juiceOn many pop culture websites, you hear a lot of talk about celebrities with eating disorders. What is an eating disorder and what is (non)disordered eating?

I think that most of us have some (small) version of an eating disorder.  We all have times when we use food in ways that aren’t just about nutrition.  For example, many of us use food to feel better, reward ourselves for something, avoid boredom and to do something “nice” for ourselves.

Here are a few questions from a questionnaire used by Anorexics and Bulimics Anonymous, a Canadian-based 12-step group:

Do you feel a strong drive to control your body size or shape?

Do you feel guilt about your eating or try to hide it from others?

Do you have a powerful need to exercise to keep your body “in shape”?

Do you think you are fat, while other people say you’re normal or underweight?

Do you use diuretics, laxatives, or appetite suppressants to control your body?

Do you ever wish you had more self-control or willpower around food?

Do you lie about what you have eaten or about your weight?

The ABA people say that if you answer “Yes” to even one of these questions, you may have an eating disorder. While I respect their wisdom, here’s my definition: if your food intake is habitually either insufficient or excessive and it has a negative effect on your physical and mental health, you may have an eating disorder.

In my line of work, eating disorders is considered a specialty, and since I am not an expert in this area, let me share with you some research I’ve done regarding what the “experts” are saying:

“There is an emphasis on thinness (for women) and muscularity (for men) that often goes beyond simple body image. There is an implicit media message that not only are those with ‘ideal’ bodies more confident, successful, healthy and happy but that slimness is associated with positive character qualities, such as reliability, trustworthiness and honesty.” (Harvey & Robinson, 2003).

“Until recently, eating disorders have been characterized as an almost exclusively female problem.” (Maine and Bunnell 2008). “The majority of early academic scholarship during the early 1990s tended to dismiss the prevalence (of eating disorders) in men as largely, if not entirely, irrelevant when compared to that in women.” (Weltzin et al. 2005.).

Recent Canadian studies have found that eating disorders are the third most common chronic illness in adolescent boys and estimate that 3% of Canadian men will be affected by eating disorders in their lifetime.

Another recent study estimated that 10 – 15% of people with eating disorders are males.. While there is no consensus in the literature regarding unique risk factors as they relate to the LGBT community; the Center for Population Research in LGBT Health estimates the prevalence of eating disorders in the LGBT community to be about twice the national average for women and approximately 3.5 times higher for men.

Surprised? I was.  Research also shows that since 1987, hospitalizations for eating disorders in general hospitals in Canada have increased by 34% among young men under the age of 15 and by 29% among men between 15–24 years old.

So what is (non)disordered eating? I define it as eating that enhances your physical and mental health. It’s eating without all the extra psychological baggage. When you’re hungry, you eat something that makes your body happy. When you’re not hungry, you don’t eat to fulfill any unmet emotional needs. I am writing this column to raise awareness in our community of how we relate to eating, food and our bodies.

As standards for LGBT beauty continue to become more-and-more rigid, will we indulge in unhealthy eating habits and obsession with body image, or will we find ways to avoid going down that path?  (Non)disordered – healthy – eating is possible for all of us all, if we are willing to address the obstacles in our way.

If you suspect you may have an eating disorder, please get help, it’s hard to do this alone.