Eating Disorders and Disordered Eating

By Ann Hull, The Hull Institute

What is disordered eating?

Disordered eating: Isn’t everyone doing it? Well, most of us are doing it. We are skipping breakfast, eating too much fast food, eating bags of chocolate then starving the whole next day, trying to figure out what to eat every day and what size body is right for us. We eat the “wrong foods” or don’t follow the plan we set out for ourselves, then feel bad about ourselves and vow not to do it again. It feels like a vicious addictive cycle.

Disordered eating is complicated and difficult to overcome, mostly because high calorie and less nutritious foods tend to taste better to us. However, this is not an eating disorder. Poor eating is unhealthy and can get us frustrated and down, and it can develop into an eating disorder, but in itself, it is not an actual disorder.

What are eating disorders?

Daily, new research is revealing that eating disorders are much like any other addiction. They affect the pleasure centers of the brain much like cocaine or heroin, and can be even more dangerous. Eating disorders are biologically based brain disorders.

In medical terms, there are 3 classes of eating disorders: ANOREXIA, BULIMIA and BINGE EATING DISORDER. The criteria used to make these diagnoses have recently changed, such that more people meet the diagnosis than ever before.


Restricting your food intake to the point that it affects your brain, your body, your functioning in work or school, and your relationships. Anorexia starts as a way to manage your weight, then it quickly becomes a way to manage your emotions and your life. It often includes extreme weight loss, loss of your period (or low testosterone in men), physical problems such as dizziness, headaches, hair loss, dry skin, lack of sleep, and being cold all the time. Not eating can cause many physical problems such as a shrinking brain, bone loss, muscle loss, heart problems, and a host of other problems. It causes you to become depressed, have no energy, not be able to see yourself clearly in the mirror and it convinces you that you are fat even when others tell you that you are too thin. It has a negative effect on your relationships and your self esteem. It can happen to women and men of any age.


Eating large amounts of food then purging it. Purging usually means throwing up, but it also means any way to get rid of food once it is eaten; for example: laxatives and diuretics and over-exercising to burn off the food. “Large amounts” of food means eating more than is usual in an average time frame, to the point of feeling stuffed or overstuffed, and physically ill or uncomfortable. Binging is usually done in secret, outside or regular eating.

Some people will restrict, or eat nothing, all day, then binge and purge at night; some people will eat OK during the rest of the day, and still binge and purge during certain periods other times. Bulimia is also very dangerous as it can cause electrolyte imbalances in the body, which puts a huge strain on your heart. Think of it this way: every time you throw up your food, you inflict trauma on your body. Our bodies were not designed for this sort of trauma. Over time, it takes its toll. And don’t forget about how all the acid in your vomit can rot your teeth after even a short time of purging. Women and men of any age can get bulimia.

Binge Eating Disorder

This is a new diagnosis, although binging has been around for a long time. Binging is eating a large amount of food in an out of control fashion, and not using any sort of behaviors to get rid of it. Binge eating disorder can be as dangerous as anorexia and bulimia, though most people don’t know that. Sometimes it is more dangerous because no one notices the behaviors and bingers may be less likely to get help. We still live in a society that believes that overweight people cannot possibly have an eating disorder; it is just that the person is weak. Binge eating disorder is a brain disorder like anorexia and bulimia, and without treatment, it will probably get worse with time.

Binge eating disorder affects almost as many men as women, and affects all shapes and sizes of adults and children. When people binge, it is almost always on sugar, or simple carbohydrates that break down into sugars, and fats and salty foods. Rarely do people binge on broccoli and salad, because those foods don’t have the addictive qualities that sugar, fat (fast food) and salt have.

Over exercising is very common in today’s world where we hear we need to eat less and exercise more. While “dieting” means you are burning more calories than you are eating, it can be dangerous if you are working out for more time than your body can handle. If working out becomes an obsession where you are putting it first over all other activities, then you may have a problem. If you work out even when your body is exhausted and hurting, you may have an exercise addiction.

Eating disorders are like other addictions because, without treatment, they will probably get worse. Like with alcohol and drugs, over time, you will need more of the “drug”, the eating disorder behavior, to get the high or numbing you are looking for. If left untreated, it will get worse and cause more negative consequences. It is like other addictions because even when you no longer like the effects and you try to quit, you can only go a short period of time until it comes back full force.

