when you’re stuffed to the point of feeling sick, this means you are not listening to your body’s hunger and fullness signals. If you tune those signals out for long enough, they will stop coming. Loss of hunger/fullness cues is a big sign that something is off.
These cues can come back with proper attention and mindfulness, so if this is you, know that there is hope! With the help of intuitive eating principles and maybe a non-diet dietitian like myself, your body will start telling you what’s going on again as it learns it can trust you to listen to it.
5. You’re constantly comparing your food/exercise routine/body to those around you.
Everyone is different — there are so many factors that could go into why someone else eats, exercises, or looks a certain way. You should never base what is right for your body off what you see someone else doing — again, this is an external message instead of one that comes from your body.
6. You exercise even when you feel tired/sick.
No matter what society says, exercise is not always healthy! Exercise is not healthy for you when you don’t feel energized and up to it. Exercising when you’re sick can cause your immune system to be even more weakened, and even if you’re not sick, excess exercise releases a bunch of a stress hormone called cortisol. Cortisol in small amounts is good; cortisol in large amounts is bad and can be damaging to your health long-term.
So, there you have it — six warning signs that your relationship with food and/or exercise might be disordered. If you resonate with any of these, know that you are deserving of getting help. Disordered eating, no matter whether it morphs into an eating disorder or not, can so easily suck the joy, purpose, and value out of every part of your life and plague you with anxiety and insecurity.
If you want more help working through your relationship with food, exercise, or your body, consider seeing a non-diet dietitian for help. Let’s all enjoy food and exercise as they were designed to be and respect our bodies as we move through this one life that we all have.
Listen to our podcast episode here!