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Food for thought: eating behaviour, healthy habits and disordered eating

Why people eat, and how they eat, often matters as much as what they eat. Learn about healthy eating behaviour, and warning signs of disordered eating.

Conditions such as anorexia and bulimia are well-defined examples of eating disorders, but some types of unhealthy eating patterns are more subtle. Give some thought to healthy eating behaviour and why we eat the way we eat.

Disordered eating

“Disordered eating represents any problematic eating behaviour, from eating too much to eating too little, or anything in between that would go outside of what we would consider a normal healthy intuitive eating pattern where you eat when you’re hungry,” says Dr. Valerie Taylor, psychiatrist-in-chief at Women’s College Hospital.

People approach food and eating in different ways, and have different eating behaviours triggered by different factors – sometimes not triggered by physical hunger.

“There’s emotional eating, there’s chaotic eating, there’s the chronic dieter, there’s restrictive eating, there’s the clean-your-plate eater,” Dr. Taylor says. She notes that we have lots of terms for unhealthy eating patterns, but we don’t have many terms for healthy behaviours. She uses the term “intuitive eating” to describe a pattern of eating in which people eat when they are physically hungry.

Intuitive eating

“Intuitive eating is healthy eating. That’s listening to your physical hunger signals and only eating when you’re hungry, and only eating until you’re full,” Dr. Taylor says. “An eating pattern that doesn’t cause illness – be it from under-nutrition, over-nutrition, malnutrition or just exacerbation of psychiatric illness, which eating behaviours can cause.”

However, she notes that intuitive eating isn’t always easy – especially in today’s environment of strong media images that promote unrealistic or unhealthy images as healthy and ideal; and at the same time push people to overconsume.

“Girls see pictures of very thin individuals and think that this is what they have to emulate to be successful and to be popular, when a lot of times these images themselves have been so airbrushed that they’re nobody’s normal – not even the people in the pictures look like the pictures,” Dr. Taylor says, noting that the other side of message – overconsumption – is driven home by things like Tim Hortons’ new cup sizes.

“Suddenly when you order a large, you get an extra-large,” she says. “So we’re getting two messages from media, and neither one is compatible with healthy eating.”

Tools for understanding eating

If you’re unhappy with your eating habits, spend some time thinking about what aspects of eating you’re not happy with, such as when you eat, where you eat, what you eat or how you eat it.

“The first step is figuring out what you want to fix and what you’re unhappy with,” Dr. Taylor says. One simple step is to slow down – literally. Busy lives means everything gets rushed, including eating.

“One of the problems with fast food is the ‘fast’ part,” Dr. Taylor says, explaining that it takes about 20 minutes for your stomach to tell your brain you’re full. “If you’ve eaten your big mac and fries in five minutes, you’re going to go back for that dessert because you haven’t let your stomach and brain communicate.”

Stretching mealtimes out a little longer may mean you don’t want that dessert, because you’ve given your brain and stomach that necessary time.

Another effective tool is keeping a food journal to track what you actually eat and drink.

“If you do that for a little while, you’ll be very surprised at where the calories come from,” Dr. Taylor says, noting that even a large coffee – with cream and sugar – can be substantial in terms of calories. “Just writing down what you’re consuming for a week will help you identify what you need to change.”

Working to change habits

Eating behaviour can be changed, but like any behavioural change, it takes work. Learning what aspects of your eating behaviour may need attention is key to making changes.

“Probably the number one reason diets fail is that as soon as you stop dieting, you go back to the kind of pattern that got you into a problem in the first place,” Dr. Taylor says. “So in order to actually be successful, you sort of need to change your normal. To do that, you need to figure out what your normal is.”

If your lifestyle is such that you skip breakfast and do most of your eating at night, or if work functions force you to eat out a lot, you need to know that. Figuring out those factors can be time-consuming, but it’s a crucial step – one that people often skip when they jump into a weight-loss program or try to change their eating habits.

 “It takes a while to identify our patterns, our behaviours, our triggers, and to then work on ways to modify them,” Dr. Taylor says, adding that we often developed those habits for a reason. That means that changing those habits can take time and effort, even if it seems like a small change, such as eating breakfast.

For someone who doesn’t eat breakfast, incorporating eating breakfast is a big deal, Dr. Taylor explains. It may mean changing the time they get up, which can mean changing the time they go to bed. It may affect what other activities they’re able to do in the morning, which may mean reorganizing tasks: they may have to pack children’s lunches the night before instead of in the morning to make time for breakfast, and that may displace an evening activity. It may not be as simple as it sounds.

“A lot of these small behavioural changes – if they’re going to actually stick – take a while to get in place,” Dr. Taylor says. “People are often sold messages that it’s very easy and if you’re not successful, it’s because you’re unmotivated or you lack willpower. But it’s not easy. It takes time.”

Recognizing potential problems

“If you feel unhealthy or uncomfortable, that’s a sign that you may need to do some sort of followup or talk to somebody about it,” Dr. Taylor says. Other signs that may indicate disordered eating include:

  • binge eating
  • eating in secret or eating a lot of calories alone
  • feeling unhappy or frustrated with yourself after eating
  • using unhealthy weight control strategies such as eating and throwing up or overexercising
  • abnormal preoccupation with food, thinking about food excessively

Any of these factors can be a sign of problematic eating behaviour.


This information is provided by Women’s College Hospital and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or healthcare provider. Please consult your healthcare provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: Feb. 14, 2014

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To read more about eating disorders, visit our Online Mental Health Centre.

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