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6 Eating Habits That Are Actually Disordered Behaviors, Say Dietitians

Be careful of these common habits because they may be harming your mental health.
FACT CHECKED BY Samantha Boesch

There are some common diet habits that people may assume are perfectly healthy, but they may in fact be detrimental to your mental health. Some people are able to incorporate certain diet-related behaviors into their lifestyle without feeling overly restricted or stressed as a result. However, some people may be more prone to disordered eating or eating disorders.

At the end of the day, it is a great idea to take a look at how your habits and your mindset around food affect you. We spoke to nutrition experts and dietitians to find out exactly what they see over and over again in their clients that may be a sign of disordered behavior around food.

If you notice that you display any of these behaviors, it doesn't mean that you automatically have an eating disorder or even disordered eating tendencies, but it does mean that you may want to talk with a professional to learn more.

Let's find out exactly which eating habits may be disordered behavior.

Intentionally skipping meals

Woman with empty plate

Skipping meals, or substituting non-calorie beverages in place of meals to "save" calories for later, may be a sign of deeper disordered behaviors. An example of this would be constantly skipping breakfast and only drinking coffee.

Not only is saving up your calories by skipping breakfast potentially disordered, it also is likely to increase hunger and cravings later in the day and make it even harder to stick to your nutrition goals.

We spoke to Kayley Myers MS, RDN who explained how good restriction behaviors can be harmful. "One common disordered eating habit is avoiding certain foods to compensate for what you ate earlier in the day. This is usually fueled by rules about what we 'should' eat rather than our internal experience," says Myers.

4 Dangerous Side Effects of a Restrictive Diet

Obsessive calorie counting

Counting calories is controversial in the disordered eating space. Some people can track their food with calorie counting with very minimal negative side effects. Others, however, may become fraught with anxiety around seeing the calorie count of their meals or daily totals.

Counting calories or macro counting can be incredibly overwhelming without professional support or guidance around what these numbers mean. Working with a dietitian to make sure that you have support and education when tracking your food is what we advise.

Counting calories in foods that already have very few calories like mustard, spices, or hot sauce may indicate that there is a disordered pattern at play.

Obsession with food quality

man not eating

There's a new type of disordered eating on the block called orthorexia. Rather than restricting or binge eating, people with this type of disorder eat consistently and may appear to be incredibly healthy and balanced in their choices. However, internally, they have a lot of stress and anxiety around their food choices being "clean," and this may be affecting their mental health.

With the rise of social media and "what I eat in a day videos," dietitians are waving red flags about the increase in orthorexic tendencies.

Mandy Tyler, M.Ed, RD, CSSD, LD told us, "Extreme focus or obsession with eating 'clean' can become a form of disordered eating or possible orthorexia. What starts out as a desire to eat a healthy diet can spiral into an elimination of many foods that do not meet the individual's definition of 'healthy' or 'clean.'"

Only sticking to individual "safe" foods

There are many reasons that someone could feel some foods are unsafe. Barring any allergies, it's possible that food sensitivities or health conditions have made specific foods feel incredibly harmful.

Folks with irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, frequently report fear of food due to gastrointestinal reactions. This is valid, however super complex and often requires trained medical professionals for support.

Andrea Senchuk, RD, MHSc, a Monash-trained dietitian, explained how IBS and food fears can be related.

"IBS can be distressing to live with. There's no cure, symptoms fluctuate, and searching for an effective treatment can feel like looking for a needle in a haystack. So, it's hardly surprising that in their attempt to cope with unrelenting digestive symptoms, many people with IBS develop disordered eating behaviors. Driven by fear of painful cramps, embarrassing gas, urgent diarrhea, or days-long constipation, some IBS sufferers may chronically undereat, skip meals, or rigidly stick to a short list of 'safe' foods," says Senchuk.

Guilt tripping yourself

Food guilt, or viewing foods as "bad" can moralize our food. If you are struggling with disordered eating behaviors, you may feel immense amounts of guilt and shame after eating. Oftentimes, these scenarios are associated with arbitrary, self-imposed rules around food that may or may not be rooted in science.

KeyVion Miller RDN, LDN, dietitian & culinary nutritionist says, "Guilt tripping can come because you ate food past a certain time of the day or are feeling extra anxiety because you are hungry when it's not a certain time of day yet. Sometimes in our quest to lose weight or do what we feel is 'healthier,' we ignore our mental health. We shouldn't jeopardize emotional health just to follow a current trend that really isn't helping."

Cutting out entire food groups

The majority of the population, with the exception of specific health conditions, would do well to incorporate balance in their diet. When we remove or cut out entire food groups, we often feel more restricted and are more likely to binge later.

Specifically, when cutting out an entire food group with the intention of weight loss or because of the fear of weight gain, we see an increase in the likelihood that this is a disordered pattern.

Kim Arnold, RDN of Enlitened Nutrition expands further on this topic. Arnold says, "Removing or severely restricting an entire food group because of a fear that it is negatively impacting weight or causing poor health is a form of disordered eating. I see this often with carbohydrates and sugar. There are many carbohydrates that provide quality nutrition and energy and can support a healthy weight. I am a firm believer that all food can fit when not taken to extremes."

Caroline Thomason, RDN, RD, LDN, CDCES
Caroline is a women's health Registered Dietitian and diabetes educator based in Northern Virginia. Read more about Caroline