The Euphemisms of Disordered Eating

We have a systemic eating disorder. When you look through health magazine or blogs, scroll through health influencers on social media, or devour healthy eating cookbooks, you’ll find one way or another to lose weight and eat better. You’ll see images of what some consider the epitome of health. You probably see someone who is lean, toned, strong, glowing, smiling, has their hand on a hip, posed and ready to tell you can (read: should) change your life (read: weight). You’ll see praise for discipline, strength, culinary skills, or wine because it’s some day of the week and we all deserve to have wine.

What you really see is (often) a disordered version of health, and eating.

It’s damn near impossible to navigate this world of “health” without some residual effect on our own behaviors. This is not a you-problem, its a fat-phobic culture that we have to face. Noticing what’s trying to pass as “normal” or healthy eating is one of the first steps.

Let’s call a spade a spade.

Recently, a podcast listener wrote in with a question about the difference between “disciplined” and disordered eating. This person is in eating disorder recovery. This person included details about their history of anorexia, and current practices of calorie-counting to maintain weight. Julie Duffy Dillon helped me address this question on episode 13.

The question points to a larger issue, though, which is our nation’s obsession with eating, health, and weight. Our systemic eating disorder. The different ways we talk about food, most of which lead to a disordered relationship with food. The constant praise awarded to those who are thin, who run far and fast, who eat “clean,” and lose weight. We are constantly reminded of the “obesity epidemic,” focused solely on weight loss and “healthier” eating habits. We read messages that tell us we just need to identify our personal motivation—our “why”—in order to lose weight, and keep it off. We are supposed to avoid weight gain, at all costs.

Julie Duffy Dillon Eating Disorder RD

“The thing that we know is that…as long as someone is experimenting with {a diet}, they’re putting themselves at a high risk {for an eating disorder},” Julie said.

This is not to say that if you will develop an eating disorder if you have dieted, are currently dieting, or have what might be considered disordered eating. It is to say you are at a higher risk of developing an eating disorder. It’s good to know that now, to recognize the following euphemisms for disordered eating, or a disordered relationship with food. This recognition is the first step away from disordered eating, and towards intuitive eating, or at least making peace with your food choices and your body’s weight.

There are the many euphemisms of disordered eating:

Clean eating

Real food is dirty. Have you ever picked up lettuce at the farmer’s market, or had a CSA box delivered to your front door? Full of dirt. That food came from a farm. Farms are fields of dirt and plants that provide food. You can clean it off in the sink.

You cannot “clean up” your diet. It’s not dirty. Clean eating has no standard definition, nor should it. It’s another notch in the list of ways we categorize food and organize our food rules. It is a diet mentality, that may lead to disordered eating.

Disciplined eating

Intuitive eating is the opposite of disciplined eating. Yet no one gets praise online for eating because they were hungry. It’s boring because it’s natural. Instead, those who post healthy foods, with the occasional donut or cake slice or bagel, are “an inspiration” because they have so much “discipline.” In reality, these could be a variety of food rules, restrictions, and “cheat days” that present as balance or moderation. The obsession with staying disciplined and eating “well,” most of the time, is a fast-track to disordered eating.

Diet challenges

They give you rules to follow and goals to achieve. Eating is a biological necessity, not a game to win. The latest Ketogenic, Whole30, or Detox challenge will not jump-start weight loss or health. It will launch you into the diet mentality, the endless cycle of weight loss, guilt, and weight gain. A challenge based on weight loss and food restriction will do nothing but confuse your body and silence your natural hunger and satiety cues.

Calorie-counting, If It Fits Your Macros, Paleo, you-name-the-trend-du-jour, are all ways of controlling what, why, and when you eat. It’s a diet, and the diet mentality is psychologically and biologically damaging to our health.

Detoxing or Cleansing

I think we get it. These are unnecessary, potentially harmful, and usually ridiculous.

Healthy Eating

We think that healthy eating is what everyone should be doing. But saying someone eats “healthy” is often a euphemism for disciplined, controlled, or even disordered. Because what does that mean for everyone? Who’s to say? Healthy foods, as they’re described in recipe posts and Instagram captions, are often those that follow all the descriptions above. Clean, low-calorie, low-fat, low-whatever, with zero regard for your lifestyle or personal needs. A fixation on eating healthy is actually an eating disorder, called Orthorexia. Instead of eating healthy foods, eat foods that make you feel good. Defining good is up to you. My guess is you could easily conjure up a time or day when you ate something that did not make you feel so hot, and vice versa. Whether that food was “healthy” or not is up for debate. (Literally.)

It’s no shock that with the rise of nutrition science and the media obsession that came along with it, the prevalence of eating disorders has been increasing since the 1950s. It’s no shock that women are affected the most, but that eating disorders are prevalent across the gender spectrum and is similar across ethnicities in the United States. (1) It’s not surprising at all that people question where the line is drawn, because the line is blurred everyday by the assumption and message that we should want to be thin, toned, controlled, or disciplined.

Start to look around for these dietary spades, these euphemisms.

Call them out, maybe just to yourself (depends on your stye). Seek professional nutrition therapy if you wonder about your own eating patterns, if you’re using euphemisms to describe your eating “style,” and how your relationship with food may or may not be disordered. Ask questions. (To the listener: I’m so glad you reached out with this one! I know it’s hard to tell the difference.) You’re not the only person wondering about these euphemisms, where they are, and what damage they’re doing.

Last but not least, look around and realize this is not a you-problem, it’s a systemic problem. It’s a society-wide eating disorder, trying to bring us down with it. When we let go of fat phobia, the stigma of weight, and the assumption that we should be on a diet in order to be healthy, we’re taking a big step to resolving this food obsession. Letting go of these phobias and stigmas also releases the power food, and food media culture, has over your own relationship with your health.

More on this, in episode 13 and on Julie’s podcast, “Love, Food.” If you want to submit a question for me or one of my RD Real Talk guests, leave it here

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  1. Get the Facts On Eating Disorders, National Eating Disorder Association

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