By: Alison Ross, LMFT, CEDS
Have you ever noticed that the behaviors we tend to associate with health can also be warning signs for eating disorders? We've been conditioned to view things like weight loss, intense exercise, and clean eating as indicators of a healthy lifestyle. But it's important to recognize that these same behaviors can also be red flags indicating that someone is struggling with an eating disorder.
What might be a healthy behavior for one person could be a health crisis for another. For example, moving your body is generally good for you, but an individual with an eating disorder may use exercise excessively to the point of malnourishing themselves. And while some form of clean eating can help one person improve a health condition, for another it can morph into orthorexia, a type of obsessive-compulsive disorder involving food and exercise that can ruin a person's life.
As an eating disorder specialist, I've observed so many people's recovery derailed when others mistake their eating disorder attitudes and behaviors for health. An individual, courageous enough to increase their nutritional intake or expand their range of dietary choices, is often derailed from their recovery path due to unhelpful remarks about their dietary choices. A person's obsession with weight might be praised by their loved ones who think it's a sign of a healthy mindset, which only serves to perpetuate denial of the existing problem. The intertwining of health and disordered eating behaviors can lead to a confusing and hazardous conceptual blur, making recovery even more challenging.
Because there's a fine line between healthy habits and eating disorder behavior, and since the very same behavior can be healthy for one person can be a health crisis for another, it's important to approach other people's exercise and eating behaviors with caution. Instead of rushing to praise or judge them, we should be mindful of how we communicate, especially when we might not know the significance of the attitude or behavior.
If you're unsure if someone's behavior is healthy or disordered, it may be best to refrain from commenting altogether. But if you notice signs of obsession or struggle, express genuine concern from a place of love. Offer support and suggest seeking professional guidance if needed.
Remember that when it comes to health, appearances can be deceiving. Just because someone looks healthy doesn't mean they are. And, on the flip side, someone with an eating disorder may not look like they're struggling. By handling these situations with sensitivity and understanding, we can help create healthier communication around body image and food, providing support for those who might be battling their demons in silence.