When in the depths of an eating disorder, “symptoms” are often hard to define. I remember when I was very ill, I was restricting at every meal and purging 2-3 times a day. Objective binging was never a symptom of mine, but I did have subjective binges (I’ll explain this all later). I found it very hard to report my symptoms because they were my life, not separate episodes.
On top of that, I was confused about exactly when I was having symptoms. Purging is fairly clear, either I did or I didn’t, but I found binging and restricting as a giant question marks. What exactly WAS restricting anyways? Was it fasting, missing meals, cutting calories? How many calories EXACTLY meant I was restricting? Was it a daily term or a meal-by-meal thing? At what point would I be considered to have skipped a meal; 1 hour later? 2 hours? When the next meal time came around? Also, I sometimes felt as if I were binging, but I never fit the actual definition of a “binge”.
I’m going to list below my personal definitions for Eating Disorder Symptoms. They are very strict, but they are meant to be. Eating Disorders use the shadows of doubt to edge their way in and the only way to true recovery is having a zero-tolerance policy for symptoms and behaviours.
Purging – Any attempt to “undo” what you ate. This can be through vomiting, laxatives and exercising in ANY amount. If you have the thought that I need to keep moving in order to burn calories, this is purging. If you want to walk for longer, stand even though you can sit, go to that extra yoga class or drink coffee for the purpose of “moving things along” – this is purging. Basically, I found that any time I felt I “had” to or “needed” to move or do anything else it was likely a purging behaviour and required me to look more deeply at my motivations for the movement.
Binging – This is an interesting one because there are 2 types of binging, Objective and Subjective.
- Objective binging is when a person eats more than is considered appropriate given the social and environmental factors at the time. It also includes having a sense of losing control over what you are eating or how much you are eating. It may also include attempts to hide evidence of the food being eaten or feelings of shame. You may feel the “need” to eat despite a lack of hunger, feel a compulsion to keep eating or eat very quickly. For instance, going to different drive-thru restaurants, ordering and eating meals at each one would be considered an objective binge.
- Subjective binging has all the features of Objective Binging except the amount is not considered inappropriate given the conditions, even though the sufferer may feel that it was too much food. Although you may feel that eating a bag of popcorn at the movies is a binge, in reality it is not given the social circumstances. It is completely normal to eat a bag of popcorn at the movies, even though you may consider it too much food. You may also feel as if you have lost control because the popcorn did not fit your strict food guidelines.
Restricting – This is a really tough one. I struggled a lot with trying to figure out what exactly restricting was, probably in an effort to eat just above the level that was considered “restricting” so that I could pretend to be better. I figured out that, essentially, restricting is limiting the foods you are eating in an attempt to lose weight. This could be cutting fat, lowering caloric intake, or eliminating foods. I know, this is incredibly vague and very frustrating. The truth is that restricting is slightly different for different people. Depending on your body size and activity levels you will require different amounts of food. Please, please for the LOVE of God please do NOT use internet calculators to determine this amount. Your body is likely under-nourished and will respond differently to foods than the body of a non-eating disordered person. You will require more calories in order to heal the damage to your body (whether or not you are under weight). I suggest getting in touch with a dietician who specializes in eating disorders and working out an ideal meal plan. I say “ideal” not because you will like it, but in the eyes of the dietician for what you would be eating in order to be considered healthy – your eating habits are likely very different from what will be on this ideal meal plan so be prepared – use this as a guide for modelling your eating.
As we all know, Eating Disorders are not always about the big things, check out my article on re-defining the secondary symptoms too!