What's Eating You?

Last week, I met two ladies who told me about their friend who wouldn't eat anything unless he knew how many calories the food contained, who did not trust his own mother's cooking, who rarely ate out because he had no control over the food, and who spent Sunday afternoons planning his next week's menu down to the last calorie.
The friend could have been simply very particular about his nutrition, but then again, he could have an eating dysfunction.

Although I have written about eating dysfunction before, it seems a good idea to revisit the issue because many people don't realize that rigid and inflexible behavior could lead to an eating disorder.
Dysfunctional eating covers a range of behavior, from healthy habits to a full-blown disorder like bulimia or anorexia. If people are not aware of their dysfunctional eating behavior and do not try to change, their habits can be brought to the extreme.

Signs of dysfunction
Nutritionists at the University of Arizona developed the "Eating Issues and Body Image Continuum" to help people determine if they have a dysfunctional eating pattern. Not everyone fits neatly into one category. Most people have habits that characterize different categories.
The following version was adapted from the original by nutritionist Sheri Barke of the University of California, L.A. She says the goal is to be in the "concerned in a healthy way" category.

Food is not an issue:

* I am not concerned about what or how much I eat.
* I feel no guilt or shame no matter what I eat or how much I eat.
* Exercise is not really important to me.
* I choose food based on cost, taste and convenience, with little regard to health.
* My eating is very sporadic and irregular. I don't worry about meals; I just eat whatever I can, whenever I can.
* I enjoy stuffing my face with lots of tasty food at restaurants, holiday meals and social events.

Concerned in a healthy way:

* I pay attention to what I eat to maintain a healthy body.
* Food and exercise are important in my life, but they only occupy a small part of my time.
* I enjoy eating, but I balance my pleasure with eating with my concern for a healthy body.
* I usually eat three balanced meals daily, plus snacks, to fuel my body with adequate energy.
* I am moderate and flexible in my goals for eating well and being physically active.
* Sometimes I eat more (or less) than I really need, but most of the time I listen to my body.

* I think about food a lot.
* I'm obsessed with reading books and magazines about dieting, fitness and weight control.
* I sometimes miss school, work and social events because of my diet or exercise schedule.
* I divide food into two categories--good and bad.
* I feel guilty when I eat "bad" foods or when I eat more than what I feel I should be eating.
* I am afraid of getting fat.
* I wish I could change how much I want to eat and what I am hungry for.

Disruptive eating:

* My food and exercise concerns are starting to interfere with my school, work and social life.
* I use food to comfort myself.
* I have tried diet pills, laxatives, vomiting or extra time exercising to lose or maintain my weight.
* If I cannot exercise to burn off calories, I panic.
* I feel strong when I can restrict how much I eat.
* I feel out of control when I eat more than I want to.

Disordered eating:

* I worry about what I will eat and/or when I will exercise all the time.
* I follow a very rigid eating plan and know precisely how many calories, fat grams and/or carbohydrates I eat every day.
* I feel incredible guilt, shame and anxiety when I break my diet.
* I regularly stuff myself and then vomit, exercise, or use laxatives to get rid of the food.
* My friends and family tell me I am too thin, but I feel fat.
* I am out of control when I eat.
* I am afraid to eat in front of others. I prefer to eat alone.

What to do if you are a dysfunctional eater
If you fit the category of dysfunctional eater, it is time to do something about it before it becomes a full-fledged disorder. The American Dietetic Association says there are two sets of issues and behaviors that have to be addressed: those directly relating to food, exercise and weight; and those involving your relationship with yourself and with others.

A nutritionist can help you with the first by teaching you the right way to eat and lose weight. But only a psychologist or psychiatrist can help you deal with the second.

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