When you’re trying to drop pounds, you might decide to run more, eat pizza in moderation, and even wear a fitness tracker to chart your progress. However, problems may arise when the mission starts taking over your life.
“Engaging in these behaviors can be a slippery slope,” clinical psychologist Stacey Rosenfeld, PhD, author of “Does Every Woman Have an Eating Disorder?” told Health. “It’s easy, especially for people with perfectionist tendencies or a genetic predisposition to slide across the spectrum from ‘normal eating’ to ‘disordered eating’ to ‘eating disordered.'”
Here are some signs that your healthy habits may be swerving into unhealthy territory.
If you’re stepping on the scale before and after meals, or if you adjust the way you stand on the scale to tweak the numbers, this is behavior that might get worse over time if you do it consistently.
“Unless you have a physician-prescribed reason to get on a scale, weighing yourself once a week is enough,” Bonnie Brennan, senior clinical director of adult services at the Eating Recovery Center in Denver, Colo., told Health.
Weight naturally fluctuates throughout the day, so if you’re inclined to step on the scale daily, Brennan advised doing it first thing in the morning, after going to the restroom, and before breakfast for the most reliable data.
Journaling meals and snacks is a good way to avoid mindless munching, but at the same time it discourages intuitive eating, so you begin choosing foods based solely on their caloric value, ignoring important vitamins and nutrients and your own sense of satisfaction.
“There’s a fine line between calorie counting and the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors associated with an eating disorder,” said Rosenfeld. “If you already struggle with regulating your eating habits or thoughts, it’s a good idea to lift your focus off calories.”
To eat healthfully, focus on filling half your plate with veggies and whole fruits, one-quarter with lean protein like chicken or fish, and one-quarter with a whole grain, like quinoa or brown rice.
Being focused on weight loss to help resolve health-related symptoms or reduce your risk for health issues (e.g., prediabetes or diabetes, obesity, sleep apnea) is okay. However, if something is telling you that life will be wonderful when you reach some magical weight, or when your thighs stop touching, or when your abs are completely flat, there’s something more to your thoughts on weight loss.
“It’s believing there’s something external we can change that will make us feel good about ourselves internally—that if we can just be thin enough or beautiful enough, everything else will fall into place,” said Brennan. But dropping 5 or even 10 pounds is unlikely to help you land a job or improve your relationships.
Furthermore, this kind of unrealistic thinking could set you up for failure in other areas of your life and prevent you from proactively working on issues in a healthy way.
Seeing certain foods as only good (e.g., broccoli) and other foods as only bad (e.g., potatoes) could be a sign of focusing too strongly on weight loss.
“The more we use this phraseology, the more susceptible we are to judging ourselves by what we eat,” Christine Peat, PhD, clinical associate professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told Health. “It gives food too much importance.”
Of course, you don’t want to eat only candy bars or doughnuts, but no food is inherently good or bad, said Peat. However, some foods offer more nutrients than others. Donuts and candy have nutritional value in calories, fat, carbs, and protein. But, they may not provide many micronutrients.
Try to think of foods as fuel for a healthy body. That means getting all the micronutrients, like potassium, magnesium, and vitamin C, as well as vitamins A and B6. Eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables can help give you what you need.
A 2014 article in Preventing Chronic Disease lists the top 41 foods (all fruits and vegetables) that qualify as “nutrient powerhouses” based on how many disease-preventing nutrients they have per 100 grams. Tops on the list were a variety of leafy greens.
Our bodies are designed to run on a variety of nutrients, and this includes carbohydrates and fats as well as protein and fiber. If you find yourself restricting calories for reasons that aren’t backed by a healthcare provider or nutritionist’s recommendations, it could be a sign of disordered eating.
“Often restriction begets restrictions, with diets becoming more and more limited over time,” said Rosenfeld. Having “forbidden foods” has the potential to lead you to disordered eating and can even trigger binges as you start to crave the nutrients your body lacks.
