Whether you refuse to let a single speck of trans fat cross your lips or never met an entire pint of ice cream you didn't like, it's the rare individual whose attitude toward food, weight loss, and body image is 100% normal (define normal anyway).
In fact, on average women think about their bodies eight times a day, found one recent survey, and about 80% of women are dissatisfied with their appearance. It's no wonder many women report signs of disordered eating-like excessively counting calories or working out just to burn off food-even if they never develop a full-blown disorder such as anorexia or bulimia. Problem is, there's often a fine line between eating healthfully to slim down and becoming fixated with food. Here are some red flags that could indicate a food/weight obsession.
1. You eat in reaction to bad (or good) news.
You're having a stressful day, so you treat yourself to Cheetos at the vending machine. Or you just got major props from your boss for nailing a big presentation, so you supersize your french fries as a reward. If food is your automatic reaction to dealing with any emotion-good or bad-it could signal an unhealthy relationship. Another sign: When you're upset, you turn to food before you call your partner or a friend.
2. You eat without feeling hungry.
It's 12:30, your usual lunchtime. Do you automatically make a beeline for your favorite sandwich shop-or ask yourself if you're hungry first? If the former sounds familiar, it means you've detached eating from physical hunger and you may eat out of boredom, anxiety, habit, desire, or some other emotion. But going with your gut-literally-is best for your health. Women who follow internal hunger and satiety cues report higher levels of self-esteem and optimism and lower BMIs, according to a Journal of Counseling Psychology study.
3. You have out-of-control eating binges.
Everyone indulges in an extra slice of pizza or another handful of M&M's. But if you regularly eat much more than you intended, stuff yourself until you're uncomfortably full, or feel like you can't stop eating, that could be something to watch.
Overeating like this can result from going too long between meals or restricting yourself, not to mention that age-old culprit: boredom. You start with a bag of popcorn. All that salt makes you crave something sweet, like ice cream. Then you feel thirsty, so you have a soda.
Eat frequent, consistently sized meals to avoid binges and feel happier. Research from Liverpool John Moores University found that women who fluctuated between low- and high-calorie meals were less happy with their bodies than those whose plates packed a similar number of calories from meal to meal.
4. There's zero variety in your diet
You've had Rice Krispies with fat-free milk for breakfast every day for 10 years. For lunch, it's always salad with the same fat-free dressing. And for dinner, what's wrong with grilled chicken and steamed broccoli Monday through Thursday?
Fact is, someone who eats like this takes no pleasure in food. The satisfaction comes not from the experience but from knowing they've met requirements on a nutrition label. Another danger: missing important nutrients. Different grains, dairy, meats, nuts, beans, vegetables, and fruit means you get a variety of essential vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants every day.
5. You count every last calorie.
It's one thing to watch your intake while you're trying to lose weight. But over time, people can gauge how much to eat to maintain weight loss without poring over every label. If you've cut calories dangerously low (less than 1,200 a day for most women) and your life revolves around your food "rules," then you've taken things too far.
Calorie hawks also feel guilty when they don't follow their plan-like the rest of the day is ruined. Severe restriction can lead to anorexia or thwart weight loss efforts by slowing metabolism-not to mention that you'll feel hungry, exhausted, foggy, and grumpy if you don't consume enough nutrients.
Bread is "bad"-so having a bagel for breakfast is a rare treat. Baby carrots are "good," so there's zero guilt about eating them as a snack. If you compartmentalize food choices like this, you're setting yourself up for a tricky tango later. Once you have a "bad" label on something, under certain conditions you'll crave it more, lose all control, and binge. Research shows that people have only so much willpower; if you try to limit too many things at once, you'll end up caving more quickly. Of course, certain foods are inherently healthier than others-so this doesn't mean you can eat fast food whenever you want. But that's where portion control comes in. Train yourself to have just one Munchkin and then concentrate on something other than eating.
Pasta and carbs don't have to be off-limits. Click here for guiltless pasta recipes.
7. You're 100% organic, 100% of the time.
We know organic, unprocessed, whole foods are healthiest, but some people take the mantra to an extreme. This could be you if you refuse to shop for groceries or eat at places that don't meet your healthy standards, you decode every ingredient label and deem all foods with "unnatural" ingredients off-limits, or you perceive processed products as dangerous to your health. Loosen your standards a bit when you're out and about. One nonorganic meal won't kill you, or even hurt you, and you can feel confident that your health is benefiting from all the other healthy food you eat 90% of the time.
Use food to help shrink your belly and slim down.
More Food, Nutrition and Emotional Eating Advice From Prevention:
6 More Signs You're Obsessed With Food
11 "Healthy" Foods That Aren't
Fast Food Dos And Don'ts
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[photo credit: Getty Images]