Why people eat, and how they eat, often matters as much as what they eat. Conditions such as anorexia and bulimia are well-defined examples of eating disorders, but some types of unhealthy eating patterns are more subtle.
Disordered eating versus intuitive eating
“Disordered eating represents any problematic eating behaviour from eating too much to eating too little, or anything in between that would go outside of what we would consider a normal healthy intuitive eating pattern where you eat when you’re hungry,” says Dr. Valerie Taylor, psychiatrist-in-chief at Women’s College Hospital.
Dr. Taylor uses the term “intuitive eating” to describe a pattern of eating in which people are guided by their physical hunger signals, only eating when they are physically hungry, and stopping when they are full.
Dr. Taylor notes that intuitive eating isn’t always easy – especially in today’s environment of strong media images that promote unrealistic or unhealthy images as healthy and ideal; and at the same time push people to overconsume.
“Girls see pictures of very thin individuals and think that this is what they have to emulate,” Dr. Taylor says. “A lot of times these images themselves have been so airbrushed that they’re nobody’s normal – not even the people in the pictures look like the pictures.”
The other side of the message – overconsumption – is driven home by things like oversized drinks at coffee and fast food outlets.
“We’re getting two messages from media, and neither one is compatible with healthy eating,” Dr. Taylor says.
Tools for understanding eating
If you’re unhappy with your eating habits, spend some time thinking about what aspects of eating you’re not happy with, such as when you eat, where you eat, what you eat or how you eat it. One simple step is to slow down – literally.
“One of the problems with fast food is the ‘fast’ part,” Dr. Taylor says, explaining that it takes about 20 minutes for your stomach to tell your brain you’re full. Stretching mealtimes out a little longer may mean you don’t want that dessert, because you’ve given your brain and stomach that necessary time.
Another effective tool is keeping a food journal to track what you actually eat and drink.
“Just writing down what you’re consuming for a week will help you identify what you need to change,” Dr. Taylor says.
Eating behaviour can be changed, but like any behavioural change, it takes work.
“Probably the number one reason diets fail is that as soon as you stop dieting, you go back to the kind of pattern that got you into a problem in the first place,” Dr. Taylor says. “In order to actually be successful, you sort of need to change your normal. To do that, you need to figure out what your normal is.”
If your lifestyle is such that you skip breakfast and do most of your eating at night, or if work functions force you to eat out a lot, you need to know that. Changing those habits can take time and effort, even if it seems like a small change, such as eating breakfast.
The challenge of small changes
For someone who doesn’t eat breakfast, incorporating breakfast is a big deal, Dr. Taylor explains. It may mean getting up earlier, which might require going to bed earlier, which can affect evening activities and habits. Accommodating breakfast may mean reorganizing morning tasks. For example, it may require packing children’s lunches the night before, which might displace an evening activity.
“People are often sold messages that it’s very easy and if you’re not successful, it’s because you’re unmotivated or you lack willpower,” Dr. Taylor says. “But it’s not easy. It takes time.”
Recognizing potential problems
“If you feel unhealthy or uncomfortable, that’s a sign that you may need to do some sort of followup or talk to somebody about it,” Dr. Taylor says. Other signs that may indicate disordered eating include:
- binge eating
- eating in secret or eating a lot of calories alone
- feeling unhappy or frustrated with yourself after eating
- using unhealthy weight control strategies such at eating and throwing up or overexercising
- abnormal preoccupation with food, thinking about food excessively
Any of these factors can be a sign of problematic eating behaviour.
This information is provided by Women’s College Hospital and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or health care provider. Please consult your health care provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: Feb. 13, 2014