Diet culture is such a trap. Our society’s general obsession with weight can make it feel like everyone is preoccupied with “working off” their meals and feeling guilty for eating anything that isn’t green. Even though these kinds of thoughts and behaviors may seem harmless simply because they affect so many people, they’re not.
“[We] are often surrounded by people who are dieting and talking about food,” Linda Hamilton, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist specializing in eating disorders, tells SELF. “It’s a big part of our society.” And that relentless focus on food and bodies can seep into your own psyche, leading to unhealthy fixations.
It’s basically impossible not to internalize some of this food-related messaging, so it’s not necessarily alarming if you can relate to the following thoughts or behaviors. But if you find that most of this list applies to you, or if you’re preoccupied with some of these things so often that it’s interfering with your daily life, it may be time to bring this up to someone you trust. That might be a friend, a family member, your primary care doctor, or a therapist. Seeking out professional help might seem really inconvenient, intimidating, and maybe even unnecessary—but it can also help you reframe how you view food, and ultimately, yourself. Here are some signs that you could benefit from talking to a therapist about your relationship with food.
1. You’re constantly thinking about food and/or your weight.
Rachel Goldman, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist focused on health and wellness, says she often hears from patients who say they’re basically always thinking about what they’re currently eating, their next meal, or their weight. “That can really interfere with someone’s daily functioning,” Goldman tells SELF.
It’s obviously natural to think about food and your appearance at certain times. But if these thoughts become so loud they drown out most other concerns—and if they’re tied up in guilt, anxiety, or shame—seeing a therapist can be a good idea.
“If this is consuming your life and thoughts to the point of really bothering you, that’s when it’s time to seek help,” Goldman says.
2. You’re worried about eating in front of other people.
“If someone is trying to lose weight, has body image issues, or [has] any kind of disordered thoughts around eating and weight, they may be more hesitant to eat in front of other people,” Goldman says.
She adds that shame about eating in front of others commonly occurs with people who have anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa. “People with [these disorders] don’t want to eat in public because they don’t want to be criticized,” she says.
You don’t need to have a diagnosable eating disorder in order for this to be a problem. It’s possible to have disordered eating that doesn’t meet the diagnostic criteria for any one eating disorder but still interferes with your life. If you’re so concerned about eating in front of other people that you’re avoiding plans having to do with meals or parties where there’s going to be food around, Goldman says that’s something you may want to discuss with a therapist. Even if you are able to have meals with others, if doing so causes you stress or anxiety, that’s still worth addressing.
3. You’re fixated on only eating “healthy” foods.
Eating in a way that fuels your body and mind is important, but there is actually a point at which this can become unhealthy.
An obsession with only eating foods that are deemed healthy could be a sign of orthorexia, an eating disorder characterized by a need to subsist on foods that are considered clean or pure, according to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA). Other signs include compulsively assessing nutritional labels, cutting out progressively more food groups, and becoming distressed when only “unhealthy” food is available.
As Goldman explains, orthorexia often begins with an intention to eat in a way that feels healthier, which, again, can be a good thing if it really will help you feel better overall. But there’s so much misunderstanding about what healthy eating truly is. It’s not cutting out entire food groups out of fear or rigidity (rather than, say, with the guidance of a doctor due to a food intolerance or allergy). It’s not deciding that certain foods are bad while others are good, or that you can never again have a food you love because of its calorie count. In reality, having a healthy relationship with food involves indulging along with being flexible and kind to yourself.
If the idea of eating a certain way is ruling your life, Goldman says it’s worth seeing a mental health professional.
4. You have rituals around food that feel compulsive or stressful.
Plenty of people like to eat their food in a particular way. Maybe you don’t like your foods to touch, or you eat the vegetables on your plate first so that you can finish off the meal with something you enjoy more. But certain food rituals might be a sign of disordered eating.
For instance, if your ritual includes having to cut food into very small pieces and chew it extremely slowly, all with the ultimate goal of eating less overall, that could be a sign of anorexia nervosa, Hamilton says.
Of course, not every food routine is a sign of an eating disorder or disordered eating. But if you find yourself concerned with a specific ritual to the point of it dictating your life, that could be a sign it’d be useful to talk to someone about it. Same goes for if you try to stop the ritual and you can’t, or if even the thought of quitting it causes you stress.
5. Your lack of an appetite comes with mood changes.
Having a low appetite from time to time isn’t a big deal. However, if you notice a consistent change in your appetite that comes along with mood fluctuations, it could point to a mental health issue. For instance, if your low appetite is accompanied by feelings of sadness, low energy, and loss of pleasure in life, that could indicate depression.
Even if you don’t have any mental health symptoms along with your loss of appetite, any persistent and unexplained change in your appetite or weight means you should see a doctor like your primary care physician to find out what’s going on with your health.
6. You’re severely restricting calories.
Constantly worrying about how many calories you’re consuming can point to various disorders. The obvious one is anorexia nervosa. However, you shouldn’t fall for the myth that restricting calories is only an issue if you’re losing a lot of weight. Although that is indeed a core symptom of anorexia nervosa, there’s actually a group of conditions called Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorders (OSFED). This encompasses various types of disordered eating including atypical anorexia nervosa, or when someone exhibits symptoms of anorexia nervosa—like intense calorie restriction—without the severe weight loss.
There are other times restricting your food intake can be dangerous, Goldman says. If you’re regularly skipping meals to “save” those calories for alcohol, that can make you more likely to get overly inebriated and engage in risky behavior. Or if you don’t eat all day so you can have a calorie-rich dinner you’ve been anticipating, you can potentially set yourself up for bingeing. Not to mention deprivation can affect you in the moment, too, like with trouble concentrating, Hamilton says.
The point is that calories aren’t the be-all and end-all of nutrition. Becoming overly preoccupied with them isn’t healthy, and a therapist may be able to help you reframe your thinking.
7. You feel like you can’t control how much you eat.
A lack of control over eating is a hallmark sign of binge-eating disorder. This condition, which involves repeated episodes of eating a lot of food past the point of fullness, is the most common eating disorder in the United States, according to NEDA.
There is often a misconception that bingeing is really only a problem when followed by purging, but that’s not true. Feeling a lack of control over your eating can be isolating and terrifying no matter what. In fact, some of the diagnostic criteria for binge-eating disorder involve feelings of disgust, depression, and guilt about eating habits. Even without the purging, those emotions are clearly serious enough to warrant getting help.
8. You’re already wondering whether or not to see a mental health professional about your food habits.
“If anyone is questioning [therapy], it’s a good idea to seek the help,” Goldman says. It’s basically your mind hinting that you could benefit from talking to a professional.
“Every therapist is different, but there’s no harm in going and meeting with someone,” Goldman says. “If it doesn’t work out for some reason, [there are] other styles of therapy and other psychologists. It’s really about finding a person you’re comfortable with.”
So, where should you start? Finding a therapist can be a struggle, but there are some good resources out there. NEDA has a Helpline you can call at 800-931-2237 to find treatment options near you. It operates Monday through Thursday from 9 A.M. to 9 P.M. ET and Friday from 9 A.M. to 5 P.M. ET. They also have an online database of treatment options that you can search through using various filters, like limiting results to sliding scale options or based on the type of eating issues you have.
You can also try resources like the National Alliance on Mental Health’s HelpLine at 800-950-6264, which is available Monday through Friday, from 10 A.M. to 6 P.M. ET, or online search tools like GoodTherapy and Psychology Today. While some legwork might be necessary to find a therapist you click with, repairing your relationship with food really is worth it.