Maslow’s Hierarchy of Unmet Needs: Eating Disorder Edition

If you’re familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, you’ve probably seen this image before:

Eating disorders cut to the heart of Maslow’s hierarchy, as they jeopardize both sets of basic needs: physiological and safety needs. They completely disrupt our relationship with food and can sometimes jeopardize our water intake as well (either by drinking too much or too little water). They can sometimes increase the likelihood of not getting enough rest – whether that be through exercising too much or by being completely overwhelmed by food and body image concerns; this doesn’t allow us sleep well or take time for ourselves mentally.

And, as Christy Harrison aptly puts it in her book Anti-Diet: Reclaim Your Time, Money, Well-Being and Happiness Through Intuitive Eating, eating disorders, disordered eating and diet culture also jeopardize our sense of safety in the world:

“Feeling connected to and at peace with [our bodies] is crucial to feeling safe in the world. By making us feel self-conscious and not good enough in our bodies, diet culture disconnects us from them – and thereby makes us question our very identities, our basic worthiness as human beings. By keeping us from feeling at home in our bodies, it keeps us from feeling at home in the world at large” (p. 168).

When basic needs are unmet, the needs above them on the hierarchy (connection, self-esteem, and self-actualization, etc.) take a back seat. If you’ve struggled with an eating disorder or disordered eating, I’m sure this makes sense to you. You can relate to the sense of isolation and low self-esteem and lacking a sense of purpose that goes with the territory of being engulfed in diet culture. In an eating disorder, it feels like controlling food and exercise will make these uncomfortable feelings go away, as if it’s the only way to feel safe in your body. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs turns this ideology on its head and proves that your eating disorder voice is, in fact, moving you away from your goals, dreams, relationships, and sense of self-worth and perpetually keeping you from having your most basic needs met.