Picky Eating vs. An Eating Disorder: What’s The Difference?

It’s National Eating Disorders Awareness Week and YouBeauty will be publishing articles to educate our readers on eating disorders and how to get help. 

There’s only one thing more confusing than men, and that’s healthy eating (kidding, sort of). You have to be disciplined, but not too disciplined. In control, but flexible. When you ditch processed grub for cleaner eats, the blacklist of foods you refuse to nosh on turns into a scroll — and that’s when the questions kick in.

Does skipping out on dessert mean you’re being strong … or strict? Does organizing your kitchen like a grocery aisle mean you’re being proactive … or obsessive? Does choosing salad over finger foods mean you’re being mindful … or rigid? And when does picky eating turn into something more, like selective eating disorder or orthorexia nervosa?

“The biggest difference between picky eating and an eating disorder lies in flexibility,” Kristen Martinez, M.Ed., psychotherapist at Pacific Northwell wrote in an email. “Someone who’s a picky eater may not love all the choices available to them at a restaurant or friend’s house, but will make it work for them in a socially acceptable way.” When you have an eating disorder, being flexible means being out of control — kicking back isn’t an option.

Someone with selective eating disorder limits their diet to only a handful of foods and anything outside of those foods is a no-go. According to Katie Grubiak, RDN, eating disorder specialist at Optimum Performance Institute, this not only messes with your weight but your overall health, since you’re missing out on key vitamins and minerals that fall outside your food roster.

Orthorexia nervosa, while not officially recognized as an eating disorder, is an obsession with healthy, “pure” foods — and any food considered “less than” won’t be tolerated. “People with orthorexia aren’t necessarily preoccupied with losing weight, but restricting foods so heavily can lead to its own set of problems,” eating disorder expert Lisa Rutledge, RD, wrote in an email. Ironically, the more healthy food rules the person has in place, the more likely their health will tank from a lack of calories and nutrition.

Being mindful about what you’re eating is one thing, but spending an excessive amount of time planning and prepping your food is another (especially if it’s taking over your life and messing with your relationships), explained Dr. Elizabeth Lombardo, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and bestselling author of Better Than Perfect: 7 Strategies to Crush Your Inner Critic and Create a Life You Love. For example:

When making dinner:

Mindful: You choose healthy recipes and buy quality ingredients.

Overboard: You go to three different grocery stores for the specific type of organic tomato you think you should be eating.

When eating at a friend’s:

Mindful: You suggest a healthy meal option, such as a delish recipe you’re dying to try.

Overboard: You obsess for days over what your friend might be serving and whether or not you will eat it.

When eating at a restaurant:

Mindful: You suggest a restaurant that serves healthier food.

Overboard: You avoid eating by saying you ate a late lunch or you’re not hungry.

When celebrating a birthday:

Mindful: You bring a healthy dish or two.

Overboard: You bail on the party because, eek, there’s going to be junk food.

When ordering in:

Mindful: You ask them to swap the fries for a salad.

Overboard: By the time you’re done substituting, it’s a completely different dish.

If you ever feel like picky eating is taking over your life, clinical psychologist Dr. Ben Michaelis recommends using the “time and space” test. Ask yourself: Does thinking about what you eat take up a significant amount of your time? Are your eating habits creating too much space between you and your friends and family?

If yes, it might be time to reevaluate your relationship with food and talk to a professional.  

The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) has resources to find help and support. You can reach their confidential helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

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