5 Eating Disorder Thoughts You Might Not Realize Are Disordered

When it comes to defining and diagnosing eating disorders, many people tend to focus on problematic behaviors: skipping meals, frequent post-meal bathroom trips, excessive hours at the gym, evidence of binge eating. While it’s impossible to ignore the significant role that disordered behaviors play in these illnesses, eating disorder thoughts can be just as harmful. In fact, detrimental or maladaptive thoughts are central to the multilayered nature of anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder (BED), and other eating disorders.

What are eating disorder thoughts?

Put simply, eating disorder thoughts are thoughts that align with and contribute to the eating disorder mindset. They’re thoughts that arise not from your own mind, but from the logic of the illness, thoughts that fuel the values, choices, and actions desired by the eating disorder.

This sounds quite sinister (and it is), but unfortunately, it can actually be kind of tricky to identify eating disorder thoughts. That’s because many of the same thoughts that are characteristic of eating disorders have also become normalized in our society, thanks to diet culture. Constant self-monitoring, questioning, and shame around eating and exercise behaviors are, in some ways, expected and encouraged in our society. Meanwhile, we’re constantly told that only certain bodies have value, and that we should all be working toward attaining one of those bodies by becoming smaller. When our thoughts seem to align with these societal values, it’s easy to dismiss them as “normal,” or even good, when they’re quite the opposite.

To better understand how many of the “normalized” thoughts in our diet-centric world are actually disordered—and how to counter them—I asked Equip Therapist Lead Jonathan Levine, LCSW, to share five common examples from his clinical work. Here, Levine helps break down why certain thoughts are anything but “normal,” how to start changing cognitive patterns, and when to seek expert help.

Eating disorder thought 1: "I shouldn't eat all day so I can eat freely at the restaurant with my friends tonight."

According to Levine, one common thought that is often written off as a rational way to “save up” calories revolves around all-day restriction. In reality, minimizing or completely eliminating food during the day in an effort to “earn” an evening meal isn’t healthy or sustainable; on the contrary, it can set the stage for all types of eating disorders.

“So many people feel as though they need to ‘earn’ their food or calories, and that in order to enjoy eating out, you need to be ‘good’ the rest of the day by not eating,” Levine says. “This transactional thinking and hyperfocus on controlling what, when, and where we eat is sadly normalized in our society, and is a sign that you may be struggling with disordered eating.”

Eating disorder thought 2: "I need to go for an extra long run/workout because of what I ate yesterday."

The flipside of “earning” food by restricting beforehand is “making up” for food by exercising away the calories afterward. But contrary to nearly all the messaging we encounter on a daily basis from social media, influencers, and fitness brands, you don’t need to pay penance for eating through physical activity.

Not only is the “calories in, calories out” view on weight loss considered outdated, overly simplistic, and completely inaccurate, but there are also a slew of health benefits related to exercise that have nothing to do with calorie burn or weight. When you view workouts solely as compensatory measures for consuming food, you increase your risk of developing eating disorders like bulimia by using exercise as a form of purging.

“Having a meal or food item connected to compensatory behavior, like exercise, is a warning sign of disordered eating,” Levine says. “Food is not earned, it is required.”

Eating disorder thought 3: "I can't eat in front of people because they might judge what or how much I'm eating."

Many people who (even unknowingly) struggle with disordered eating harbor a lot of fear and shame around eating around other people. There are various reasons different people might dread or avoid eating in front of others, but fear of judgment or rejection for food choices or eating behaviors are two big ones. Because eating disorders thrive in isolation, opting out of social situations that involve food can be a slippery slope, leading to increasingly disordered thoughts and habits.

“Deep anxiety around eating in front of others is a warning sign that your eating is regimented, controlled, rigid, or compulsive,” Levine says.

Eating disorder thought 4: "I can't eat it if I don't know the calories or can't log the calories."

The ubiquitousness of calorie counts on restaurant menus and the proliferation of food tracking apps has unfortunately normalized obsessive counting, tracking, and logging when it comes to eating. While some people may find nutrition information helpful or empowering, those prone to disordered eating can quickly become overwhelmed by the onslaught of numbers, and feel compelled to know and record the nutritional content of anything they consume. This desire to control every bite of food can spiral into an obsession and ultimately manifest in an eating disorder.

“Calorie counting in and of itself is a massive warning sign of disordered eating and possibly an eating disorder,” Levine says. “If you or someone you know struggles to eat something without specific nutritional info, or they compulsively log all that they eat into an app or note, that's a sign that there is disordered eating or an eating disorder present.”

Eating disorder thought 5: "I need to be a certain weight and definitely don't want to be a certain number."

For many people, numbers—on the scale, on clothing tags, on BMI charts, and more—have erroneously become barometers of health or self-worth. In reality, reaching or maintaining a specific weight has nothing to do with achieving or sustaining overall well-being, and striving for an arbitrary number can provoke unnecessary and detrimental stress, anxiety, and compulsive behaviors.

“A hyperfocus on one's weight as a metric of value is, sadly, normalized in this society where we equate thinness and beauty,” Levine says. “However, this value is also deeply related to eating disorder pathology and thoughts. If you are extremely concerned about being a certain number or fearful of going over a number, it's a good time to assess if you're struggling with disordered eating or an eating disorder.”

If you or someone you know grapples with any of these thoughts or similar preoccupations around food, exercise, or body size, it’s time to reach out for help. There’s no such thing as “not being sick enough” to deserve support, and seeking out expert guidance sooner than later can help prevent an eating disorder from developing or becoming more entrenched. Working with a multidisciplinary team, including therapists, dietitians, medical doctors, and support members can make all the difference in permanent recovery and true health—both in your body and your mind.

References
  1. Johns Hopkins Medicine. 2019. “Bulimia Nervosa.” Johns Hopkins Medicine. 2019. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/eating-disorders/bulimia-nervosa.
  2. NHS. 2021. “Benefits of Exercise.” NHS. NHS. August 4, 2021. https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/exercise/exercise-health-benefits/.
  3. Thomas, Diana M., M. Cristina Gonzalez, Andrea Z. Pereira, Leanne M. Redman, and Steven B. Heymsfield. 2014. “Time to Correctly Predict the Amount of Weight Loss with Dieting.” Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics 114 (6): 857–61. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jand.2014.02.003.
Michelle Konstantinovsky
Equip Contributing Editor
Clinically reviewed by:
Jonathan Levine, LCSW
Therapist Lead
Our Editorial Policy
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