What is Disordered Eating? Here’s What to Look for – and How to Get Help

Joanna Foley

by | Updated: June 30th, 2021 | Read time: 4 minutes

Eating has become a complicated task over the years. Things like fad diets and an obsession with food have become normalized in our society, and it may seem like nearly everyone you know has some sort of “food rules” they follow. If not controlled, these things can turn into disordered eating habits — or even eating disorders.

But when does this line get crossed? This article will help you understand what disordered eating is, recognize its habits and provide tips for what you can do to get help if you or someone you know is struggling.

Overhead View of Person Eating Salad Holding Phone Beside Bowl to Calculate Calories Due to Disordered Eating Habits | Vitacost.com/blog

Disordered eating vs. eating disorders

Disordered eating is easy to confuse with eating disorders. While these terms may sound nearly identical, there is a subtle yet significant difference between the two.

Eating disorders are a diagnosable mental health condition that involve severe disruptions in normal eating behavior and a preoccupation with both food and body weight.

Examples of common eating disorders include:

  • Anorexia nervosa, which involves severe food restriction
  • Bulimia nervosa, which involves bingeing and purging of foods
  • Binge eating disorder, which includes frequent episodes of consuming larger than normal quantities of food and a loss of control while eating
  • Orthorexia, or an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating

Disordered eating, on the other hand, is a range of irregular eating behaviors that may or may not warrant a diagnosis of a specific eating disorder. The main difference between disordered eating and eating disorders is the frequency, intensity, and level of obsession of the behaviors, but the exact distinction may be one that only a trained and experienced healthcare practitioner can distinguish. Many people who have disordered eating patterns may fit the criteria for “eating disorders not otherwise specified”, or EDNOS. Disordered eating habits that are not dealt with may turn into an eating disorder over time.

How to recognize disordered eating habits

It can be tricky to discern when eating habits stray from normal eating to disordered eating, since the transition can be subtle and therefore warrants careful attention.

Some signs and symptoms of disordered eating habits may include:

  • Frequent preoccupation and obsession with food
  • Extreme fear of eating the wrong things
  • Anxiety associated with specific foods
  • Frequent dieting and/or skipping meals
  • Weight fluctuations caused by frequently changing eating habits
  • Rigid rules and routines surrounding food and exercise
  • Feelings of guilt and shame associated with eating certain foods
  • Preoccupation with weight and body image
  • A feeling of loss of control around food
  • Tying your food intake to your sense of self-worth
  • Feeling a need to punish yourself or “make up for eating bad foods” by restricting food, vowing to eat “clean” the next day, or using purging methods like excessive exercise, laxative or diuretic abuse

The details of how each of these signs and symptoms may play out will vary from person to person. Some people with disordered eating may not display any of these classic symptoms, but many people will experience a combination of them. While even normal eaters may experience some of these symptoms from time to time, people with disordered eating experience them frequently and to a greater extent.

Dangers of disordered eating

Many people who engage in disordered eating habits do not realize the short and long term negative effects it can have on various parts of their life. Disordered eating and eating disorders can both have significant mental, physical and emotional consequences.

Some of the many consequences of disordered eating include:

  • Anxiety and depression
  • Social isolation
  • Inability to be present and enjoy time with friends and family
  • Strained relationships
  • Poor self-esteem
  • Weight gain and an altered metabolism
  • Sleep problems
  • Dehydration and electrolyte imbalances
  • Decreased ability to focus
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Digestive disturbances
  • Weakened immune system
  • Lost periods and infertility
  • Weakened bones
  • Decreased overall quality of life
  • And more

What to do if you or someone you know is affected

Due to the severity of both eating disorders and disordered eating, seeking help is essential. The longer the habits of these disorders are practiced, the more difficult they can be to recover from. Gaining awareness and being honest with yourself about your eating habits and beliefs about food and your body may be the first step to recovery.

Depending on the severity of disordered eating, learning about and practicing things like intuitive eating, mindful eating and food freedom may help you break free from unhealthy diet and mindset barriers. However, eating disorders and disordered eating are often not just about food. Rather, the behaviors are often used as a tool for coping with or controlling difficult emotions and circumstances.

It is important to seek professional help from a dietitian, therapist or other counselor who is trained and specializes in eating disorders to help you process and cope with whatever is going on in your life.