all wrapped in measuring tape with dietingOn any given day, 45% of women are on a diet, according to the National Eating Disorders Association.

On average, we think about our bodies 8 times a day, found one recent survey. About 80% of women are dissatisfied with their appearance, and what’s worse, 40% would trade 3 to 5 years of their lives to achieve weight loss goals.

No wonder many women report signs of disordered eating behavior—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, so we talked to top food behavior experts to understand the difference. Here are some red flags that could indicate a food/weight obsession. Ask yourself these questions, and then read at the end of the article how to, if you find some of these apply, learn how you can adopt a healthier approach.

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 nailed a big presentation, so you spersize 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,” says Cynthia Bulik, PhD, director of the Eating Disorders Program at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine. 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. But today you had a late breakfast and you’re not feeling very hungry. Do you make a beeline for your favorite sandwich shop anyway? If so, this means you’ve detached eating from physical hunger, says Adrienne Ressler, LMSW, national training director for the Renfrew Center Foundation, one of the country’s top treatment centers for eating disorders.

“You may eat out of boredom, anxiety, habits, desire, or some other emotion,” says Bulik. 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. “Binge eating is often associated with eating rituals, like sitting down to watch TV,” says Ressler. “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?

“Someone who eats like this takes no pleasure in food,” says Ressler. “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 (under 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 plans—”like the rest of the day is ruined,” says Bulik. 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.

6. You view foods as “good” or “bad”
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, says Bulik: “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, says Bulik.

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.

8. You judge others’ eating habits
Have you become such a health guru that you can’t help but comment on or judge others’ food choices? It’s one thing to be concerned about a loved one’s health and hide the salt shaker or insist on low-fat ice cream, but it’s another to become evangelical about it. “If you create a hostile environment for others or violate their boundaries with your perspective, that’s not good,” says Ressler.

9. You eat differently when alone
At dinner with friends, you order a leafy salad, pass on the breadbasket, and nibble on a shared dessert. On the couch in comfy sweats, you have no problem eating whatever you want—or how much you want. “There’s sort of an unstated rule that women are always supposed to be on diets, that they’re not supposed to have hearty appetites,” says Bulik. “These myths drive an enormous amount of female behavior.”

10. You’ve dropped friends over food
Have you cut back on evenings out with your margarita-swigging girlfriends in favor of being with people who are on the exact same diet/exercise page as you? Or do you spend more time seeking diet advice in message boards online instead of chatting with family and friends? These behaviors could indicate that your food relationship is taking a toll on your social relationships.

11. You make water a “meal”
Sipping water throughout the day to stay hydrated and full between meals is fine; downing a glass in lieu of lunch is not. Same with gum—it’s a great way to fend off an unexpected craving but shouldn’t replace a healthy snack, which provides crucial nutrients and boosts energy levels.

Using these “tools” to keep full may mean you’re trying too hard to override your body’s natural hunger signals—and may be cutting calories and nutrients too low.

12. You follow extreme diets
Are carbs banned from your pantry? Do you drink all of your meals? Are you on a regimen where you can’t eat certain food groups—like protein and carbs—at the same sitting? Extreme plans like these may seem okay for short-term results (say, a high school reunion or family wedding), but “these diets can be really dangerous,” says Ressler.

13. You overdo workouts
If you do calorie math before you hit the gym (e.g., I ate X calories at lunch, so I need to burn off Y on the treadmill) or refuse to skip a workout—even if you’re injured, completely exhausted, or sneezing and coughing up a storm—then you may have taken this healthy habit too far. Though most people don’t exercise enough, in some cases there can be too much of a good thing.

Problem: Emotional eater
If numbers 1, 2, and 3 apply to you, you may be an emotional eater.
Coping strategy: There are two main issues here, says Bulik: “One is that emotional eaters are more likely to have problems maintaining a healthy weight.” The other is that you never develop positive ways to handle your feelings, such as taking a mind-clearing walk instead of reaching into your snack drawer or simply asking yourself if something is bothering you before you grab a cookie.

Start a food-mood journal to track the following whenever you eat: (1) what you eat, (2) your emotion at the time, and (3) the strength of that emotion (on a 1-to-10 scale). You’ll identify patterns that drive you to crave certain foods and can work on finding other ways to deal instead.

