Understanding Disordered Eating and What It Means to Heal

Few people understand treatment and best practices when it comes to eating disorders — including health professionals. I know this as someone who works with eating disorders first-hand. But the same can also be said about disordered eating. 

In a culture that glamorizes eating disorder symptomatology (restriction, weight loss), it can be difficult, if not impossible, to separate which pieces belong to an eating disorder and which belong to diet culture. Fat-positive Ragen Chastain has previously said that we prescribe to fat people what we diagnose in thin people. And though fat people are also diagnosed with eating disorders including Anorexia Nervosa, this is pretty true. 

We may look aghast at an emaciated woman whose circulation is so poor her feet have turned purple and her face as sunken in, yet we feel it’s perfectly acceptable to encourage the same habits and behaviours in someone occupying a fat body, including semi-starvation and restriction, over-exercising, calorie counting, and the use of Bulimia-like medical devices. You know, the types of tactics used to entertain people on The Biggest Loser

Intuitive eating, health at every size, body positivity, holistic nutrition. What is disordered eating and what does it mean to heal from diet culture?

I’ll reserve the fact that we view the suffering, shame, and embarrassment of other people as an entertainment for another blog post. 

Here is my reality as I know it, which is the only lens I feel I can speak through: eating disorders are mental illnesses and disordered eating is not currently considered a mental illness. 

But we must also acknowledge the ways our culture is influenced by beauty sickness, poisoned by patriarchy, and deficient in self-care. 

We aren’t taught how to cope with uncomfortable feelings and difficult situations in healthy ways.

And we need to acknowledge the ways trauma, shame, poor self-esteem, feelings of inadequacy, vulnerability, stress, depression, anxiety, and fear translate to or manifest in our relationship (or lack thereof) with food. 

No, we cannot “cure” poor body image with a diet or weight loss. No, we cannot improve our lives, as the underlying subtext of our culture suggests, by changing, “updating”, “transforming”, “fixing”, and “toning” our bodies. No, we are not better people if we drink green smoothies and kale salads, and no, we are not worse if we enjoy ice cream, like cheeseburgers, and possess a penchant for Oreos. 

For those who don’t understand disordered eating, here’s the Cole’s Notes:

Disordered eating involves obsessing and fixating on food above all other things. It means spending so much time dwelling on or attempting to be thin that your life shrinks in tandem with the restriction. It may mean cutting out certain foods, counting calories, weighing foods, weighing yourself, denying dinners out with friends and coffee dates for fear of eating something “off limits”, of trying to “be good” and crying in shame when you can’t sustain your “perfect diet.” 

Disordered eaters may not adequately nourish their bodies; they may choose low-calorie options to “save points”. They may not eat enough to fuel their bodies and weight cycle, which places them at a higher risk for various diseases and premature death. 

And in my experience, restriction with food often means restriction in life: waiting for the weight to come off before going on a trip, waiting to lose weight before getting married, not having children for fear of weight gain or what the experience will do to the body, being so self-conscious that you deny yourself a chance to swim in the ocean or in the pool with your kid, and generally not fully showing up fully or participating in your one wild, amazing life. 

No, health is not about weight loss. Health is about eating adequately, regularly, and consistently. Health is about balance. Health is about self-care, sleep, joyful movement when appropriate, and an easy relationship with food. Health is positive, empowering, and fully yours to discover. 

The correlations between health and weight are only seen at the very highest of highest weights; in fact, the data as know it reveals that being “overweight” may have a preventative effect, while being underweight is actually correlated with the poorest health outcomes. This is consistent with my work in eating disorders. 

Above all, disordered eating is a problem because it is inherently dehumanizing. 

Weight stigma, weight bias, and weight discrimination are problems, above all, because they are dehumanizing.

My background is in writing; I majored in English literature in university, and went on to complete graduate studies in creative writing. Though nutrition and writing may seem very disparate from one another, I regularly use the analytical and critical thinking skills I acquired from that period of my life. 

I am always working to help people to re-write their stories, alter their narratives. I challenge their beliefs about self and life, which often begin more like “facts” than convictions. Mostly, I work to help them to come home to themselves, to occupy the bodies they’ve vacated, to enjoy the foods they’ve distanced themselves from, to feel the fullness, the weight, of their bodies. To feel comfortable with wholeness. 

What if you were diagnosed with a kind of cancer no one could see? Not a microscope. Not a single medical device. What if it was invisible to everyone but you, and maybe one other person? What if it spread across your body, across your life? What if it infected your relationships — with your significant other, your friends, your family, your co-workers — and ruined your work day? What if it was the first thing you thought of when you woke up in the morning and the thing on your mind when you fell fast asleep? What if it left your anxious and depressed about the future? What if it kept you from dating, from finding the kind of love you craved deep down? What if it made you feel so sad you could barely stand it?

I want you to consider it. I want you to consider all of it. 

Healing is often a slow, painful process. It involves reflecting critically on a culture that has encouraged loyalty to its socially constructed beauty ideals while promoting disloyalty to ourselves. It involves considering the messages we received about food, body, and worth growing up and afterwards. It involves developing a different kind of relationship with food. It involves being afraid, and doing it anyway. It involves the courage and strength to stand up to diet culture and all of its trappings; to well-meaning but often triggering family, friends, and co-workers who talk about their latest diet, “needing to lose weight”, “wanting to lose weight”, or who insist we should follow suit. 

Intuitive eating (the model) is the blueprint for this process — a map that helps you to navigate the waters. It teaches you how to extract yourself from diet culture; from rules that do not serve you; from media and “experts” who often lead with opinion, sensationalism, and bad science; from companies who are so quick to profit from your insecurities; from the finger-pointers and the “truth-tellers”; from a self-punishing relationship with exercise to one that is liberating and enjoyable; from using food to cope to finding alternative means. Intuitive eating equips you with training wheels for the bike you’ve never been on, with the hope and the intention of removing them one day and letting you ride free into the sunset. 

Healing is the process of coming home to ourselves. And of helping others to come home, too.

Sarah Berneche

Sarah Berneche, 14 Denison Square, Toronto, ON, M5T 1K8