What does a healthy relationship with food and eating look like?

Nutrition Australia recommends that we enjoy eating a variety of nutritious foods from the five food groups every day, drink plenty of water, and moderate our consumption of foods high in saturated fat, sugar and salt.

A healthy relationship with food includes the social aspects of eating with others and sharing food; trying new foods and cuisines; and the celebratory, religious, and cultural aspects of food. For example, birthdays, Christmas, Chinese New Year and Ramadan.

According to the National Eating Disorders Collaboration (NEDC), a healthy relationship with food and eating also includes:

  • eating at regular intervals including regular main meals and snacks
  • eating a variety of different foods from all food groups
  • eating an appropriate quantity of food to meet individual health and development requirements
  • eating with others or alone with equal ease
  • eating with flexibility, spontaneity and for enjoyment
  • listening to our body’s cues; eating when you are hungry and stopping when you are full
  • eating that does not interfere with everyday life

Dieting and Disordered Eating

On the other hand, an unhealthy relationship with food and eating includes strict dieting and disordered eating behaviours. These behaviours, in combination with body dissatisfaction, are the most common risk factors to the development of an eating disorder.

What are some signs of disordered eating?

  • Restrictive eating – quantity and variety of food consumed
  • Food rules or rituals – avoiding certain foods/food groups/certain combination of foods, rigid meal times
  • Skipping meals
  • Binge eating – eating a large amount of food in a small period of time and feeling out of control
  • Eating in secret
  • Self-induced vomiting
  • Use of diet pills
  • Laxative, diuretic, enema misuse

What’s so bad about dieting and disordered eating?

Studies in Australia and New Zealand have found that young people who diet moderately are five times more likely to develop an eating disorder than those who do not diet. Those who diet severely have an 18-fold risk.

There are many other risk factors associated with disordered eating and dieting: 

  • Changes in the body’s metabolic rate which can result in binge eating behaviours
  • Fatigue and poor sleep quality
  • Depression and anxiety symptoms
  • Reduced capacity to cope with stress
  • Feelings of guilt, shame, failure and low self-esteem
  • Social withdrawal for fear of being in situations where food will be consumed
  • Nutritional deficiencies
  • Osteoporosis or osteopenia
  • Gastrointestinal problems such as constipation and/or diarrhoea
  • Headaches and/or muscle cramps
  • Among girls who dieted, the risk of obesity is greater than for non-dieters

Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses which carry potentially severe and life-threatening medical complications. It occurs in individuals in all age groups and from all walks of life. Approximately one million Australians are living with an eating disorder in any given year which equates to 4% of the population.

Many more people experience disordered eating that do not meet criteria for an eating disorder (Hay et al., 2017).  Early detection of disordered eating behaviours by GPs and mental health professionals can help to prevent the development of eating disorders. Furthermore, intervening early can help to re-establish regular, nutritional eating, and a healthy relationship with food and eating.

If you or your loved one engages in disordered eating or has symptoms of an eating disorder, they may be eligible for a GP Eating Disorder Treatment Plan (EDMP). This allows them to access up to 40 psychological services and 20 dietetic services for 12 months from the referral date of the plan.

Rowena Hong is an ANZAED credentialed eating disorder clinician who can provide treatment for adults presenting with disordered eating, binge eating, bulimia nervosa, and other specified feeding or eating disorder. If you require support with any of these issues, please do not hesitate to contact our practice for a consultation.

For further information or treatment for other eating disorders or adolescents presenting with an eating disorder, visit the Butterfly Foundation www.butterfly.org.au

Sources and References:

National Eating Disorders Collaboration

Butterfly Foundation

Deloitte Access Economics. Paying the price: The economic and social impact of eating disorders in Australia. Australia: Deloitte Access Economics; 2012

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