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You are how you eat

In a society obsessed with body image and diet, disordered eating 
behaviours are becoming increasingly common. We take a look at four unhealthy eating patterns and how you can overcome them.

You are how you eat

The extent of body dissatisfaction in our society is alarming. Consequently, many women resort to quick fix fad diet solutions and extreme weight loss behaviours that are associated with “disordered” eating styles.

We’re not talking about whether you ask to have your salad dressing on the side or prefer to drink a decaf soy latte – eating style has more to do with how you eat, rather than what you eat. Sometimes these habits have formed in childhood when someone was simply labelled a picky eater, or such patterns can develop in a quest to lose weight, or as coping mechanisms against emotional stress.

According to a recent Mission Australia Youth Survey of more than 15,000 young Australians, 43 per cent of females indicated that body image was a major personal concern. This level of dissatisfaction remains high into midlife, with one study, published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, reporting 41 per cent of middle-aged women regularly scrutinise their body at least once a day. With statistics like these, it’s no wonder many women report signs of disordered eating behaviours.

“Disordered eating” is a term used to describe eating habits or patterns that are irregular. Many different types of disordered eating habits exist, but for the most part these habits do not add up to a diagnosis of an eating disorder, such as anorexia or bulimia. Here are four problem-eating patterns that may be standing in the way of your health and happiness and tips that will help you resolve them

The Health food detective 

With today’s alarming obesity rates, a serious dedication to a healthy diet hardly seems like a bad thing. But for some, a fixation on healthy eating develops into an obsession where a food is virtually untouchable unless it’s either certified organic, raw, gluten free, vegan or low sodium. It’s an emerging eating style – particularly in professional women in their thirties – called orthorexia, a term coined by Californian doctor Steven Bratman. Bratman describes orthorexia sufferers as having an unhealthy obsession with eating foods deemed nothing but “pure”. In other words, the pleasure is more in eating “correctly” rather than simply eating.

Most often the quest to improve general health starts out innocently, but is soon followed by an eating style where the quality of the foods consumed is more important than personal values, interpersonal relations, career plans and social relationships. Eventually food choices become so restrictive that health suffers – an ironic twist for a person so completely dedicated to healthy eating.

The Fix: Eating for health isn’t about willpower; it’s about practising moderation. This includes being flexible in what and when you eat; giving yourself permission to eat foods you love, and balancing nutrition with a variety of foods without reducing the enjoyment of life or affecting relationships with others. What’s more, you can still maintain a healthy diet, but maintain it in a way that’s based on preference as opposed to an obsession. Also, consider whether there are deeper emotional issues, as working through them will make the transition to normal eating easier.

The Pro-dieter 

The pro-dieter is often on a restrictive diet that typically follows an unflappable cycle of weight loss/weight gain (a.k.a. yo-yo syndrome). For one reason or another, professional dieters always fail to lose the weight or stick to whatever diet they follow at the time. They often experience feelings of frustration and guilt for having strayed from their dietary goals and then feel like a failure, which leads to giving up the diet altogether. In the end, the pro-dieter may even end up weighing more than what they did before the diet. The vicious cycle then starts all over again.

The Fix: Ever notice when you decide to give up a favourite food, it’s the only thing you can think about? Restrictive rules, such as that found in many popular diets, will almost guarantee defeat. Instead of obsessing about every morsel, reconsider the whole notion of dieting as a permanent lifestyle shift rather than temporary fix. Undo the “diet” mentality and allow yourself to indulge once in a while. Some people use the 80/20 rule, where 80 per cent of the time you eat healthy, nourishing food, and 20 per cent of the time you allow yourself to eat whatever the hell you want. Remember, no food is forbidden and moderation is key. The moderation message, unfortunately for most, seems boring and unappealing.

The Mayhem eater 

Mayhem eaters rarely sit down to a proper meal, and if they do, they usually pick at it. They eat while engaged in other activities, hardly noticing what they’ve eaten and, as a result, they never really feel satisfied and eat more to compensate. Over time, such patterns can become ingrained tendencies – unconscious ways of interacting with food so automatic and subtly destructive they don’t fully recognise just how habitual they’ve become.

The Fix: Make food time focused time. While women are great at multi-tasking, meal time is one time where utmost undivided attention is required, allowing you to be in better communication with your body’s true hunger signals. One way to achieve this is to reclaim the right to dine. That means scheduling dedicated times to sit down at a table and savour the different flavours and textures of food. Fend off the impulse to whittle away your lunch hour running errands or downing dinner in front of the TV. Take your time to enable your body to get the message to your brain that you have eaten enough. Eat when you are hungry (not ravenous) and stop when you’re comfortably full. Over time, you’ll be amazed at the difference it makes in both the quantity and the quality of what you choose to eat.

The Self-diagnoser 

In today’s culture it can be trendy to cut out gluten, wheat and dairy from the diet. But unless you have a genuine, medically diagnosed food intolerance or allergy, you may be using a non-existent food sensitivity as a judgement-free excuse for restrictive dieting. Nowadays there are a plethora of “free from” products located in the health food section of the supermarket, which could be the reason why there’s often a misconception that these foods are healthier for all of us. Health has become a huge selling point and clever packaging claims continue to sway our purchasing decisions. We are tempted to buy all sorts of products because we think it’s a better choice. But is it really? Or are we just cutting out important nutrients from our diets because we believe that we have an intolerance to it?

The Fix: There are real dangers in self-diagnosis of food intolerances as it means avoiding certain food groups, which can lead to nutritional deficiencies and malnourishment. Instead of unnecessarily cutting out foods from your diet, consult a medically trained allergy specialist who will make sure problems are properly treated before altering your diet.

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