Keto, Paleo, Weight-Watchers, Whole 30, Noom… There is no question that dieting is big business in the U.S., with Americans spending over $75 billion annually on weight-loss products and programs. With 42 percent of adults on some diet or another, many of which promote unhealthy practices, it is no wonder that eating disorders are on the rise.

While our society acknowledges the dangers of anorexia, bulimia, and other eating disorders, it often downplays or even glorifies disordered eating behaviors. From casual comments about skipping meals to fad diets promising rapid weight loss, these habits are detrimental not only to people who are in recovery from eating disorders but to everyone who endeavors to have a healthy relationship with their body and weight. Here are 5 eating disordered behaviors that are normalized in our society.

Classifying foods as “good” and “bad”

To state the obvious, food does not have inherent moral value. There are foods that pack more nutrition than others, just as there are foods that generally taste better. Eating one versus the other does not make a person more virtuous, as much as diet culture and product marketing might try to convince us otherwise. A simple comment such as “Oh, I’d love dessert, but I’m trying to be good” reinforces the idea that our worth as humans depends on what we ingest.

Food avoidance

Every decade sees the promotion of a new fear food. In the early 1990s, fat was the culprit, leading to a bevy of low-fat and fat-free products. Then came Dr. Atkins and the demonization of carbohydrates. Today, sugar, saturated fat, and artificial ingredients top the list of “foods to avoid.” The internet overflows with suggestions for “healthy swaps” like avocado ice cream, cauliflower rice, and black bean brownies. But at the heart of any avoidance behavior is often anxiety, and anxiety is a red flag for disordered eating.


How often do you hear someone at the gym remarking they have to “make up for” what they ate the previous day? Or a comment about “saving up” one’s calorie allotment for a Thanksgiving meal? Unless you are living in a Dickensian orphanage, you don’t need to “earn” your food, just as you don’t need to make up for extra sleep one day with less sleep the next.

Ignoring internal hunger cues

Also in abundance in the media is advice on how to “trick” our bodies into feeling fuller. But hunger and fullness cues exist for a reason– they are the body’s way of communicating what it needs in the form of nutrition and, ultimately, energy. Energy needs will vary from day to day, and hunger cues guide us as to when our energy needs are higher– for example, when we are fighting infections.

Fixating on food or weight

Given that so much media and marketing revolve around diet and weight loss, it might seem normal to devote a lot of time and energy to meal planning, “tracking,” or food rituals. However, spending an excessive amount of time thinking about food is often a red flag for disordered eating. Likewise, if the number on the scale (or on the clothing tag) determines the mood for the day, it could be a sign of an unhealthy body image.

When do the above behaviors move from disordered eating to eating disorder? As every DSM-reading therapist knows, one or more symptoms do not a diagnosis make! However, when eating habits impact health (mental and/or physical), relationships, or other areas of functioning, it’s usually cause for concern. Over 28 million Americans will experience an eating disorder at some point in their lives, and eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.


For decades, the diet industry and society at large have perpetuated the notion that thinness and self-deprivation are the keys to self-worth. From classifying foods as “good” and “bad” to normalizing our obsession with weight, diet culture has affected the collective psyche in the form of weight stigma and disordered eating habits.  As a result, many people have lost sight of what is “normal” when it comes to food and weight. By recognizing disordered eating behaviors and rejecting diet culture, we can help create a society that values self-care, mental well-being, and overall health above arbitrary standards of beauty.

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