How to Avoid the Slippery Slope of an Eating Disorder

Image of a figure standing atop a mountain with a mountain range in the background to depict how to avoid the slippery slope of an eating disorder

Is anyone able to pinpoint exactly when their eating disorder began? If you’re like me, you might be able to identify when certain habits started to shift: restricting particular foods, avoiding specific places, or committing yourself to a fitness routine. Unfortunately, it can be a slippery slope from these behaviors into an eating disorder.

Every now and then, I find myself reflecting on my experience and wonder, “When did I go from never imagining the word ‘eating disorder’ in my vocabulary . . . to nearly jumping from a hotel balcony to end my battle with one?” To this day, I still don’t really know. And in my mind, that is
what makes eating disorders so damning.

The slippery slope of an eating disorder

One area that is particularly stealthy in the slow and steady, unexpected development of an ED can be exercise. Some are able to go on a run, play pickup basketball with friends or hit the weight room without a millisecond of displeasure. Others view these sorts of activities as “do or die” necessities that are required to earn your daily meals or justify your value as a human.

A second slippery slope, just as dangerous — if not more so — is your dietary habits. Similar to exercise, a lot of people can drive to a favorite fast-food chain without a second thought. They don’t feel any pressure to strictly plan meals in advance, and there’s never any over-analysis regarding the quality of food they are eating.

Unfortunately, there’s the other side of the spectrum where the thought of your next meal plagues your mind every second of the day. You might rigorously Google search the nutrition facts of one brand of whole wheat bread vs. another to make sure you are consuming the “healthiest” one. And most commonly, there’s the weeks-in-advance meal planning. The spreadsheet on your laptop that you live and die by and must follow to the most granular level — or else.

Both ends of the spectrum

I only know this because I’ve personally lived both ends of the spectrum. On weekends in college, I had no schedule to stick to and would accept 9:00 pm phone calls from friends to rush to Taco Bell and then the party of the weekend. I didn’t have an ounce of stress in my body except for doing homework and studying for tests. Everything else, put simply, was fun.
But like several others who have struggled with an eating disorder, this spontaneity and enjoyment eroded.

Day by day, month by month, exercise became a requirement, non-organic
and processed foods became unmentionable and partying happened a lot less. Engaging in these sorts of behaviors might seem small at first. Maybe even harmless.

But hear me out: As small or harmless as they may seem, they can become ingrained habits at the snap of a finger. You might think running 2 extra miles the day after you ate pizza is a “healthy habit” because you’re pushing yourself to be a better runner. Or you might think replacing gooey mac and cheese with dairy-free cauliflower mac and cheese will make you healthier.

What’s the harm, right?

Those small shifts can quickly become monumental ones. Any time you eat pizza, you will associate it with forcing yourself to exercise harder — basically punishing your mind and your body for simply eating something. After you’ve swapped mac and cheese with a low-calorie, carb-free substitute, you might search for other opportunities to do the same thing. Before you know it, you’ve placed your foot on a hill covered in ice. You’ve hit the slippery slope.

Hitting the slippery slope

It honestly felt like my ED went from nonexistent to full-blown overnight. Suddenly, I was vigorously exercising 2-3 times per day, maybe eating 2 meals and NEVER allowing myself to be unproductive. If my daily objectives weren’t met, I punished myself severely. My knuckles
would bruise from purging. I was so hard on myself that if a parent said to their child any of the things I told myself, they’d be locked up. No one deserves to be treated like that by anyone. So why would you do it to yourself?

Since discharging almost 5 years ago, I’ve pledged to be a voice in the ED community. Had it not been for treatment at a full-time facility, combined with a few amazing friends and family members, I don’t know where I would be today.

“You have to fully surrender yourself if you want to beat this,” was a mantra from my treatment team and friends during my time in therapy.

I learned that when you refuse to give up every bit of an ED, you’re allowing it to maintain some form of life — possibly waiting to return at some point in the future.

This could mean skipping a meal or working out extra so you can “earn” fast food. Or it might be swapping out a delicious food with a false representation of the same food. (Which, if you were being honest with yourself, tastes disgusting).

Where is the line?

Now, you might be wondering: “Are you saying all ‘healthy choices’ are taking a step towards an ED? Can you make ‘healthy choices’ in recovery?”

Put simply, there’s a difference between making a “healthy choice” for the right reasons and making one for the wrong reasons.

Many people partake in these actions to benefit their mental and physical health. They feel better, happier, and less stressed. However, if you are running extra so you can “earn” food or dessert, it’s not a healthy behavior. If you are cutting calories, fats, or carbs to make yourself feel less guilty about eating a “big” meal earlier in the day, it’s not a healthy behavior.

The warning sign that your choices may be leading towards an ED centers around your reason for participating in those behaviors. Is it characterized by self-improvement, better stress management, or relationship-building? Or is it centered around guilt, justification, or even punishment? Clearly, there’s a big difference.

But as obvious as it may seem, it can be relatively easy to cross over the line when you had no intention of doing so. The slippery slope is always that close — waiting for someone to take solace in one small, seemingly inconsequential habit that could propel them into disordered eating or even an eating disorder.

If you are struggling with any of these thoughts, know that you are not alone. More importantly, you’re not perfect. No one is perfect. So be willing to forgive yourself. Be willing to be vulnerable and speak to others about any of this if you are struggling.

And be willing to feel 100% comfortable with who you are, flaws and all.

Stay off the slope

There’s no need to put your foot on the slippery slope because you don’t like certain aspects about your looks, your personality or whatever it might be. It’s simply not worth it. And when all is said and done, you will realize you are far better off accepting and loving yourself today.

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