Fixated on Food: What to Do When All You Think About is Food

Healthy Living

There’s nothing wrong with being a gourmand or social media #foodporn obsessed geek who spends more time and energy thinking about food than the average person. However, if you find yourself constantly thinking about food to the point that it interferes with your life — regarding either the consumption of it, the guilt surrounding past meals, or avoidance of food altogether — it’s worth understanding eating disorders to help you decide if you could benefit from professional help in order to take your mind off of food. Understanding eating disorders is a critical way for you to stop dysfunctional eating patterns from becoming a chronic illness that can have lasting effects up on your physical and mental wellbeing.

Understanding Eating Disorders

There are three types of eating disorders that are recognized by the medical community: binge-eating, bulimia nervosa, and anorexia nervosa. Though not specifically classified as mental disorders, purging without binging and orthorexia are also patterns of disordered eating that can interfere with an individual’s life.

The least common but most deadly eating disorder is anorexia nervosa. In fact, it is the most fatal mental disorder overall; individuals with anorexia may either starve to death or commit suicide. Anorexia is characterized by the severe restriction of calories and often a dysmorphia in which people with the disorder believe they are overweight, even when extremely underweight.

In contrast, individuals with a binge-eating disorder are unable to stop eating. To be clear, binge-eating is more than just occasional overeating; it’s not unusual for a person to occasionally “eat their feelings” after a difficult experience or for people to go over a reasonable limit when eating foods that seem “addictive.” To be diagnosed with a binge-eating disorder, a person must regularly binge eat for a period of at least three months. Individuals who binge eat are often overweight or obese, since the binge is not followed by a purge or fast. According to the NIH, binge-eating is the most common eating disorder in the United States.

Bulimia nervosa is characterized by eating excessive amounts of food, followed by a “purge” through the act of inducing vomiting, the consumption of laxatives, a fast, or excessive exercise. Individuals with bulimia may be of normal weight and often are concerned with body image. Some individuals may simply purge without binging.

Orthorexia is a fixation on the quality or healthfulness of food and diet, where foods are characterized in rigid categories of “good” and “bad.” Eating “bad” foods — junk food, maybe, or even categories of food like dairy or gluten — results in self-punishment through a fast, exercise, or stricter self-imposed dietary guidelines. These eating habits, though they can ultimately support good physical health, can become an obsession that affects a person’s self-esteem or relationships.

How Common Are Eating Disorders?

Approximately three percent of 13 to 18 year olds will develop an eating disorder at some point in their adolescence, and certain demographics face an increased risk. Eating disorders are two and a half times more prevalent among females than males, according to statistics cited by the NIH. However, the National Eating Disorder Association also recognizes that members of the LGBTQ community face an increased risk of developing an eating disorder as well — particularly among gay and bisexual males. While anorexia and bulimia are uncommon disorders among adults, nearly three percent of adults suffer from binge-eating disorders.

 How to Address an Eating Disorder

A variety of factors may contribute to the development of an eating disorder, so understanding eating disorders requires you to consider emotional, mental, social, familial, and possibly even genetic influences on this group of illnesses.

The best way to address an eating disorder is to talk to your primary care physician for guidance as well as a diagnosis or a referral to an expert. Physicians are the only ones who can properly diagnose your eating habits as disordered and help to craft a game plan for your treatment which can involve different types of therapy, prescription drugs, nutritional counseling, and even hospitalization for more severe cases in which an individual has put his or health at immediate risk.

For those who are reluctant to explore whether or not their eating habits reflect an eating disorder, the National Eating Disorders Association offers a straightforward self-screening questionnaire in which individuals can report key considerations such as how often they fast or purge, how important their weight is relative to other aspects of life, and whether or not they have previously been diagnosed with an eating disorder, since relapse is not uncommon.

After completing the questionnaire, the individual may be directed toward a helpline — NEDA Helpline 1-800-931-2237. Otherwise, the results will not suggest an eating disorder but will recommend that an individual seek help if experiencing feelings or behaviors that are interfering with everyday aspects of life. While the questionnaire is not a diagnostic tool in itself, it can be a useful tool to direct people to seek a professional diagnosis.

Of course, a problematic aspect of eating disorders is that the individual suffering from them is unaware that he or she has disordered eating habits. If you have close friends and family in your life who have expressed concern over your health and eating habits, even if you feel that their concerns are off base or stem from a misunderstanding, take their concerns into consideration and have a conversation with a professional. Your support system’s worries may turn out to be unfounded, but at the very least your physician can reassure you that you’re maintaining healthy dietary habits and attitudes surrounding food.

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