Whether you’re afraid you’ll drink too many margaritas and eat too many miniature hot dogs or that people will comment that you’re not, isolating yourself to focus on weight loss-related pursuits is a red flag that your focus is getting too narrow.
Brennan has had patients who had a really tough time with holidays like Christmas and New Year’s because they feel pressured to eat and see people. But isolation is not healthy.
“When you close yourself off, you become victim to only your own self-deprecating thoughts and messages,” Adrienne Ressler, LMSW and vice president of the Renfrew Center Foundation, one of the country’s top treatment centers for eating disorders, told Health. “You’re not getting any feedback that would challenge those unhealthy beliefs or assumptions.”
You can also feel like you’re alone, which often spirals into depression and eating disorders, added Peat. Some of the most important checks on a budding disorder are friends and family saying, “Hey, I’m kind of worried about you.”
If you’re frequently saying no to drinks, dinners, and parties that might mess with your diet or exercise protocol, it might be time to get in some healthy social interaction—and any support you need.
Eating rituals could be another indicator of preoccupation with weight loss. Maybe you feel like you have to cut your food into bite-size pieces or the foods can’t mingle on your plate. You might also only use chopsticks or a baby spoon, eat only at certain hours, or chew each mouthful 10 times before you can swallow.
“Having food rituals crosses the line when it’s no longer a way to eat healthfully but a way to exert control,” Marjorie Nolan Cohn, RDN, a national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and co-author of “Overcoming Binge Eating For Dummies,” told Health, noting that if the ritual can’t be completed, bad feelings usually follow. “Every meal needing to be tightly controlled with food ritual behaviors is a strong indicator of an eating disorder.”
Every healthcare provider will tell you that regular exercise is essential for just about every aspect of your physical and mental wellbeing. But it really can go too far.
“People can develop a compulsive or addictive relationship with exercise in which they struggle to maintain a rigid routine,” said Rosenfeld, “and they’ll land in a sea of negative emotions when they’re unable to work out.”
People who compulsively exercise will squeeze in a sweat session no matter what—even if they have to miss family or work obligations or ignore an injury or illness. They routinely push themselves too hard and can end up experiencing overuse injuries, burnout, and exhaustion.
You’ll definitely want to be careful if you’re putting exercise ahead of everything else, especially sleep, and if the thought of missing a workout makes you sweat.
Whether it’s veganism or Paleo, you’re constantly researching what diets are popular. What’s worse is if that’s what you’re spending your hours doing, it keeps your weight, your diet, and your appearance at the forefront of your mind, Peat said—limiting your pursuit of other interests and ultimately creating a feedback loop where that’s all you can think about.
Looking at others’ physical features might become part of your journey to weight loss too. “When you meet someone, you immediately do a body scan and think, ‘hmmm, she looks a little hippy—my hips are better,'” said Ressler. “You’re assuming that size, shape, or weight is the most important thing about that person, and ultimately, it’s an indication that you’re [likely] obsessed with your own size and shape.”
You might also silently criticize people for their choices, like ordering pasta or drinking soda. Ressler encouraged people to seek out other qualities to value, such as sense of humor, a warm smile, or trustworthiness. You’ll not only deepen the social experience, but over time, you’ll start to feel less insecure about your own body weight or shape.
When Peat has heard of any kind of self-restricted diet, that’s a red flag. “The big thing we see, regardless of the specific warning signs, is the extent to which someone is being rigid,” said Peat. “There’s no sense of flexibility. It’s this idea of having rules and needing to follow them.”
A June 2019 Journal of Eating Disorders study noted the impact of “clean eating” through explaining orthorexia—an approach to eating that “reflects a clinically meaningful, pathological obsession with eating only healthy, ‘pure’ foods.”
In general, there’s nothing wrong with eating foods that are good for you and have not been too affected by additives, if at all.
“Often people say they’re doing it for health reasons,” said Peat. “Can there be health benefits to going vegan or Paleo or eating organic? Of course. But not when it’s used it as a thinly veiled excuse to control portions or calories.”
