Food Freedom: Rebuilding a Healthy Relationship with Food After an Eating Disorder

Hermina Drah
Morgan Blair
Written by Hermina Drah on 02 May 2024
Medically reviewed by Morgan Blair on 07 May 2024

Rebuilding a healthy relationship with food after an eating disorder can be challenging, but it’s crucial for living life to the fullest. Often, an eating disorder can destroy your life. If you or a loved one are dealing with an eating disorder, you are not alone. 

This article explores eating disorders, where they come from, how to rebuild healthy eating patterns, and offers tips for healing.

Food Freedom: Rebuilding a Healthy Relationship with Food After an Eating Disorder

What is an eating disorder?

An eating disorder such as bulimia is a mental health condition where individuals use food to cope with difficult feelings and other situations. Disordered eating might include overeating, undereating, or worrying about your body shape or weight.

Anyone can fall victim to an eating disorder, but usually, teens and young adults are the most affected.

These three eating disorders are the most common.

  • Bulimia: This eating disorder involves control loss over how much food is consumed and then taking drastic actions to avoid weight gain (such as vomiting or using laxatives).
  • Anorexia nervosa: An individual with anorexia tries to control weight by undereating, overexercising, or both.
  • Binge eating disorder: People with binge eating disorder or "BED" eat large quantities of food until they are uncomfortably full. This is sometimes confused with food addiction, though the two conditions have different symptoms and diagnosing criteria.

Some individuals may also deal with avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (or ARFID) - this is when the person avoids specific foods, limits quantities, or both. These are some of the possible reasons why ARFID develops:

  • Lack of hunger.
  • A response to a negative previous experience with food (for instance feeling ill after eating something).
  • Negative feelings over the texture, taste, or smell of a certain food.

Signs of an eating disorder

Before healing your relationship with food, it's crucial to understand the symptoms and signs of disordered eating habits. Some of the most frequent signs of disordered eating include:

  • Feeling guilty after a meal.
  • Avoiding or restricting foods and labeling them as "bad".
  • Developing a list of rules around foods you can and cannot consume.
  • Obsessively relying on calorie counters and fitness apps to tell you how much food to consume per day.
  • Ignoring hunger cues.
  • Having a history of following fad diets and yo-yo dieting.
  • Feeling immense anxiety and stress when eating out with friends due to fear of overeating.
  • Finding yourself binge eating or restricting food.

A person doesn't have to experience all the mentioned signs to have disordered eating. However, if you feel general anxiety, fear, guilt, or stress around food, it is important to take the right steps towards recovery.

Eating disorders by the numbers

According to the statistics, eating disorders are a serious concern both globally, and in the United States.

  • 28.8 million Americans or 9 percent of the US population will have an eating disorder.
  • One person dies every 52 minutes from an eating disorder.
  • Among women, the lifetime prevalence of an eating disorder is about 8.60 percent, while it is around 4.07 percent among men.
  • Between 2000 and 2018, the worldwide eating disorder prevalence rose from 3.5 percent to 7.8 percent.
  • Globally, 22 percent of adolescents and children display disordered eating.
  • More than 3.3 million healthy life years globally are wasted yearly due to an eating disorder.
  • Opiate addiction has the highest mortality rate of all psychiatric illnesses, followed by eating disorders.
  • Fewer than 6 percent of individuals with disordered eating are medically underweight.

How can I rebuild a healthy relationship with food?

Today is the day you actively try to heal your relationship with food. Here are some of the best tips that also helped me in my eating disorder recovery.

Allow yourself to eat

When you have strict rules around what you can eat, cannot eat, or when you have your meals, you are setting yourself up for feeling deprived, fearing food, and being hungry.  

Despite overeating at lunch or having an extra slice of cake for dessert, remember that you still deserve to have dinner if you're feeling hungry. 

Your body deserves to feel nourished.

Eat mindfully

One of the best ways to fix disordered eating is to be present in the moment. Be fully present with your meal and avoid distractions such as mindless scrolling or watching TV. 

By learning to eat slower and savoring the food you're consuming, you will learn which foods feel good for your body. 

You can also ask yourself some questions while mindfully eating such as: Is this food solving a problem I have? How do I feel when I am eating this food? Does this food bring me guilt, anger, or joy?

Journaling is an excellent way to identify the reasons for the food choices and whether you might need to turn to other, healthier coping mechanisms like therapy.

Eat the rainbow

There are no "good" or "bad" foods —only more or less nutritious options. 

Allow yourself to enjoy all foods to prevent restrictive habits that can result in binge eating. When you know you can have a cookie every day, you're less likely to overindulge in a whole box to satisfy a craving.

Often, the best way to get help is to reach out to a trusted healthcare provider. The health care provider will refer you to a mental health expert, such as a psychologist or psychiatrist specializing in eating disorder treatment.

Resources:

  1. NHS. (2024). Overview – Eating disorders. Retrieved April 16, 2024, from
  2. Davidson, K. (2020, December 3). How can I improve my relationship with food? Nutrition. Medically reviewed by Seitz, A. MS, RD, LDN. Retrieved April 16, 2024, from
  3. Deloitte Access Economics. (2020, June). The Social and Economic Cost of Eating Disorders in the United States of America: A Report for the Strategic Training Initiative for the Prevention of Eating Disorders and the Academy for Eating Disorders. Available at:
  4. Galmiche, M., Déchelotte, P., Lambert, G., & Tavolacci, M. P. (2019). Prevalence of eating disorders over the 2000-2018 period: A systematic literature review. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 109(5), 1402–1413.
  5. López-Gil, J. F., García-Hermoso, A., Smith, L., Firth, J., Trott, M., Mesas, A. E., Jiménez-López, E., Gutiérrez-Espinoza, H., Tárraga-López, P. J., & Victoria-Montesinos, D. (2023). Global proportion of disordered eating in children and adolescents. JAMA Pediatrics.
  6. van Hoeken, D., & Hoek, H. W. (2020). Review of the burden of eating disorders: Mortality, disability, costs, quality of life, and family burden. Current Opinion in Psychiatry, 33(6), 521–527.
  7. Arcelus, J., Mitchell, A. J., Wales, J., & Nielsen, S. (2011). Mortality rates in patients with anorexia nervosa and other eating disorders: A meta-analysis of 36 studies. Archives of General Psychiatry, 68(7), 724-731.
  8. Flament, M. F., Henderson, K., Buchholz, A., Obeid, N., Nguyen, H. N., Birmingham, M., & Goldfield, G. (2015). Weight status and DSM-5 diagnoses of eating disorders in adolescents from the community. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 54(5), 403–411.e2.

Activity History - Last updated: 07 May 2024, Published date:


Reviewer

Morgan Blair

MA, LPC

Morgan is a mental health counselor who works alongside individuals of all backgrounds struggling with eating disorders. Morgan is freelance mental health and creative writer who regularly contributes to publications including, Psychology Today.

Activity History - Medically Reviewed on 01 May 2024 and last checked on 07 May 2024

Medically reviewed by
Morgan Blair

MA, LPC

Morgan Blair

Reviewer

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