Up to half of people with substance addictions also have eating disorders. Anyone in recovery knows how easy it is to change addictions, from drugs, to eating disorder, gambling, spending, etc. It is common for one addiction to be replaced by another one, because all of them are brain disorders and until the brain is trained to do something other than numb out or get high, the addicted person’s brain’s “go to” will be some sort of addictive behavior.

Hence SMART Recovery, a method for overcoming addictions.

More people die of eating disorders than any other addiction or mental illness.

How do I know if I have an eating disorder?

Take this online test. The EAT-26 is a good way to tell if you have a problem and what to do about it. If these test results say you need to seek help, SEEK HELP.

EAT-26 Test

Binge Eating Disorder

Like in other addictions, the eating disorder (sometimes called “food addiction”)convinces you that you don’t really have it or that it “isn’t that bad”. If you are reading this, it might be “that bad”. You might also be using drugs and alcohol, or be having other self harm behaviors such as cutting or burning yourself. Often, depression and anxiety go hand in hand with eating disorders. Put all this together, and you have a very complicated and dangerous problem. It is not likely that you can figure out on your own how to tackle these problems.

First: Talk with your doctor. Be direct and honest with him or her, and ask for help. Surprisingly, many doctors do not know how to treat eating disorders. If your doctor doesn’t know what to do, consider finding another.

Second: Seek therapy. An eating disorders specialist can help you identify the problem, and determine what sort of help you need. Be careful in choosing a specialist. Many therapists know very little about eating disorders, and therefore may be unhelpful.

Third: See a registered dietitian. Be sure they are registered and have training in eating disorders treatment. Eating disorders are complicated and dangerous and not just anyone can safely advise you how to eat properly.

Fourth, attend a SMART Recovery group.

How can SMART Recovery help me stop my eating disorder?

SMART Recovery provides its members with tools and support that they can use to help them recover from addictions – be it alcohol, or other drugs or negative behaviors. SMART Recovery’s 4-Point Program® is designed to help you overcome your problems:

  1. Building & Maintaining Motivation – Helps you identify and keep up with your reasons for positive change. Why do you want to change – what will keep you focused on that goal?
  2. Coping with Urges – Dealing with urges and cravings is part of recovery. SMART has tools designed to help our members cope with urges and cravings.
  3. Managing Thoughts, Feelings and Behaviors – We frequently turn to using drugs to either escape from or avoid addressing problems. SMART Recovery participants learn problem-solving tools to help them manage challenges along the way.
  4. Living a Balanced Life – Addiction can put your life out of balance – you may find yourself opting to engage in your addiction rather than go to work or school. You may find that things you once enjoyed aren’t fun anymore. SMART give members skills to help balance both short and long-term goals, pleasures and needs that were once out of balance.

While many SMART Recovery groups are prominently for other addictions, the tools you will learn are the same and SMART Recovery’s non 12-step approach can be used as an alternative to Overeaters Anonymous or other food addiction support groups. You can substitute any terms or talk you hear about alcohol or drugs for restricting or binging and purging, and you will be able to get the support you need and deserve.

Dr. Ron Manley, a registered psychologist, discusses eating disorders and the Stages of Change.

For more information on supporting others with addictions or eating disorders, see our SMART Recovery Family & Friends information.

Where do I go from here?

Getting started with SMART Recovery is easy! If you would like to get started right away, you can join our online support group where you can read, share and learn from our worldwide community of members at any time of the day or night.

You can also find a local SMART Recovery meeting, or, if we don’t have any meetings in your area yet, you can join us at one of our online meetings.

If you’d like to have printed study material, we suggest the SMART Recovery Handbook.

Where can I find more help?

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SMART Recovery was established in 1994 in the USA to meet the increasing demand of health professionals and their patients for a secular and science-based alternative to the widespread 12-Step addiction recovery program.

Such was its popularity that SMART Recovery grew from 42 group meetings at the beginning to more than 2000 in North America alone today and now proliferating worldwide in 23 countries and counting.

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