Some statistics for thought: On any given day, 45% of women are on a diet, according to the National Eating Disorders Association. On average, we think about our bodies 8 times a day, found one recent survey. About 80% of women are dissatisfied with their appearance; what’s worse, 40% would trade 3 to 5 years of their lives to achieve weight loss goals.
No wonder many women report signs of disordered eating behavior—such as excessively counting calories or working out just to burn off food—even if they never develop a full-blown disorder such as anorexia or bulimia.
Problem is, there’s often a fine line between eating healthfully to slim down and becoming fixated with food, so we talked to top food behavior experts to understand the difference. Here are some red flags that could indicate a food/weight obsession.
1. You eat in reaction to bad or good news.
You’re having a stressful day, so you treat yourself to Cheetos at the vending machine. Or you just nailed a big presentation, so you supersize your french fries as a reward.
“If food is your automatic reaction to dealing with any emotion—good or bad—it could signal an unhealthy relationship,” says Cynthia Bulik, PhD, director of the Eating Disorders Program at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine. Another sign: When you’re upset, you turn to food before you call your partner or a friend.
2. You eat without feeling hungry.
It’s 12:30, your usual lunchtime. But today you had a late breakfast and aren’t feeling very hungry. Do you make a beeline for your favorite sandwich shop anyway? If so, that means you’ve detached eating from physical hunger, says Adrienne Ressler, LMSW, national training director for the Renfrew Center Foundation, one of the country’s top treatment centers for eating disorders.
“You may eat out of boredom, anxiety, habits, desire, or some other emotion,” says Bulik. But going with your gut—literally—is best for your health. Women who follow internal hunger and satiety cues report higher levels of self-esteem and optimism and lower BMIs, according to a Journal of Counseling Psychology study.
3. You have out-of-control eating binges.
Everyone indulges in an extra slice of pizza or another handful of M&M’s. But if you regularly eat much more than you intended, stuff yourself until you’re uncomfortably full, or feel like you can’t stop eating, that could be something to watch.
Overeating like this can result from going too long between meals or restricting yourself, not to mention that age-old culprit: boredom. “Binge eating is often associated with eating rituals, like sitting down to watch TV,” says Ressler. “You start with a bag of popcorn. All that salt makes you crave something sweet, like ice cream. Then you feel thirsty, so you have a soda.”
4. You count every last calorie.
It’s one thing to watch your intake while you’re trying to lose weight. But over time, people can gauge how much to eat to maintain weight loss without poring over every label. If you’ve cut calories dangerously low (under 1,200 a day for most women) and your life revolves around your food “rules,” then you’ve taken things too far.
Calorie hawks also feel guilty when they don’t follow their plans—”like the rest of the day is ruined,” says Bulik. Severe restriction can lead to anorexia or thwart weight loss efforts by slowing metabolism—plus, you’ll feel hungry, exhausted, foggy, and grumpy if you don’t consume enough nutrients.
5. You view foods as “good” or “bad.”
Bread is “bad”—so having a bagel for breakfast is a rare treat. Baby carrots are “good,” so there’s zero guilt about snacking on them. If you compartmentalize food choices like this, you’re setting yourself up for a tricky tango later, says Bulik: “Once you have a ‘bad’ label on something, under certain conditions you’ll crave it more, lose all control, and binge.” Research shows that people have only so much willpower; if you try to limit too many things at once, you’ll end up caving more quickly.
Of course, certain foods are inherently healthier than others—for example, you can’t eat fast food whenever you want. But that’s where portion control comes in. Train yourself to have just one Munchkin and then concentrate on something other than eating, says Bulik.
6. You follow extreme/weird diets.
Are carbs banned from your pantry? Do you drink all of your meals? Are you on a regimen where you can’t eat certain food groups, like fats and carbs, at the same sitting? Extreme plans like these may seem okay for short-term results (say, a high school reunion or family wedding), but “these diets can be really dangerous,” says Ressler.
Akilah M. El, N.D. is a Naturopathic Doctor and certified Master Herbalist with a private practice in Atlanta Georgia and Berlin Germany. Join Dr Akilah El on Facebook and Twitter