Understanding The Psychology Behind Disordered Eating

3 min
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Disordered eating comes in many forms. It’s a spectrum of behaviors that can be broadly categorized into overeating, undereating, and binge-eating. But anyone with a complicated relationship with food that involves guilt, shame, fear, crash dieting, emotional eating, or skipping meals is engaged with disordered eating. It’s a difficult affliction because we need to eat every day to survive, and we need to eat well to thrive. But even the idea of “eating well” has become such a complicated topic that the pressure to do it right can end up perpetuating cycles of disordered eating. Let’s take a look at why many of us have such a difficult time navigating our relationship with food.

Food, interrupted

Many of us are brought up to ignore our own instincts when it comes to food. Some of us were told from a young age that we must finish what’s on our plate. We might have been promised dessert only if we did so. We might have been reminded that other children are going hungry—or we might have been the hungry ones deprived of this basic need. In this way, food becomes tied up in guilt, reward, and punishment as our brains develop in childhood. Neural pathways are created that override the more intuitive relationship with food as sustenance that comes naturally to babies and younger children. We can end up unable to listen to what our body needs or notice the signals that we’ve eaten enough. In this way, our natural instinct for nourishing and fueling our body so we can feel and be at our best becomes massively disrupted.

Food and stress

Another factor that impacts attunement to what and when we need to eat is stress. The digestive system is controlled by the autonomic nervous system, which keeps digestion and other processes like breathing ticking along without us having to think about them. When the nervous system is triggered into fight-or-flight, it shuts down processes that aren’t immediately necessary. This includes digestion, because if we’re running from or fighting a lion, we need all our physical resources going towards producing the stress hormones that will give us the strength to do so. When we’re chronically stressed over extended periods of time, the digestive system isn’t able to function optimally. We don’t process nutrients properly, and we can end up relying on stimulants like caffeine, sugar, and empty calories to give us the energy to get through the day. For some, the physical manifestations of stress like feeling anxious or nauseous can make eating an uncomfortable experience. For others, eating is a source of comfort. But whether you overeat, undereat, binge, or swing between them all, disordered eating is essentially a form of self-harm.

Food and self-worth

The core issues that lead to disordered eating run deep, and typically amount to the subconsciously held belief that “I’m not worthy of having my needs met.” If we’re not looking after ourselves properly, it’s because something deep down is saying we don’t deserve to be looked after. Failing to nourish ourselves can be a sign of low self-worth. This leads us to reach for something that we believe will make us feel worthy and secure, which explains another layer of our complicated relationship with food. The assumption is either that “eating what I crave will make me feel safe/worthy/in control”, or “controlling what I eat will make me feel safe/worthy/in control”. Again, these notions might be held subconsciously, which is why our behaviors around food can feel so uncontrollable and so contradictory. It’s an evolutionary survival instinct that’s actually causing more harm because it’s gotten confused. Diet culture and body image ideals play right into this, because low self-worth makes us desperate for acceptance while believing we’re not worthy of it. So looking a certain way or being a certain weight can become what we believe will achieve that acceptance and worthiness.

Food, safety, and control

Which is where control comes into play. Disordered eating often makes us numb out from feeling powerless in our own body – either because we don’t accept the way it looks, or because we’re struggling to regulate the emotions that come from being in it. Both come from feeling unsafe to be who we are – a result of unresolved trauma or childhood stress. Disordered eating offers us a false sense of control because these behaviors seem to make us feel better. But only in the short-term. This is why there’s such a high correlation between traumatic life experiences and clinically diagnosed eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia. It’s also why there’s an increasingly recognized link between childhood trauma and obesity.

Establishing order

Mainstream culture certainly doesn’t help. The media’s obsession with the way we look is a breeding ground for shame and stress, which perpetuates the problem while diet culture capitalizes on it. This, in turn, means overcoming disordered eating is an inside job. In order to find more balance in our relationship with food, we need to build self-worth and internal security. We need to build a relationship with our bodies that enables us to listen to what the body needs, and appreciate the unique expression of life that it is. This might mean examining what uncomfortable feelings are being avoided, or working with a therapist, counselor or well-being coach to understand the root cause. Movement practices can help us explore and enjoy being in the body. It’s also worth looking into healing the nervous system and other ways to regulate ourselves and stay grounded. When we center our own worth and self-care, there’s no more room for guilt, shame, or any kind of oppressive feelings on the plate.


All of the content on our website is thoroughly researched to ensure that the information shared is evidence-based. For more information, please visit the academic journals that influenced this article: Disordered Eating Behaviors Through The Lens Of Self-Determination Theory; Association Between Childhood Trauma And Risk For Obesity: A Putative Neurocognitive Developmental Pathway; Stressful Life Events Among Individuals With A History Of Eating Disorders: A Case-Control Comparison; Disordered Eating: Identifying, Treating, Preventing, And Differentiating It From Eating Disorders ; Self-Injury And Disordered Eating: Expressing Emotion Dysregulation Through The Body.

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