I’m not a medical professional. I’m a health and science educator, and it’s my job to take the information from experts and translate it into a usable form for other people to apply to their lives. I see it as my responsibility to not only inform my students about how to identify disordered thinking in themselves or loved ones, but how to find reliable sources of information on healthy lifestyles so that they can avoid learning disordered patterns of eating and exercising in the future. As I understand it, something is defined as disordered if it has a lasting and negative outcome on our physical, social, or emotional well-being. It is a combination of how we think and the actions that result from that thinking. The same action may be evidence of disordered thinking in one person and benign in another, so we can’t just define an eating or exercise disorder strictly on the actions someone takes. Tracking food, for example, may lead to harmful restriction for one person and provide useful, neutral information for another. We need to read between the lines and notice the thinking behind the actions and the consequences to the person in order to know which it is.
I want to state firmly that it is not my position that folks who are healing from disordered mindsets should always be avoided. Obviously, learning from and coming through to the other side of an eating or exercise disorder can offer valuable insights. But there is a difference between no longer doing the actions of a disorder and having done the hard mental work of changing disordered patterns of thought and how we react to them. Seeing these red flags means that person might not yet be in a place that they can provide healthy advice for others. That doesn’t mean I think they will never get there; I just don’t think they’re there yet.
Who we read, listen to, and follow matters. I use my blog to hold up voices that I believe are on the right track–following the best evidence towards healthier relationships with our bodies, eating, exercise and self-care. Here are some of the red flags I look for to determine if someone is approaching health and fitness from a disordered point of view:
Dichotomous thinking about body fat: Talking about body fat as if it is all you need to know about someone to know how healthy they are is a huge red flag. Body fat can be a factor in poor health, but it is only one data point. Talking about body fat like it’s “toxic,” as I recently heard a trainer refer to it, demonstrates this kind of thinking. Putting all the focus on the potential health consequences of excess body fat also diminishes the other elements of health for that person–are they happy, confident, able to connect and maintain healthy relationships? Do they nourish their body with healthful foods, get enough sleep, find regular opportunities for rest and relaxation, do the boring self-care of regular dental visits and consistently taking their medications? Someone’s body size doesn’t tell you this information, and it is all relevant to their health, too.
Folks who think this way often believe that losing body fat is always healthier, regardless of how you get there. These are the folks who are comfortable suggesting quick fixes–fad diets, extreme, low-calorie diets, excessive exercise and all the rest–as they demonstrate a lack of acknowledgement of the long term harm these strategies can do. A more subtle version are the folks who can’t acknowledge that some strategies, like calorie counting, aren’t healthy for everyone. Counting calories and using that to dictate how much to eat can facilitate disconnection between our internal hunger and satiety cues and our eating behaviors, which can be a sign of disordered eating. If you read, watch or follow someone who ignores these potential pitfalls, look somewhere else.
Moralizing Food and/or exercise: Lists of “good” foods and “bad” foods are a huge red flag. Of course, there are diets designed entirely around making certain foods off limits, and I would hope you would see that as a less-than-evidence-based approach. More subtle evidence of moralizing can be talking about cheat meals or cheat days, as the idea of “cheating” implies that there are rules you’re following the rest of the time. Related to that is the idea of “treats,” although I admit, I use that language myself sometimes. I think the context matters–are they telling you that this is a treat food, meaning it’s bad and should be avoided or are they telling you it can fit into a healthy diet, but maybe isn’t the best thing to live off of? I think it’s ok to set some boundaries around what we eat, but they need to be based on our own experiences and goals (lots more on this from this discussion of a Balance365 podcast).
Perfectionism and always chasing optimal. This red flag is so common, I fear it might mean avoiding 95% of the fitness and nutrition content out there. There’s a real wealth of opinions out there on the “best” exercises or the “worst” times to eat or whatever. Perfectionism can also be recognized with uses of the term “always” or “never”. Be wary of anyone using those phrases. It can be hard to recognize that these are not actually evidence-based opinions, as they are often informed by a study somewhere and someone’s conclusions applying that data. Say a study comes out that finds that folks who eat breakfast gain strength faster than those who don’t, so your favorite influencer comes out with a statement that if you’re really serious about your gainz, you will schedule lifting after breakfast. Well, that’s fine if you have the flexibility to follow it, but this focus on optimal ignores the context of individual people’s lives. And that’s the real problem with any advice that comes from a perfectionistic point of view–it ignores the very meaningful and valid context of the individual or of that particular moment. Using the same example, I don’t see a problem with someone saying, “if you can, you might want to schedule your lifting sessions after breakfast and see if you get better results.” That subtle shift in tone makes all the difference in acknowledging individual needs and preferences.
A fixed mindset. Fixed mindset is the belief system that who we are and what we are capable of stays the same and cannot improve. The opposite is a growth mindset, which recognizes that all people are able to improve and grow over time. In the diet and fitness industry, we hear the red flag of fixed mindset when folks give advice that assumes “this is just how people are.” I used to work with a woman who assumed that because something was true for herself at that time, it must be true for all people all of the time. Just because she found something triggering or uncomfortable, she believed it must necessarily be avoided for everyone forever. She had a fixed mindset about what was possible to heal from, and while it came from a place of compassion, she created all sorts of ultimately problematic rules about what could and couldn’t be done or said based on these assumptions. It meant we couldn’t discuss certain tools, in this case around dietary choices, because she couldn’t ever see it as something that might be useful for anyone because it was not useful for her at that time. Unfortunately, a fixed mindset tends to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. As long as we believe we are stuck, we will be. In my example above, the woman I worked with couldn’t learn new tools for thinking about food and food choices because she believed that it was inherently problematic rather than only circumstantially so.
It makes sense that folks with a history of disordered thinking about food and exercise would be drawn to work in nutrition and fitness. For those still steeped in diet culture, they may not even realize that they are perpetuating and encouraging disordered thinking and actions. They may think it is normal and healthy to, say, tell someone to ignore their hunger for hours at a time, or to assume smaller is always healthier regardless of how you get there. On the flip side, folks who reject diet culture because they have personally witnessed the harms of it can get stuck on the other side–always in active rebellion against it. And this can lead to equally problematic situations, because as long as we are reacting to something, we are not actually in the driver’s seat. True freedom and empowerment comes from being able to make decisions and choices based on our own needs and preferences. For the person still in recovery from disordered thinking, I think we see echoes of this thinking in some of the red flags above.
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