The Gray Area That's Not Quite an Eating Disorder, But Is Common Among Dancers

It doesn't have to be diagnosable by the DSM-5 to be dangerous to your health. Photo by Dominik Martin/Unsplash

When the cat food started smelling good, I knew I had a problem.

I'd always considered eating disorders to be extreme. Someone who never eats. Someone who weighs less than 100 pounds. Someone who gets hospitalized.

My behavior didn't fit the mental health definition of an eating disorder. I ignored it because I didn't know how to articulate it. It took me several years after the cat food smelled good to have the language to describe what was going on.


It Started as An Act of Teenage Rebellion That Had Nothing to Do With Weight

For the author (above), being vegetarian turned into an excuse to get out of eating. Photo courtesy Tenuto

I had decided to become a vegetarian at 17. It started in earnest as a way to protest my dad hunting birds and bringing them home for my family to eat. First, I wrote off the meat he hunted. Then (enjoying the rebellion of it), I wrote off all meat.

It was circa 2001 and at that time books like "Fast Food Nation" were on the rise. I read up on the inhumane practices of the meat industry. I morally got behind my choice to be a vegetarian.

As a bit of time passed, I began to use my vegetarianism as a way to write off eating a healthy amount of food. "Oh, I can't eat that" or "I'll meet up after dinner" were frequent responses that came out of my mouth in my early 20s. Vegetarianism had become my excuse. It was a socially acceptable way to get out of eating.

Don't get me wrong—to this day I love animals and have met some vegetarians who are informed and balanced about their nutrition. That was not my case.

Having rice and vegetables for every meal, I thought I was eating like an enlightened monk. I did no research on what I needed to eat as a substitute for meat. But I had a well-rehearsed (and well-researched) speech ready about the meat industry's treatment of animals to defend my choices. I was often light-headed, and not from being enlightened. It was because I was malnourished.

Also, I was a professional dancer. Somehow, I didn't connect the dots. I knew about how many dancers had eating disorders. But I've honestly never met one dancer who doesn't obsess over their body. Seeing my behavior as fairly normal, I thought it'd be weird to ask for help.

Just Because It's Not Classified as An Eating Disorder Doesn't Mean It's Safe

Thinking about food all the time is an early sign of disordered eating. Photo by Eszter Biro.

New York City-based dietician Kelly Hogan, MS, RD, recently explained to me that there is a difference between eating disorders and disordered eating. An eating disorder has a set of diagnostic criteria and is diagnosable by a doctor. Disordered eating encompasses various behaviors such as restricting food intake, restricting food groups, having rigid rules, bingeing, purging and over-exercising. Disordered eating can be really complicated, but it's technically not diagnosable by the mental health standards manual, the DSM-5.

"Disordered eating may be more likely to happen in those with certain personality traits, like perfectionism," Hogan said. "It's also more likely if you already have other emotional turmoil going on. Recent review studies and surveys on disordered eating have found that most women exhibit disordered eating behaviors at some point in their lives."

"Most women?" I asked. She confirmed: About 75 percent. "This is a newer finding that is currently being looked into in a deeper way now." Hogan told me that women in aesthetic-based sports such as dance, gymnastics, running, ice skating and diving are at the most risk.

"Early signals for disordered eating include thinking about food all the time, finding ways to cut out foods or food groups from your diet, if your relationship with food affects your social life, or if you have low energy, aches and pains," she said.

Hogan acknowledges that, for dancers, it can be to discern if low energy, aches and pains are from their activity or a lack of nourishment. "Losing your period is a clear sign that you may not be eating enough to fuel your activity and that your body is under a significant amount of stress because of this energy deficiency," she says. This can put you at risk of injury, especially bone injuries.

Dancers Are Three Times as Likely to Have Disordered Eating Patterns

Since she got healthier, the author has noticed how many other dancers struggle in the gray area of disordered eating. Photo courtesy Tenuto

I rationalized my own disordered eating as, "I am still eating. I eat healthy food. I eat three meals per day." I didn't know how much more I needed to eat because I was dancing six to eight hours a day. I also didn't try to learn. Instead, I was restricting an entire food group from my diet for a non-health-based reason.

I also became really into looking as thin and as long as I could—the idealized version of a dancer body. Hogan says that research shows dancers are as much as three times more likely than other people to exhibit disordered eating patterns.

That afternoon when I fed my cat wet food, I actually started to drool. I was about seven years into being a vegetarian. In that moment, I knew I had to eat meat again. I called my family and coordinated a barbecue with some "organic, grass fed-only" hamburgers. I plowed through my first hamburger and felt a surge of energy. My body was like "Finally! Thank you."

That first barbecue was more than 8 years ago. Since then, I've noticed a ton of other dancers whose relationships to food aren't extreme disorders, but they live in the gray area. Maybe it's over exercising. Maybe it's no food after 7 pm. Coffee after every meal to stimulate digestion. Hopping on the most recent fad diets. Or eliminating gluten when it's not a health concern.

Whatever it is, know that there are so many people with you.

If you're ready to seek help, Hogan warns that not all physicians understand disordered eating or know how to treat patients exhibiting symptoms. She suggests seeing a registered dietitian and/or a therapist. "A specialized professional can help you get to the root of why these behaviors are happening," she says, "and eventually, understand how to better nourish your body."

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