When healthy habits go haywire
You’re trying to drop pounds, so you’re running more, laying off pizza, and even wearing a fitness tracker to chart your progress. But then the mission starts taking over your life. “Engaging in these behaviors can be a slippery slope,” says clinical psychologist Stacey Rosenfeld, PhD, author of Does Every Woman Have an Eating Disorder?. “It’s easy, especially for people with perfectionist tendencies or a genetic predisposition, to slide across the spectrum from ‘normal eating’ to ‘disordered eating’ to ‘eating disordered.'”
Â And if you thought eating disorders were limited to teenage girls, you’re wrong, says Adrienne Ressler, licensed master social worker and vice president of the Renfrew Center Foundation, one of the country’s top treatment centers for eating disorders. “We’ve seen a great increase in mid-life women—now about a quarter of our patients are in their 30s and above,” she says.
You weigh yourself multiple times a day
If you’re stepping on the scale before and after meals, or if you adjust the way you stand on the scale to tweak the numbers, this is a compulsive behavior that will only get worse over time. “Unless you have a physician-prescribed reason to get on a scale, weighing yourself once a week is enough,” says Bonnie Brennan, senior clinical director of adult services at the Eating Recovery Center in Denver, Colorado. A 2012 study from the University of Minnesota found that frequent self-weighing was linked to more weight-control behaviors (both healthy and unhealthy), more depressive symptoms and lower self-esteem in women. Weight naturally fluctuates throughout the day, so if you’re inclined to step on the scale daily, Brennan advises doing it first thing in the morning, after hitting the bathroom and before breakfast for the most reliable data.
You count every calorie
Journaling meals and snacks is a good way to avoid mindless munching, but at the same time it discourages intuitive eating, so you begin choosing foods based solely on their caloric value, ignoring important vitamins and nutrients and your own sense of satisfaction. “There’s a fine line between calorie counting and the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors associated with an eating disorder,” Rosenfeld says. “If you already struggle with regulating your eating habits or thoughts, it’s a good idea to lift your focus off calories.” To eat healthfully without obsessing, focus on filling half your plate with veggies and whole fruits, one-quarter with lean protein like chicken or fish, and one-quarter with a whole grain, like quinoa or brown rice.
You feel yourself up
You might absentmindedly feel for a hip bone or collar bone, check for lumps in your thighs or stomach or just assess your jawline or cheekbones in every reflection. “Body checking is a common sign of preoccupation with weight and body shape,” says Marjorie Nolan Cohn, RDN, a national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and co-author of Overcoming Binge Eating For Dummies. “Often people who body-check are doing it constantly, and it’s somewhat, but not completely, OCD in nature.” If you catch yourself sizing up your imperfections—we’re not talking about checking your rear-view for panty lines or your teeth for stray lipstick—quickly switch gears to discourage the habit.
You believe thinness will solve your problems
There might be a voice inside your head promising that life will be wonderful when you reach some magical weight, or when your thighs stop touching, or when your abs are completely flat. “It’s believing there’s something external we can change that will make us feel good about ourselves internally—that if we can just be thin enough or beautiful enough, everything else will fall into place,” Brennan says. But dropping 5 or even 10 pounds will not help you land a job or improve your relationships, and this kind of unrealistic thinking sets you up for failure in other areas of your life and can prevent you from proactively working on real issues. Try to imagine your life at your goal weight or shape. If suddenly you’re in a Barbie Dreamhouse, conducting a White House briefing, or playing out a scene from a beer commercial, you’re probably putting unhealthy expectations on your body.
You see food in black and white
Broccoli good; potatoes bad. “The more we use this phraseology, the more susceptible we are to judging ourselves by what we eat,” says Christine Peat, PhD, assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “It gives food too much importance.” Of course you don’t want to eat only candy bars or doughnuts, but no food is inherently good or bad, Peat says. Try to think of foods as fuel for a healthy body. That means hitting all the micronutrients, like the potassium, magnesium, and vitamin C in potatoes, as well as the vitamin A, vitamin C, and vitamin B6 in broccoli.
You’re adding more and more foods to your forbidden list
Our bodies are designed to run on a variety of nutrients, and this includes carbohydrates and fats as well as protein and fiber. You may believe that swearing off sugar or gluten will improve your health, but it’s really just a way to restrict calories—and it’s easy for this pattern to get out of hand. “Often restriction begets restrictions, with diets becoming more and more limited over time,” Rosenfeld says. Having “forbidden foods” sets you up for disordered eating and can even trigger binges, as you start to crave the nutrients your body lacks.
