A question I am asked somewhat regularly is: what is the difference between chronic dieting and having a full-blown eating disorder? Or more accurately, eating disordered vs disordered eating.
I consider dieting disordered eating because it often comes with disordered red flags: Feeling that your Self-worth is related to the size of your body, body dysmorphia, exercise addiction, obsessive calorie counting, anxiety around food or specific food groups, inflexible meal times, refusal to eat in restaurants or outside of one’s own home, food restriction, and feelings of guilt or failure. In my opinion, the only difference really between the disordered eating patterns of a chronic dieter and a person with a full-blown ED is the degree to which these abnormal behaviors are taken. But even if the severity is lower in chronic dieters, it is still a major problem. It is still disordered. More dangerously, a chronic dieter is at a very high risk for developing a full-blown eating disorder. They also can experience symptoms of metabolic damage like gaining weight on restricted calories, osteoporosis, insomnia, and feeling weak and tired.
So, in my opinion there is a very small difference between chronic dieting and eating disordered people. Both issues can and should be recovered from. They can both be physically recovered from by eating to repair the metabolism and find your body’s set point. Fortunately, chronic dieters often won’t have as deep of a mental connection to the control of food restriction. While they may be anxious or depressed, the difference between a chronic dieter and a person with an eating disorder is that their anxiety and depression won’t be as inextricably linked to their body issues and need to control food so physical and mental recovery should come much easier. Having dieted for years and years and having an eating disorder are different, but not by as much as you think. Whether you fit into one category or the other you deserve recovery.
It’s hard to unlearn dieting behaviors especially when they are constantly reinforced by society around us every day, but it is possible. Getting out and recovery for a chronic dieter involves eating without any judgement or restriction and allowing your body anything it calls out for. Sweets, processed foods, fried food, a lot of food, food at weird times – whatever it needs to repair the damage that’s been done to your metabolism. Just like in any recovery weight gain will happen, but eventually as you continue to eat freely your hunger cues will normalize again and you will feel a connection to your hunger and satiety (a connection that is completely lost during a diet.)
Eliminate all categories and judgments such as “good” and “bad” when it comes to food. Allow yourself to eat all foods with the awareness that food is meant to be a positive, nourishing experience. It’s a long process – but it is so wonderful to have freedom and love within yourself once you’ve escaped.