Eating behaviours vary from person to person and occur on a spectrum. At one end is what I would describe as eating with ease.
When eating with ease we have a comfortable relationship with food and can eat in response to our natural in built hunger and fullness cues. We can experience pleasure in eating and eat a wide variety of foods. We also have neutral or more positive body image and feel safe connecting to and inhabiting our body.
Compulsive or Controlled Eating
A problem with food.
In contrast, those of us engaging in eating that is more compulsive or controlled are often uncomfortable inhabiting our body. We believe our self worth is linked to our body weight and shape and we can experience fear and anxiety around food.
We may feel compelled to limit food intake by skipping meals or snacks, reducing portion sizes, delaying eating or by excluding or limiting certain foods or entire food groups.
We may view certain foods as ‘good’ and others as ‘bad’ and attempt to limit or avoid the 'bad' food. Many of us also create rigid rules around food in order to limit food intake and control shape and weight.
Let’s look at some examples:
I can’t eat after 7pm
If I eat lunch, I can’t have dinner too
I can only eat a specific number of calories per day
I must eat less than everyone else at the table
I can only have a treat day if I’ve been ‘good’ all week
I can only eat a specific food at the weekend.
We may also engage in episodes of binge eating or compulsive overeating, feel out of control around food and experience intense guilt and shame after eating.
Some of us may also feel compelled to engage in compensatory behaviours such as self-induced vomiting, compulsive exercise or taking laxatives, to make up for what we have eaten or as a way of earning our food.
When engaging in compulsive or controlled eating, it is also common to struggle with high levels of body distress and feel ashamed of our body. Many of us will also engage in frequent body checking, comparing and weighing.
On the right of the eating spectrum are clinically diagnosable eating disorders. These are essentially more extreme presentations of compulsive or controlled eating that fit specific criteria as described in the DSM-5.
Binge Eating Disorder
Other Specified Feeding
Eating Disorder (OSFED)
Avoidance Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID).
For more information on the specific criteria for a diagnosable Eating Disorder check out this guide.
The Dieting Spiral
Controlled eating behaviours and in particular dieting, are among the most common risk factors for the development of an Eating Disorder. Restricting the amount of food we eat, can lead to chaotic eating and what is often referred to as being in dietary chaos.
When the body is starved of food it responds by reducing the rate at which it burns energy (the metabolic rate) and this can result in increased food cravings that trigger over eating and binge eating behaviours. To compensate, we believe the best approach is to further limit what we eat, and the cycle continues.
Compulsive and controlled eating can have a significant negative impact on our bodies and our lives and has been linked to poor physical and mental health, low mood, fatigue, gastrointestinal issues, irritability, insomnia, anxiety, depression, a reduced ability to cope with stressful situations, low self-esteem and social withdrawal.
Other behaviours can also show up alongside our compulsive or controlled eating further increasing risk:
Obsessive Compulsive Behaviour
In the short term these behaviours can provide relief or a sense of self soothing but just like our compulsive or controlled eating, these behaviours can become unhelpful and harmful over time.
Why Me and Why Food?
Our compulsive or controlled eating tends to show up in small ways at first; over eating on occasion or missing the odd meal or snack, reducing portion sizes or cutting out certain foods or foods groups but as these patterns develop and become more frequent, we can begin to feel fearful or out of control around food and feel ashamed after eating.
We begin to depend on food (or the lack of it) as our best coping strategy, even though it can often leave us feeling much worse. Over time we find ourselves caught in these overwhelming and life limiting patterns that have a huge impact on our health, our relationships and our lives.
Feeling negative about our body also drives compulsive or controlled eating behaviour reinforcing these unhelpful patterns. It is sadly very common to feel negative about our bodies as we are surrounded my messages from our culture that place a higher value on a very narrow body ideal. In particular on smaller, leaner bodies. There is strong focus on shape and weight as a measure of our self worth and if we can reach and maintain a narrow body ideal, our culture perceives our body to be more worthy.
We are essentially encouraged to treat our bodies like show homes, rather than somewhere we live in and from. How we look is prioritised over qualities like wisdom, courage, warmth and grace. Existing in this toxic value system means the focus on our body can become all consuming. It also continues to drive the ever increasing number us affected by compulsive or controlled eating.
What I’ve learned from my own personal journey, and from the 100's of women I have supported, is that eating in a compulsive or controlled way is an attempt to resolve at least one of more of the following:
Low Self Worth
We believe that we are not good enough. By focusing on food and our body and attempting to change or control how we appear on the outside, we hope to somehow increase our sense of self worth.
We have difficulty identifying, expressing and meeting our needs. As a result, we can struggle not only to meet the needs of our body, but also our needs for meaningful connection, love and a sense of belonging.
Lack of Safety (in the body)
We can experience a lack of safety or discomfort in our body and use food and a focus on our body to try to resolve this. This lack of safety may be a result of trauma, difficulties in relationships, confusion around how to be in the world or the impact of living in a toxic culture.
By using food and a focus on the body in an attempt to resolve these core issues, we are seeking an external solution to what is actually an internal problem. This external solution can offer some temporary relief, it’s why we return to these patterns even though they cause harm. However, continuing to use food and a focus on the body in this way is a distraction from the healing that needs to happen inside.
Whenever you are ready I would love to help you end the obsession with food, fat and dieting and heal your relationship with nourishment for good.
If you’d like to get started on healing your relationship with food and your body you can access my FREE 20 page guide on Working with Hunger and Fullness through a Parts Lens here.
If you are a professional interested in my 6 week training course you can find out more here.
Celia Clark is a Food and Body Image Specialist, Therapist and Course Creator who uses a Parts Work approach to help smart, sensitive women find true nourishment from within. She loves to share what she knows, so that women around the world no longer have to battle with food, their bodies and themselves.
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