When food insecurity creates a harmful relationship with food
A note to the reader: This article includes discussion about mental health and eating disorders.
Disordered eating is not a popular topic of conversation. It’s weighty. It’s difficult. Sometimes painful. All the more reason to talk about it.
We do not want anyone to suffer in silence. During Suicide Prevention Awareness Week, we collaborated with Build Her A Bridge, a mentorship and emotional support nonprofit for young women and girls, to share mental health resources available to our communities.
We spoke with Emily Murray, a registered dietitian, licensed dietitian/nutritionist, and certified eating disorder specialist, to talk about the impacts of food insecurity on our mental health and, more specifically, ways that food insecurity and disordered eating sometimes intersect.
Read our conversation with Emily below, and know that if you are struggling with your relationship with food, Emily is one of many with both the heart and training to help. The biggest step is just reaching out.
What are the most common types of eating disorders?
“Commonly, what a lot of people know through the media is anorexia,” Emily said. “Anorexia nervosa is one type of eating disorder, but the most common type of eating disorder is actually binge-eating disorder.”
Binge-eating disorder is defined by the Mayo Clinic as “a serious eating disorder in which you frequently consume unusually large amounts of food and feel unable to stop eating.”
While this is the most common form of disordered eating, and anorexia (associated with restrictive eating habits and compulsive exercise) may also be the most widely known, Emily explained that there are a number of others: bulimia nervosa (associated with binge-eating followed by self-induced vomiting or fasting), ARFID (avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder), and OSFED (other specified feeding and eating disorders).
“[OSFED] is kind of an umbrella term for a couple of subcategories,” Emily explained. “There’s atypical anorexia, there’s night-eating syndrome, so there are some other things that are kind of lumped into that category for things that we’re still trying to figure out.”
Why do we sometimes have a love/hate relationship with food?
Emily explained that many people, including those who have experienced disordered eating habits and those who haven’t, have a complicated emotional relationship with food.
“Food is so much to us,” she said. “It tastes good. … It’s cultural. It’s social. It’s nostalgic.”
She said cultural messages and fears about our body image and what we are and aren’t putting into our bodies impacts how we relate to food, but we can also change our relationship to food by “adopting behaviors that feel safe and protective” that eventually become maladaptive.
How can food insecurity impact our mental health?
Emily pointed to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
At the base of this pyramidal theory, our basic needs include food, water, shelter, warmth, and more. Working our way up the pyramid, we see needs, such as safety needs, belongingness and love needs, esteem needs, and self-actualization needs. If the basic needs are unmet, it is very difficult to put energy towards the needs farther up the pyramid.
“If we’re not getting enough food, we’re not going to be able to move up those levels,” Emily said. “We’re not going to be able to even focus on relationships if we’re so preoccupied and scared and anxious with the fact that we don’t have enough food.”
Does food insecurity sometimes intersect with disordered eating?
Emily shared that research shows that food insecurity can sometimes enforce patterns that mirror disordered eating behaviors, such as a feast/famine cycle.
“In times of abundance, … there might be more urgency to eat quickly or to binge,” she explained. “But then if you don’t have access to food, that can feel like restriction. And that can really take a toll on the body, which can trigger eating disorder behaviors even once food is available.”
Food insecurity is traumatic, and those patterns can get embedded in our brains, in our bodies. Emily said, even when one obtains food security, behaviors that developed during food insecurity can continue.
“It’s not just something where it’s like, ‘Oh, cool, you’re not food insecure anymore. Go be!’ It’s something that really, really has to be worked through,” Emily said.
She said, when a person is experiencing food insecurity, community resources and support is crucial for allowing someone experiencing an unhealthy or harmful relationship with food to heal.
“It’s really hard to heal in a traumatic environment, so providing enough food, working with resources like OneGenAway — that is a great way to build a foundation for healing a … relationship with food.”
How can we support ourselves and others around us who may struggle with our relationship with food?
Emily said it’s important to address disordered eating behaviors as early as possible. A person may seek help from a team that includes a dietitian, a therapist, and physicians to ensure they receive holistic care.
However, there are also behaviors everyone can implement to create a more supportive environment within their community for all of us as we navigate our complicated and emotional relationships with food.
“How we interact with our bodies is going to impact younger generations,” she said. “If we can eliminate negative body talk about our own bodies, if we can work on our own relationships with food, if we can be advocating for … body neutrality, health at every size, or dedicating our time to help fight food insecurity — we can be role models for the teens and kiddos around us.”
But disordered eating does not only impact young people. Eating disorders are “disorders of isolation and disconnection,” Emily said, and continually working to better support those around us in their emotional and physical needs can go a long way.
If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health crisis, call 988 for the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.
Emily Murray is a registered dietitian, licensed dietitian/nutritionist, and certified eating disorder specialist based in Middle Tennessee. To learn more about her practice, visit www.murraynutritionco.com.