7 Behaviors I Find Most Concerning As a Registered Dietitian
These seven unhealthy behaviors are subtle signs that someone may be struggling with their relationship with food.
You know that co-worker who's always talking about whatever juice cleanse she's on at the moment? Or that friend who's impossible to make dinner plans with because she only wants to eat at places where she knows how to log the meal in her tracking app? How about those two friends you always overhear at yoga comparing what they ate for breakfast?
While you could shrug these instances off as merely irritating, these behaviors can hint at a much deeper, underlying struggle with food. As a dietitian and health coach, it's my job to spot those things in my clients. Doing so helps me determine what they might need from me or another expert with a specialty in mental health or disordered eating. It also allows me to hand over a reality check to any of my clients who have "juice cleanse" person in their life, and whose bad behavior could end up triggering them, too.
Here are some telltale signs you may want to pay attention to. Do any sound familiar?
You focus so much on weight, that you ignore everything else.
While being a healthy weight for your frame is important because it supports proper body functioning (simply put, being too thin or too heavy can have a negative impact on your overall health), it's a small piece of a much bigger picture of health. Influencers and everyday women have made it clear time and time again that the scale means nothing and you can measure weight loss success in many other ways.
So often people get overly fixated on numbers and ignore other ways in which they've made progress. A common example is getting bummed when the number on the scale stays the same or even goes up as you become more active. Body recomposition occurs when you change the ratio of fat to muscle in your body and with it often comes visible changes to your shape, but that doesn't necessarily mean your weight will decrease. (See: Why Body Recomposition Is the New Weight Loss)
If you're still disheartened when you step on the scale, despite seeing changes in the mirror, this could hint that weight is too closely tied to self-worth or that you're associating a specific number with happiness. (Related: Why Weight Loss Won't Magically Make You Happy)
Unpacking "why" you may be fixated on weight can help uncover specific steps to improve the situation. For example, if you grew up in a family where there was a big emphasis on weight, it may be helpful to discuss those family dynamics with a therapist or acknowledge that your relatives' fixation doesn't have to be yours. If you feel like you need to be a certain weight for your job, acknowledge all of your amazing skills you have to offer and check in with yourself about whether you truly are in an environment where your talents are truly valued.
You've become obsessed with "tracking" everything.
Tracking wearables and apps can be a valuable tool to establish and maintain healthy habits that help you reach your goals, but it's possible to become too dependent. Are you so obsessed with tracking your food intake that you avoid social activities because you don't know how to log it? Or do you choose exercise based primarily on how many calories you'll burn? This level of tracking and planning becomes a non-stop loop that distracts from other things in life.
Ask yourself if your obsession with tracking could be manifesting because of a need for control, if you're anxious about something, or if you could even be transferring an addictive behavior from one habit to another. (Related: Why I'm Deleting My Calorie-Counting App for Good)
If you're feeling too attached to your device, take a break—or if taking a break just doesn't seem possible, a mental health professional can help you explore where those feelings of dependency come from and help you take steps to establish a more balanced relationship with your tracker.
You're super restrictive with food.
Most of the time when someone is too restrictive with their diet, they don't even realize it because they're so used to subsisting on a narrow range of foods. So what does "too restrictive" mean, exactly? It could mean cutting out multiple food groups, having a rigid eating schedule alongside and difficulty coping with changed plans that affect this routine, or skipping social events for fear of the unknown food options. (Related: A Healthy Diet Doesn't Have to Mean Giving Up the Food You Love).
Remember that restrictive diets can sometimes mask themselves as healthy or "clean." Incorporating more vegetables and plant proteins into your diet, for example, is a healthy thing, but having a meltdown or opting out of plans with your squad because they want to hit up a burger joint could be a sign you're being too rigid with your eating. (Related: Orthorexia Is the Eating Disorder You've Never Heard Of)
Because so much depends on the root cause of that restrictive behavior, I recommend working with a mental healthcare professional to help get to the heart of the issue and build a stable foundation. The approach of how and when to broaden that person's diet will vary a lot from one individual to the next.
You never stop talking about your latest cleanse.
If you are always hopping on the latest cleanse/fast/detox/diet/supplement/shake and make sure to tell everyone you run into about it, you're probably looking for a magic pill that doesn't exist. Opting instead for lifestyle changes might sound like a daunting concept if you're conditioned to live in this quick-fix mindset, but working with a dietitian can really help illustrate that moderation can help you meet your goals without going to extremes.
Plus, if you are already struggling with your own weight, goals, or body-image, and you have a friend who fits that mold, this can cause you to go down a comparison spiral. If you notice their fixation triggers competitive or uncomfortable feelings in you, unfollow them on social media or ask them if you can find something else you're both interested in to talk about instead. (Related: Why You Have to Stop Comparing Your Eating Habits to Your Friends')
You want to go back in time.
A little alarm goes off in my head when I hear that someone wants to get back to their high school weight or to fit into clothes they wore at a time in their life where they were following an extremely rigid diet and exercise regimen.
For starters, your body is meant to change with time. For example, as a teenager, you're still growing and haven't reached peak bone mass. As you age, your metabolic rate and body composition change, and while you can adjust your eating and exercise routines to adapt to those changes to stay strong and healthy, obsessing over trying to "achieve" the thigh gap you had at fifteen is a waste of time and energy.
Remember that as with the physical changes in life, your lifestyle has likely changed, too—maintaining a structured gym schedule is probably no longer realistic. For example, if you're busy being a mom, stop beating yourself up about not working out for an hour every day like you did when you were single and childless.
You eat gluten-free or dairy-free even if you don't have to.
Having a medical diagnosis like celiac disease or a food allergy or sensitivity to gluten is one thing, but cutting out gluten just because you think it's going to help you lose weight or is the "healthier" choice, is much different—and incorrect. (Related: Why You Should Probably Reconsider Your Gluten-Free Diet Unless You Really Need It)
Sometimes people assume that limiting what kinds of foods they eat will make them eat less overall, but in actuality, I've often seen people gain weight because they overeat foods that are "technically" compliant.
So, not only will this tactic not work if you're aiming to lose weight, but it can also lead to even more restrictive eating. This can put you into a loop where you feel deprived and frustrated because you're not making any progress toward your weight loss goal, so then you end up restricting even more. Plus, this helps breed a mentality that "dieting" or eating "healthy" should be difficult.
You care too much about what other people think.
Are so worried about what people in your life think about your eating and exercise habits that you end up hiding those habits from them? There could be a few reasons for that. Perhaps in the back of your mind you know that your habit isn't healthy and you're struggling with feelings of shame, or maybe you fear your family and friends will ask you to change your habits entirely.
On the flip side, if you're constantly comparing your habits with others', this could indicate that you're struggling with owning your choices and why you're making them in the first place. An indication of a healthy relationship with food is that not only do you feel confident about choosing to eat something healthy, but you also feel fine mindfully indulging in a treat. What's more, you don't feel like you need to justify either decision to anyone.
And if you find yourself overly fixated on someone else's unhealthy choice or behavior? Ask yourself if you're calling out your friend's habit because you're actually insecure about the same thing yourself? For example, if you're set off by a thin friend who picks at her food and obsesses about her weight, is it tied to any underlying feelings you have about yourself? Or if you feel like you've been working hard to make healthy choices while your significant other continues to eat junk foods they say they're trying to limit, it could make you question your own ability to stay on track.
No matter what state your own relationship with food is at the moment, you can work to heal it if you find unhealthy or concerning habits. Working with a therapist and nutritionist is a great place to start.