Five Ways to Identify Problematic Restrictive Eating

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With the prevalence of diet culture and restriction-based diets like paleo, keto, and whole 30, it can be challenging to identify when restrictive eating becomes disordered. While certain restrictive diets can be healthy and not imply further eating disorder concerns, other restrictive eating patterns can be a warning sign of an eating disorder. To understand when eating becomes disordered, it’s important to be aware of the five ways to identify problematic restrictive eating.

1. Refusing to eat certain foods

An obvious way to identify restrictive eating is if an individual is refusing to eat certain foods. While not eating certain foods is restrictive, it is not always a red flag, which is why it is important to understand why the food is being restricted. For example, if a person abides by a vegan diet and refuses to eat meat or dairy, that could be healthy for them or it could be a sign of disordered eating. To understand which it is, it is important to ask why an individual is eliminating certain foods. For example, if someone refuses to eat dairy because they are lactose intolerant, that is restrictive and it is a healthy choice for them because if they ate dairy, they would feel ill. If someone avoids dairy, but when asked why responds by saying that it has too many calories or causes fat, that may be a sign of disordered eating.

2. Labeling food

Another key sign of problematic restrictive eating is if an individual labels food as good or bad. While it’s true that no food has moral value and that all foods have a place in a nutritious diet, it’s common for those suffering from disordered eating to think certain food is “better” or “cleaner” than other food. If someone refers to certain foods as okay foods but other foods as “no-go” or “bad” food to eat, it may be a warning sign for an eating disorder.

3. Eating during set times

Maintaining a meal-based routine is common and can be incredibly beneficial. However, certain routines can become too restrictive and be a sign of an unhealthy relationship with food. While eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner at the same time is healthy, restricting consumption to certain hours during the day could be a red flag. If an individual only eats between 1PM-2PM and 6PM-7PM, that could be a sign of disordered eating, especially if they are not getting their nutritional needs met and ignoring their body’s hunger cues.

4. Fear around food

If an individual experiences fear or anxiety around food, it is extremely likely that they are suffering from an eating disorder. Having foods that spark fear and are challenging or seemingly impossible to incorporate into an individual’s diet is a common eating disorder symptom. This fear around food is often closely tied to the thought of eating “bad” food or food that could result in weight gain or an inability to stop eating once started. For those with anorexia or bulimia, they may fear food due to its association with weight gain. For those with binge eating disorder, a fear of food may stem from an inability to control one’s actions around food. Therefore, both individuals may fear ice cream but for different reasons. Understanding where the anxiety of the food comes from is crucial to understanding what eating disorder an individual may be suffering from.

5. Social withdrawal

If food becomes a reason why an individual starts to withdraw from friends, family, or events, it is likely that the individual is struggling with disordered eating. It’s common that those engaging in a restrictive diet choose to not go out to eat or to events where food may be present. The availability of food at these events or food-centric gatherings can spark anxiety, fear, and a feeling of being out of control.

By being aware of the signs of problematic restrictive eating, it’s possible to jumpstart the recovery process from disordered eating. If you or a loved one identifies with any of these five signs, it’s important to reach out to an eating disorder specialist as soon as possible.

The Emily Program offers all levels of treatment for individuals struggling with anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, OSFED, ARFID, or co-occurring disorders. If you are struggling with restrictive eating, a specialist at The Emily Program can talk with you about your situation and walk you through eating disorders and treatment options. To get started on your path to recovery, call us at 1-888-364-5977 or visit us online.

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