Body image in Western culture has grown into a parasitic paradox: booming obesity rates tell one story, but the pervasive desires to be anything but overweight say something else entirely. Despite the proliferation of plus-sized models and clothing and narratives of eating disorders, simple self-love is combatted with "thinspiration" widespread on social media, fad diets, magic weight loss supplements, and conflicting online nutritional advice. Discerning what's healthy from what's not continues to be a challenge – and over 35% of the time, the difference between diet and disorder eventually ceases to exist.

Some symptoms of eating disorders are easily spotted, like consistent thousand-calorie binges or purging after every meal. But anyone at any size can have an eating disorder, and disordered behaviors can be subtle. Especially with the increased frequency of compulsive exercise and orthorexia – an eating disorder associated with an obsession with healthy eating – it becomes harder still to know who is dieting and who has a disorder. Here are some ways to hopefully help distinguish between the two.

Note: I am not a professional, and none of the following distinctions are definite indicators of an eating disorder.

Calories: Deficit or Deficient

vegetable, salad, lettuce, spinach, herb
Lily Allen

A calorie deficit is a hallmark of almost any weight loss diet: if you burn more calories than you take in, you should lose weight. Some diets restrict caloric intake by a small amount on a daily basis while others restrict calories by a larger amount one to three days a week and leave the others untouched. Diets typically require that one cut 250-500 (and in rare cases, up to 1000) calories from their daily total. However, regularly eating much, much fewer calories than necessary is often a red flag that someone's gone overboard. The general consensus seems to be that, unless professionally recommended, eating less than 1200 calories a day for an extended period of time is considered dangerous and unhealthy.

Time Period: Goal-Oriented or Undefined

A diet is frequently implemented with the intention that it will end once someone has reached their goal weight or health standard. While some successful diets may require a permanent lifestyle change, that change is usually not nearly as restrictive as the initial diet. A diet becomes something more when there's no end in sight – when someone always wants to lose just five more pounds or look skinnier or be healthier and will continue eating this way forever. Massively altering someone's eating patterns to an unhealthy degree for the rest of his/her life is most often not safe or reasonable.

Exercise: Desire or Necessity

gym, fitness, cardio, exercise, Health, Exercising, Work Out, working out, indoor gym, Healthy, treadmill, running, run
Denise Uy

Safe weight loss is frequently attributed to two things: diet and exercise. Exercise is a guaranteed way to increase caloric output, but it also improves overall health in several other ways. It should be fun, voluntary, and part of a healthy lifestyle – and certainly not something worth dreading. Forcing yourself to work out in order to burn extra calories or as a punishment for eating outside of the guidelines is often a sign of an unhealthy relationship with exercise and body image. Being active – from playing an intense sport to taking a walk in the park – should be inherently enjoyable and not just a way to burn fat.

Mentality: Aware or Obsessed

Ideally, a dieter's mentality is framed by a realistic awareness of themselves and their health. They may log all of their meals and activities or weigh themselves on a normal basis, but their diet is only one part of their lifestyle and they accept that for what it is. However, letting that mentality spiral into an unhealthy obsession where food occupies all of your thoughts can be toxic. From articles on the next health fad and unrealistically skinny models filling up your social media feed to mentally counting every other minute how many calories you have left in your day, developing a mentality regarding food that is reminiscent of OCD can hardly be good for you.

Cheating: Guilt-Free or Guilty

Amia Ross

Cheat meals and cheat days are also concepts most dieters are familiar with. Whether it's grabbing a meal with friends, going for a night out, or even just slipping up, cheating is simply when you overeat or eat unhealthily or eat something not included in your diet plan. Cheating happens (especially with super-restrictive diets), and a healthy dieter will briefly recognize where they've gone wrong and move on. But when cheating occupies your thoughts for hours or maybe days after it happens and becomes a source of obsessive and crippling disappointment, guilt and stress, it could be indicative of a toxic relationship with food. This becomes especially worrying if the mere thought of cheating induces so much stress, anxiety or even fear that someone avoids off-limits foods at all costs.

Food Rules: Reasonable or Impossible

Diets almost always come with guidelines to make them more clear to follow – usually rules like don't eat refined carbohydrates, minimize added sugar intake, etc. In fact, a diet without rules is practically unfeasible. But having too many specific, restrictive, and self-imposed food rules can often do more harm than good. These can range anywhere from only being able to eat at certain hours to only eating very specific foods in very specific preparations and a certain order. And if the consequences for breaking these rules (for cheating) are very extreme, that can be another sign that someone's food rules have become dangerous.

Motivation: Health or Self-Worth

cucumber, eyelid cucumber, girl, happy girl, smile, smiling, smiling girl
Julia Gilman

Someone usually motivates themselves to stick to a diet to lose weight, improve health, or increase the quality of life. They have other goals in life, hobbies to develop, relationships to invest time in; overall, they understand that their weight is not who they are. So when the number on the scale changes from a marker of progress to a strong determinant of your mood, when you believe losing weight will solve every single one of their problems, when you'll only value yourself when you're skinny, something has almost certainly gone wrong. A simple diet should not be a means of controlling your entire life.

Lifestyle: Regular or Disrupted

Dieting shouldn't really interfere with everyday life. Naturally, you'll have to change what they eat and build in time to exercise, but you should be able to live an otherwise typical life. If keeping to that diet drives you to consistently skip social events for fear of what food will be served, exercise even if it causes injury or illness, miss work or previous commitments, and generally bleeds into other aspects of life, it's not a healthy diet and should be reevaluated.

It's not easy to tell the difference between diet and disorder, and it really can be difficult to tell right from wrong in health and beauty. And drastically changing your eating behavior can trigger variations of some of these behaviors without developing into a full-blown eating disorder. Stepping into the world of weight loss can be a healthy choice – as long as you don't lose yourself in the process.

If you or anyone you know might be struggling with disordered eating, please contact the number on the National Eating Disorders website.