Body Image & Disordered Eating

How you feel about your body and appearance – and your relationship to food and eating – can be very complex. It not only is determined by your own physical and mental health, but is influenced by societal and cultural factors as well.

The range of feelings and behaviors people have related to food and body image can be represented on a continuum:

Body image & disordered eating continuum chart

   [View a more detailed Eating Issues and Body Image Continuum chart (pdf)]

Wherever you locate yourself on this continuum, if your feelings about food and body become distressing to yourself or others, we can help. Visit our Nutrition and Healthy Eating Services page for information about the services and support we offer.

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Where you fall on the continuum

(A) Flexible, healthy eating, and confidence about body size and shape

Flexible, healthy eating and body confidence are characterized by positive feelings about food and the body. No matter what your size, you enjoy eating for pleasure and trust your body to tell you what to eat. Foods are not “good” or “bad,” and you spend a reasonable part of the day eating for health and enjoyment. You feel good about your body and maintain a sense of self-worth despite conflicting messages from friends and media about the “perfect body.”

(B) Preoccupied with food and dieting, and attempt to change body size and shape

Preoccupation with food and body size involves frequent thoughts about food, eating, your body, and comparisons with others. You may engage in moderate dieting or exercise to change your body size and shape. You feel concerned about what you eat and consistently feel that you could lose a few pounds. In general, these feelings do not interfere with enjoyment or social and academic aspects of life. When negative feelings or stress become significant, it is a good idea to seek help.

(C) Disordered eating, unhealthy dieting, and distress about body size and shape

Disordered eating and body image distress refers to a level concern about food and body that may take precedence over other priorities in your life. You may be fairly rigid in your eating patterns, work to change your body through exercise, and/or engage in compensatory behaviors such as purging (vomiting, fasting/dieting, excessive exercise, use of laxatives and “diet aids”). It is important to seek help at this stage to develop a wholesome food pattern and more successful long-term strategies for a healthy body.

(D) Eating disordered, and disturbed body image

Eating disorders include anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder.

Anorexia nervosa refers to fear of gaining weight, overvaluation of weight and appearance, restriction of food intake, and sometimes vomiting that can result in significant weight loss. Bulimia nervosa also involves an overvaluation of weight and appearance, and an effort to control body and emotions  through frequent compensation by purging (self-induced vomiting, laxatives, “diet pills,” diuretics, over-exercise, or fasting). Binge eating disorder defines a pattern of emotionally driven binge eating without purging.

Eating disorders often do not fall neatly into these categories and may take a variety of forms, from mild to severe. Treatment for eating disorders is important at any level of severity to reduce the risk of short-term and long-term health problems.

In general, eating disorders are usually characterized by relentless thoughts and internal arguments about food and/or body size and shape. They often involve a disconnection between appetite and eating, where you may find yourself eating without hunger or feeling hungry without giving yourself permission to eat.
 

Cultivating a positive body image

In contemporary society in most “developed” countries, social pressure to look a certain way can be high. For women, the “perfect body” often translates to an impossibly thin or impossibly voluptuous figure. For men, societal messages often promote an unattainable ideal of muscular build, leanness, or both.

Developing and nurturing a positive body image – despite these pressures – is crucially important to well-being. Here are some tips:

Appreciate all your body does for you.

It’s easy to take your body for granted. Make an effort to recognize the many impressive things your body does every day. Our movement, emotions, our vision, taste, hearing, smelling, touch, digestion, heart-beat, and thinking … All of these rely on finely-tuned biochemical and physiological functioning. Our bodies are quite amazing!

Focus on health.

Eating well and getting regular exercise can help you feel healthy and strong. Your body requires regular and supportive nutritional nourishment. Be aware of dieting (which almost never works as a long-term solution to weight loss or muscle gain). Be sure to get enough sleep and keep your stress in check. Make time to do things you enjoy. Stress, anxiety, self-criticism, and a low sense of self-worth can interfere with how you feel about and treat your body, so take care of your mental health. Our nutritionists and healthy eating specialists, medical clinicians, and counselors can help you work toward improving your health and well-being.

Question unreasonable standards.

Healthy bodies come in all shapes and sizes. But each society creates standards of appearance or beauty particular to the place and time. The standards we face are highly influenced by advertising, entertainment, and social media. Remember that what you see projected there does not often reflect real life. Recognize that the more value you give to artificial societal standards, the less power you have over your own body image and sense of well-being.

When to get help

Whenever your feelings and behaviors related to body image and eating begin to take precedence over other priorities in your life – or get in the way of your ability to participate in and enjoy life – it’s important to seek help.

Signs and symptoms that indicate disordered eating or an eating disorder (see “Where do you fall on the continuum?” above) should especially be taken seriously. Counseling support and/or treatment is important at any level of severity to reduce the risk of short-term and long-term health problems.

Please schedule an appointment to meet with a member of the Cornell Healthy Eating Program (CHEP) team, whether you think your problem is mild or serious. CHEP staff members can help evaluate your current health and habits, and – when appropriate – provide medical care, counseling, and ongoing support to help you optimize your health and well-being. CHEP can also connect you with support groups, and provide specialized referrals for treatment outside the scope of Cornell Health’s services.