Part 2: 10 Thinking Errors – Which Ones Are Putting Me at Risk for Disordered Eating?
5 More Irrational or Extreme Ways of Thinking that Can Turn Food Against You.
Thinking errors, also known as cognitive distortions or thinking traps, are distorted ways of thinking that negatively affect one’s life, including relationship with food and body, eating habits, and overall health. Have you ever felt overwhelmed by the massive, conflicting nutritional advice found online? Do you have any hesitation or even fear to enjoy your favourite food without guilt? If so, this blog is for you.
In Part 1 of this blog series, we examined 5 common thinking errors in the context of healthy eating. In this blog post, I would like to introduce you to another 5 common thinking errors that are most relevant to disordered eating and/or eating disorder thoughts and behaviors. Actionable recommendations are also included in this blog post to help you shift away from these unhelpful thought patterns.
People who struggle with this type of thinking error start worrying about something small, deeming it as a problem, magnify the problem, and predict the worst outcomes. If you’ve ever felt stuck thinking “what if I can’t stop eating the cookies once I start? I will gain weight and keep gaining. I will become too heavy to move my body, and eventually, ‘of course,’ I will acquire diabetes”, you are probably under the influence of catastrophizing. As a result, you may turn to disordered eating and/or eating disorder behaviours, feeling disappointed, depressed, helpless, and hopeless.
It is very unfortunate and sad to me as a Dietitian and foodie, that many people have learned to categorize food as “good vs bad”, “healthy vs unhealthy”, “superfood vs junk food” (see Part 1 of this blog series for strategies for the all-or-nothing thinking error). As a Dietitian, I appreciate the rising public awareness of how food has the potential to boost or hinder your health, but here at Health Stand, we value healthful eating and soulful eating which are both equally as important in achieving one’s optimal health.
Instead of thinking of food as either positive or negative, try to reframe your brain to think of food as food for nutrition (i.e., healthful eating) and food for fun (i.e., soulful eating), such as for celebration, social gatherings, family/culture tradition, and yes, even for comfort.
Many clients I’ve supported through eating disorder recovery and/or with disordered eating behaviours struggle with the idea of “what if I can’t control myself and had too much?” However, isn’t it possible that if you get too much of something, you also have too little of something else? For example, when you find yourself indulging in too much soulful food, take a step back and think about the food you ate when your body was asking for nutrition. You may have not eaten enough healthful food or regular meals and snacks today to nourish your body.
2. Mind Reading
This type of thinking error tends to affect people who believe they can read other people’s minds. This can be especially a challenge for you if you are a sensitive “people pleaser”. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with being sensitive or wanting to make a good impression in front of others. But there is also the potential that “your mind-reading superpower” may negatively affect your thoughts, feelings and, behaviours and set you up for disordered eating and/or eating disorder behaviours, especially if you are already at a higher risk of self-criticism, negative body image, and low self-esteem.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) believes that people’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviours have the power to impact each other, meaning that your ability to take care of yourself (i.e., behaviours) may be hindered by negative thinking and/or feelings. For instance,
“Look at their faces. They must think I am overweight and eat poorly. They must not like me, which makes me feel sad. I might as well just go eat ‘junk’ because nobody cares”.
To help you step out of this thinking error and its negative consequences, my advice is likely no different from what your loved ones have been telling you – stop caring how other people see or think about you. It is more important to reflect on the reason behind why we are attempting to mind read.
Each one of us owns our own, unique body. Our body is like a vehicle that carries us to where we would like to be and allows us to do what we would like to do, but we only have one vehicle (i.e., body) per lifespan. Unlike a car display, we need our vehicle (i.e., body) to run properly, meaning that we can’t just leave the gas tank (i.e., stomach) empty to make the vehicle lighter, simply because other people think lighter vehicles are better.
As we grow, we continue to learn more about and do better in taking care of ourselves (e.g. feeding our body, moving our body, washing our body, relaxing our body, etc.), but we don’t really learn about how to take care of or be responsible for other people’s bodies, do we? So, here’s why I think you should give up on caring about how other people see you – your eating, your body, or your health is your own business; nobody else should have the right to judge you simply because they are not responsible for the outcome of your body.