Learning to appreciate your body can also help. Even if you’re still a dress size or three away from your “ideal,” try to focus on the features you do love—strong, shapely legs, perhaps, or shoulders that look great in strapless. Being satisfied with your shape may help prevent emotional eating, according to research in the Journal of Counseling Psychology. People who are content with their bodies tend to be more in tune with hunger signals.

Problem: Food restricter
If numbers 4, 5, and 6 apply to you, you may be a food restricter.
Coping strategy: Skimping on variety for predictability—a way to exert control—can shortchange your body of crucial nutrients, as can cutting calories too low. A Canadian study found that about 25% of women have what’s known as high cognitive dietary restraint, which means they think constantly about food and spend a lot of time deciding what to eat and avoid. Research shows that these women have higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol; however, they’re no more likely to be thin than are the women who don’t think about food as much.

Unravel the strict behaviors, and be more spontaneous about your meals. Start small: Try something new for breakfast, and don’t count calories. Eyeball what looks like a sensible portion, and see how satiated you feel afterward. “A healthy approach to food is a flexible one,” says Bulik.

Problem: Orthorexic eater
If numbers 7 and 8 apply to you, you may be an orthorexic eater.
This term, coined by a Colorado doctor more than 10 years ago, refers to people who are unhealthfully concerned with, well, eating healthy.

Coping strategy: “This becomes a slippery slope as people restrict more and more foods from their repertoire,” says Bulik. “For some it can stay at that level, but for many others, it evolves into a convenient way to justify anorexia.” Another consequence: It can give kids a fear of food, as though there’s a danger lurking in every package. You may not realize how extreme your healthy ways have become, but your friends and family probably have. Ask them if they think you may have a problem.

Remember that nutrition science changes all the time. How you look and feel—not a daily consumption of flaxseed or avoiding high fructose corn syrup at all costs—is your best everyday measure of health.

Problem: Social switcher
If numbers 9 and 10 apply to you, you may be social switcher.
Coping strategy: “If you often eat differently when alone, that means there’s a fundamental discomfort with who you are,” says Bulik. That can cause stress, anxiety, and self-esteem issues: “It’s as though you’ve divided your life into two parts, allowing yourself to be ‘good’ around others and ‘bad’ when alone.” If friendships have changed because of food, that can be a sign of overly restrictive rules.

Think about why you approach food differently when you’re around others. If you’re worried about eating too much in public, remember that we’re meant to have an appetite. No one thinks more highly of you because you choose the mesclun greens instead of penne marinara. And research shows that you eat less when you take time to eat, chew, and digest between bites—something that’s easier when you chat away dinner with friends than when you dine alone.

Problem: Diet addict
If numbers 11 and 12 apply to you, you may be a diet addict.
Coping strategy: This is a form of restricted eating in which you may be missing important nutrients. Plus, it can slow your metabolism to the point where cutting calories becomes countereffective. Also, extreme plans are difficult to stick to long-term, so you yo-yo: You regain the weight, then try something else to lose again.

Some people need structure to eat healthfully, and that’s okay. But if a plan sounds gimmicky or too good to be true, it probably is. Look for a program that emphasizes a healthy balance of all nutrients, with controlled portions to keep calories in check. Some people need structure to eat healthfully, and that’s okay. But if a plan sounds gimmicky or too good to be true, it probably is. Look for a program that emphasizes a healthy balance of all nutrients, with controlled portions to keep calories in check.

Problem: Overexerciser
If number 13 applies to you, you may be an overexerciser.
Coping strategy: Some people use long gym sessions or work out at an extreme pace to get their weight unnaturally low, says Bulik. This is common among women with anorexia. Women who binge may also work out to burn off the calorie damage, which means they’re eating poorly as part of a vicious cycle that won’t lead to weight loss.

First, examine what’s driving your behavior, says Ressler: “Is it to feel better and live longer, or because you think your self-worth is based on being able to wear a size two?” Remember that exercise is about much more than weight loss. Cardio workouts get healthy, oxygen-rich blood coursing through your body, nourishing your heart, brain, lungs, and pretty much every organ. Strength-training builds muscle tone, which maintains your strength and can even prevent type 2 diabetes. Yoga and other calming workouts relieve stress and improve balance, reducing your risk of injury.

Dec 14, 2012