Occasionally, people might chew gum or drink a lot of water or coffee to quiet hunger pangs. “This ‘strategy’ seeks to ward off natural hunger cues and interferes with intuitive eating,” said Rosenfeld. “The problem is that what motivates these behaviors is a restrictive mentality.”
You might feel full after a glass of water, but you’re not giving your body proper nourishment if what it needs is food. While some people reach for diet sodas to fill an empty belly, research shows that sugar substitutes can lead to increased sugar cravings. Therefore, drink water and chew gum between meals if you so desire, but when your stomach growls, feed it real food.
Getting feedback on your food and activity can help keep you honest, like if you need to get some extra steps because you’ve been sitting too long. However, trouble comes from tracking too much or in multiple ways.
“Using devices to track workouts, steps, and calories can contribute to developing a disordered, un-intuitive relationship with exercise,” said Rosenfeld. “Activity becomes about the numbers, and you can always choose to do more.”
As an alternative, Rosenfeld recommended finding an activity that you like doing for its own sake, so you can leave the trackers at home and just move for the love of the activity.
Sometimes, people might feel bad because they slept through boot camp or because they ate an entire burrito. “We see women who tell themselves they’re losers—they say ‘I’m a fat cow, I’m disgusting, I’m ugly,'” said Ressler.
This kind of criticism can have powerful consequences. “Repetition and reinforcement are very strong influences on our belief system,” added Ressler. “The more continuously we diet and fail, the more we engage in negative self-talk, which is very punishing. But it’s the diet that’s failed us, not the other way around.”
Social media has fanned the flames of disordered eating with people sharing pictures of themselves. Researchers of an October 2019 International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health study found that women’s satisfaction and appreciation of their bodies was negatively impacted by social media.
“A lot of patients judge what they look like based on how many likes they’re getting on a picture or whether people comment on how slim they look,” said Peat—and time offers an opportunity for unhealthy comparison.
“If a picture has been up for six months or a year, women might go back and say, ‘when I posted that photo, people said I looked so slim and great, but that’s not happening with this new photo—does that mean people think I look fat?'” added Peat.
It’s okay to post pictures and relish compliments—as long as you don’t let social media friends or followers rule the way you think about yourself.
In a culture that celebrates the thin ideal (the idea that being thin is the way to live happily), it’s easy to internalize the message that when you’re skinny, you’re more valuable as a person—meaning the opposite may be on someone’s mind if their weight is higher.
“That is, the higher their body mass index, the poorer they felt about themselves,” said Rosenfeld. “The impact of weight on self-esteem has obvious psychological consequences and can lead to the development of disordered eating, as an intended strategy to lose or manage weight.”
You prefer to consume the food you’ve made with your own hands—and you may like the taste more, but it’s largely just another way to control your calories.
“It’s a problem if you can’t eat at someone else’s house or at a restaurant,” said Brennan. “It’s a problem if with any invitation you’re trying to decide, ‘Gosh, can I accept this?’ ‘I might have to come up with an excuse not to go because how am I going to do my own food?'”
Limiting yourself in this way will put a major dent in your social life and may lead to withdrawing and becoming isolated. “It’s hard to socialize around food—a normal and healthy behavior—if you’re stuck in this pattern,” noted Rosenfeld.
If thinness is your life’s goal, you probably won’t make room for anything else. “You aren’t allowing any other qualities to count or even to develop,” said Ressler.
A real red flag for Ressler and her team has been an absence of passion for anything else. At the Renfrew Center, Ressler said that she could easily spot patients who were so focused on their looks that they never bothered to invest in hobbies, like drawing or literature or pottery or anything they might have found meaningful.
“They get to midlife and they have a much more difficult time with aging because they have nothing to fall back on,” explained Ressler. “They have nothing meaningful in their lives except the scale”—which is also why they feel so much pressure to stay thin, even if it means disordered eating.
Ultimately, it’s okay to try to be slim and healthy, but not at the expense of everything else in your life. If you still find that you’re having issues related to weight changes, you may find that talking with a healthcare provider could determine some options to help.