You’re skipping social functions
Whether you’re afraid you’ll go hog-wild on the margaritas and mini hot dogs or that people will comment that you’re not, isolating yourself to focus on weight loss-related pursuits is a red flag that your focus is getting too narrow. Brennan has patients who have a really tough time with holidays like Christmas and New Year’s because they feel pressure to eat and see people. But isolation is not healthy. “When you close yourself off, you become victim to only your own self-deprecating thoughts and messages,” Ressler says. “You’re not getting any feedback that would challenge those unhealthy beliefs or assumptions.” You can also feel like you’re alone, which often spirals into depression and eating disorders, Peat says. Some of the most important checks on a budding disorder are friends and family saying, “Hey, I’m kind of worried about you.” If you’re saying no to drinks, dinners, and parties that might mess with your diet or exercise protocol, it’s time to get in some healthy social interaction—and the support you likely need.
You have to cut your food into bite-sized pieces
Or maybe the foods can’t mingle on your plate, you can only use chopsticks or a baby spoon, you can eat only at certain hours, or you have to chew each mouthful 10 times before you can swallow. “Having food rituals crosses the line when it’s no longer a way to eat healthfully but a way to exert control,” says Nolan Cohn, noting that if the ritual can’t be completed, bad feelings usually follow. “Every meal needing to be tightly controlled with food ritual behaviors is a strong indicator of an eating disorder.”
Your workout is always your top priority
Every doctor will tell you that regular exercise is essential for just about every aspect of your physical and mental wellbeing. But it really can go too far. “People can develop a compulsive or addictive relationship with exercise in which they struggle to maintain a rigid routine,” Rosenfeld says, “and they’ll land in a sea of negative emotions when they’re unable to work out.” Compulsive exercisers will squeeze in a sweat session no matter what—even if they have to miss family or work obligations or ignore an injury or illness. They routinely push themselves too hard and suffer overuse injuries, burnout, and exhaustion. If you’re putting exercise ahead of everything else, especially sleep, and if the thought of missing a workout makes you sweat, signs point to obsession.
You’re always up on the newest diet craze
Whether it’s veganism, Paleo, or Bulletproof, you’re constantly researching the latest food fad. “If nothing else, it’s probably crazy-making,” Peat says, because of all the conflicting advice out there. What’s worse, if that’s what you’re spending your hours doing, it keeps your weight, your diet, and your appearance at the forefront of your mind, Peat says, limiting your pursuit of other interests and ultimately creating a feedback loop where that’s all you can think about. If you find yourself clicking on every new diet or exercise headline promising pounds lost or inches off, limit the number of articles you can read per day, or set a 5- to 10-minute ceiling on the time you can spend reading about weight loss.
You check everybody out
And not because you’re looking for a date. “When you meet someone, you immediately do a body scan and think, ‘hmmm, she looks a little hippy—my hips are better,'” Ressler says. “You’re assuming that size, shape, or weight is the most important thing about that person, and ultimately, it’s an indication that you’re obsessed with your own size and shape.” You might also silently criticize people for their choices, like ordering pasta or drinking soda. Ressler encourages people to seek out other qualities to value, such as sense of humor, a warm smile, or trustworthiness. You’ll not only deepen the social experience, but over time, you’ll feel less insecure about your own body weight or shape.
You fetishize skinny pics
It’s one thing to post a photo from your wedding on the fridge as inspiration to drop pounds; it’s another to fixate on your figure at 17 or gawk at scrawny models in magazines (who are guaranteed to be Photoshopped anyway). “For people who look at thin pictures, it’s not necessarily their goal in the moment but a fantasy of bodily perfection,” Brennan says. “They usually look at the photos with a mix of longing and shame at the same time.” Thought it might seem counterintuitive, Ressler recommends finding a photo of yourself when you were a child. Sometimes it’s easier to talk to the child in the picture than to your grown-up self, she says. “Think about what you can do to support that little girl. What message does she need to hear other than the mean ones you’re giving her?”
You have tricks to avoid eating
Chewing gum or guzzling water or coffee to quiet hunger pangs is normal, right? Not so fast. “This ‘strategy’ seeks to ward off natural hunger cues and interferes with intuitive eating,” Rosenfeld says. “The problem is that what motivates these behaviors is a restrictive mentality.” You might feel full after a glass of water, but you’re not giving your body proper nourishment if what it needs is food. While some people reach for diet sodas to fill an empty belly, research shows that sugar substitutes can lead to increased sugar cravings. Go ahead and drink water and chew gum between meals if you want, but when your stomach growls, feed it real food.
