Maybe you have realized that you no longer experience food as pleasurable as you become increasingly strict about adhering to a specific diet or meal plan, and beat yourself up for straying from it. Or perhaps your exercise regimen has started to feel more like a punishment than something you look forward to. These are just a few examples of what a potentially unhealthy relationship with eating or exercise might look like.

Throughout this article, we will take a look at the characteristics of disordered attitudes and behaviours around eating and exercise, the warning signs of an eating disorder to look out for, and what to do if you are concerned about your relationship with food or exercise. 

What Is Disordered Eating?

Disordered eating is defined by abnormal eating patterns or behaviours around food, whether it is regularly skipping meals, binge eating, or eating to cope with difficult emotions. Someone who engages in disordered eating may become preoccupied with dieting or limiting their caloric intake in order to alter their weight or body shape. They may have rigid ideas about what they should or shouldn’t eat, and feel guilty if they were to ‘slip up’ and eat a dessert, for example. For more information about how people might engage in disordered eating behaviours as a form of punishing themselves, visit BetterHelp.

While some individuals exhibit patterns of disordered eating, it does not always lead to a full-blown eating disorder. However, engaging in disordered eating behaviours does increase one’s risk for developing an eating disorder, which is a complex mental illness that can be life-threatening. 

Warning Signs of an Eating Disorder

Eating disorders are serious mental health conditions that significantly impact an individual’s physical and mental well-being and quality of life. Though there is no single cause of eating disorders, it is thought that they occur as a result of biological, psychological, and environmental factors.

There are various types of eating disorders with unique symptoms, however, there are some general warning signs that may indicate the presence of an eating disorder:

  • Preoccupation with food/weight/body shape
  • Distorted self-image or body dysmorphia
  • Frequent dieting and food restrictions
  • Cutting out entire food groups
  • Engaging in food rituals
  • Avoiding eating in front of others
  • Evidence of binge eating behaviour– large amounts of food missing, empty food wrappers, etc.
  • Evidence of purging behaviour– frequently going to the bathroom after meals
  • A compulsive need to exercise or distress if unable to exercise
  • Increased isolation
  • Physical signs such as weight fluctuations, feeling cold all of the time, fatigue, dizziness/fainting

Eating Disorders in Men

There is a widespread misconception that eating disorders only occur in females and that could not be farther from the truth. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, one in three individuals who live with an eating disorder are male. They also state that disordered eating behaviours are just about as prevalent in males as females.

Unfortunately, many males delay seeking professional help due to the stigma surrounding eating disorders being a ‘women’s issue.’ However if left untreated, eating disorders can have serious effects on an individual’s physical health and daily functioning. 

What Is Compulsive Exercise?

Though not a distinct diagnosis, it is important to note that the presence of unhealthy behaviours around exercise often co-exists with disordered eating. compulsive exercise, or exercise addiction, is defined by preoccupation with exercise, despite the negative impact it may be causing for an individual. They may spend hours working out and neglecting other areas of life including work and relationships. An individual who has an exercise addiction is likely to exercise even if they are sick, injured or exhausted, or feel guilty or distressed if unable to exercise. 

Seeking Support for Eating or Exercise Concerns

If you are concerned about your attitudes or behaviours around eating or exercise, and the impact it is having on your life, it is worth seeking the support of a professional. Whether or not you believe you fit the criteria for an eating disorder or just want to more deeply understand your behaviour patterns, working with a therapist can be extremely healing for your relationship with food, exercise, and your body.