I am sure we all have compared ourselves to other people at some point in life, myself included. This thinking error refers to the tendency to compare one’s “weaknesses” with other people’s “strengths”, well, at least the perceived and/or assumed “strengths”. People trapped in this thinking error often fail to see the unfairness and meaninglessness of this type of comparison. Instead, they turn to themselves, blame themselves for the difference, and develop all sorts of disordered eating and/or eating disorder behaviours. Especially with the strong, rooted weight bias in society, you probably have heard about or even had a similar thought yourself:
“They look so great therefore they must eat/be very healthy. Why can’t I just be like them?”.
Ask yourself, why exactly should you look like them? We all come in different sizes and shapes, just like how we all come in different genders and colours. Each body is unique, valuable, and meaningful and deserves to be loved and taken care of. Healthy eating shouldn’t be a way or an excuse to unify everyone. Healthy eating is a form of self-care that is supposed to assist you in reaching your best health and becoming your best self, not be punishment against you.
Everyone has unique nutritional needs and their ideal body weight range, and even these are constantly changing in response to changes in age, physical health (e.g. medical condition, medication, etc.), mental health (e.g. stress, anxiety, depression, negative emotions, etc.) and many other factors. In other words, it may not even be fair to compare yourself with who you were a year ago.
As mentioned earlier, since weight bias is so common and somehow justified in society, many people have received some (negative) comments about our appearance, body, and even eating and/or health as “something relevant”. This type of thinking error usually involves some extreme thinking pattern, such as:
“I was once called fat at school; I also didn’t have many friends then. It must be true that people didn’t like me because I was fat, and nobody will ever love me if I don’t lose weight.”
Another example is:
“I got so sick after eating that piece of bread; I must be sensitive to gluten. Now I feel bad because I love bread.”
The latter may seem a little more logical, but still a form of overgeneralization, especially in the context of food sensitivity where a lot of factors must be taken into consideration, including not only nutrition status, cooking method, food safety, particular nutrient and/or ingredient, but also medical conditions, medications, supplements, stress, sleep, emotions, and mental health status.
Overgeneralization can be challenging to manage as it can be hard to recognize. If the above examples sound familiar to you, I highly recommend you reach out to a healthcare professional such as a Registered Dietitian that specializes in mental health, who have knowledge and expertise to help you explore the real problem and provide you with the right solution, instead of falling down the rabbit hole and potentially developing some fear of eating, disordered eating, and even an eating disorder along the way.
5. Fortune Telling
Similar to overgeneralization, fortune telling is another type of thinking error that gives you the “superpower” to predict the future, especially the negative outcomes. A great example that I’ve encountered so many times in my practice in the conjunction of chronic disease and mental health is, “I just got diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes and my doctor told me to stay away from sugar. I can never eat candies again, otherwise my blood sugar will go sky-high. I don’t know if I can or want that for the rest of my life.”
What is different from overgeneralization is, fortune telling does have some logical basis, but the actual possibility of that negative outcome happening is often exaggerated, and all other factors that may also alter the outcome are often ignored or missed.
Again, reaching out to a healthcare professional such as a Registered Dietitian is highly recommended if you are looking for credible information, a customized nutrition plan, optimized long-term health outcome, or a peaceful and enjoyable relationship with food.
The bottom line
Can you relate to any of the cognitive distortions above? Do you find any of these thinking errors ever facilitate any fear of eating, disordered eating, and/or eating disorder behaviours?
If so, I’m glad you are here, and hopefully you have picked out some useful tips to begin your journey to work through some of these. The purpose of this blog is never to make you feel bad about being trapped in these thinking errors – by doing this you are probably engaging in a thinking error called personalization (see Part 1 of this blog series for more information). More so, my hope is that, with a better understanding of how your mental health can interfere with your physical health, you are better able to determine some areas of improvement and problem-solve around that.
My ultimate goal is that you can be friends with food again, all kinds of food, and with the help of food, walk towards your best self. Food shouldn’t be your enemy. Neither should you.
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Disordered Eating, Mental Health, Emotional Eating,
Wan is a non-judgmental, client-centered and weight-inclusive Dietitian. She enthusiastically believes that everyone can eat healthfully and soulfully (but how we define this will look very different from one person to another). She’s proud of being a practical Dietitian who’s skilled in simplifying complex science into easy-to-understand ideas and strategies you can take home and implement seamlessly.