You’re a slave to Fitbit
Getting feedback on your food and activity can help keep you honest—if you’ve taken only 1,200 steps today, you didn’t move enough (experts recommend about 10,000). Trouble comes from tracking too religiously or in multiple ways. Body image experts agree that food-tracking apps such as MyFitnessPal can trigger disordered eating because it encourages a hyperawareness of the data. “Using devices to track workouts, steps, and calories can contribute to developing a disordered, un-intuitive relationship with exercise,” Rosenfeld says. “Activity becomes about the numbers, and you can always choose to do more.” In fact, a 2016 Duke University study to be published in the Journal of Consumer Research shows that Fitbits and other tracking gizmos, in quantifying your every move, can actually suck the joy out of the activity. Instead, Rosenfeld recommends finding an activity that you like doing for its own sake, so you can leave the trackers at home and just move for the love of the activity.
You eat only 100% organic, 100% of the time
Or maybe only locally sourced, or only raw. “Often people say they’re doing it for health reasons,” Peat says. “Can there be health benefits to going vegan or Paleo or eating organic? Of course. But not when it’s used it as a thinly veiled excuse to control portions or calories.” A 2015 study from Bates College on orthorexia (a pathological obsession with nutrition) calls this growing problem “a disease disguised as a virtue.” The researchers write, “Although prompted by a desire to achieve optimum health, orthorexia may lead to nutritional deficiencies, medical complications, and poor quality of life.” When Peat hears of any kind of self-restricted diet, that’s a red flag. “The big thing we see, regardless of the specific warning signs, is the extent to which someone is being rigid,” she says. “There’s no sense of flexibility. It’s this idea of having rules and needing to follow them.”
You beat yourself up for bad behavior
Do you feel like a bad person because you slept through boot camp or because you ate the entire burrito? “We see women who tell themselves they’re losers—they say ‘I’m a fat cow, I’m disgusting, I’m ugly,'” Ressler says. This kind of criticizing can have powerful consequences. Marjorie Feinson, PhD, a professor at the Falk Institute for Behavioral Health Studies in Jerusalem, has shown that negative self-talk is more detrimental in terms of disordered eating than even depression or anxiety. “Repetition and reinforcement are very strong influences on our belief system,” Ressler says. “The more continuously we diet and fail, the more we engage in negative self-talk, which is very punishing. But it’s the diet that’s failed us, not the other way around.”
You love your selfie more than yourself
Social media, with people snapping selfies all day long, has fanned the flames of disordered eating. “A lot of patients judge what they look like based on how many likes they’re getting on a picture or whether people comment on how slim they look,” Peat says. And time offers an opportunity for unhealthy comparison. “If a picture has been up for six months or a year, women might go back and say, ‘when I posted that photo, people said I looked so slim and great, but that’s not happening with this new photo—does that mean people think I look fat?'” It’s okay to post pictures and relish compliments, as long as you don’t let your 1,240 friends dictate how you should feel about yourself.
You feel more lovable when you’re thin
In a culture that celebrates the thin ideal, it’s easy to internalize the message that when you’re skinny, you’re more valuable as a person. In a 2015 study in the International Journal of Behavioral Medicine that followed women for 26 years, from adolescence to mid-adulthood, there was an inverse relationship between BMI and self-esteem. “That is, the higher their body mass index, the poorer they felt about themselves,” Rosenfeld says. “The impact of weight on self-esteem has obvious psychological consequences and can lead to the development of disordered eating, as an intended strategy to lose or manage weight.”
You bring your own salad dressing
Or granola. Or any food you’ve made with your own hands. Sure, you may prefer the taste, but it’s largely just a sneaky way to control your calories. “It’s a problem if you can’t eat at someone else’s house or at a restaurant,” Brennan says. “It’s a problem if with any invitation you’re trying to decide, ‘Gosh, can I accept this?’ ‘I might have to come up with an excuse not to go because how am I going to do my own food?'” Limiting yourself in this way will put a major kink in your social life and may lead to your withdrawing and becoming isolated. “It’s hard to socialize around food—a normal and healthy behavior—if you’re stuck in this pattern,” Rosenfeld adds.
You’ve lost your other passions
If thinness is your life’s goal, you’re going to end up pretty one-dimensional. “You aren’t allowing any other qualities to count or even to develop,” Ressler says. At the Renfrew Center, she can easily spot patients who have been so focused on their looks that they’ve never bothered to invest in hobbies, like drawing or literature or pottery or anything they might have found meaningful. “They get to midlife and they have a much more difficult time with aging because they have nothing to fall back on,” she says. “They have nothing meaningful in their lives except the scale.” Which is also why they feel so much pressure to stay thin, even if it means disordered eating. A real red flag for Ressler and her team is an absence of passion for anything else. So bottom line: It’s okay to try to be slim and healthy, but not at the expense of everything else in your life.