Eating disorders and disordered eating are actually different from one another. In overview, an eating disorder is a clinical diagnosis, whereas disordered eating is not. Disordered eating refers to abnormal eating patterns that do not meet the criteria for an eating disorder diagnosis. Someone with an eating disorder may exhibit disordered eating behaviors, but not all people with disordered eating will be diagnosed with an eating disorder.
It’s helpful to think of a spectrum of eating, with “normal” intuitive eating on one end and eating disorders on the other. Disordered eating falls somewhere in between the two, whereas eating disorders are an extreme form of disordered eating. The difference often lies in the severity and frequency of symptoms. This does not mean that disordered eating is not serious. Eating disorders are often more recognizable and represent diagnosable conditions. Disordered eating can often be more subtle, making it more difficult to recognize or, at times, more challenging to address. However, disordered eating can contribute to the development and onset of an eating disorder. Cases of eating disorders are on the rise: new research shows that “rates of the ED visits that led to hospital admissions were stable before the pandemic but increased from 22% to 149% during the pandemic.”
Eating disorders are often evidenced by extreme concerns related to eating behaviors, body weight, and body image. An eating disorder is a serious mental illness that needs intensive treatment and support for recovery. Eating disorders are not a choice, and they can impact people of any age, race, sex, size, or background. There are many influences that may lead to the diagnosis of an eating disorder, including genetic, biological, environmental, and social factors.
Eating disorder behaviors typically look like:
Obsessive thoughts about food
Extreme concerns about calories
Significant changes in weight
Obsessive thoughts related to shape and weight
Impaired functioning due to counting calories, binging, purging, exercising, or other behaviors
Disordered eating involves behaviors that limit choices, restrict food intake, lead to discomfort, cause a sense of being out of control, or create negative emotions such as shame or guilt. A person with disordered eating may not completely obsess over their food, but they will frequently have significant anxiety surrounding food. They may obsessively monitor their daily calorie intake, exercise incessantly at the gym, or avoid social events that involve food. Disordered eating is not a clinical diagnosis. The term refers to a type of abnormal eating behavior that occurs on a regular basis and has the potential to become dangerous.
Disordered eating typically looks like:
Eating for reasons other than nourishment or hunger
Eating to deal with stress or difficult emotions
Engaging in calorie restriction, binging, or purging irregularly or on a limited basis
Avoiding major food groups
Only eating certain foods
7 differences in disordered eating vs. eating disorders:
1. Choice and Control
Disordered Eating: There is choice within disordered eating, as people with disordered eating behavior may try different diets every few months or embrace specific foods as “the answer” to their health, weight, and emotional issues.
Eating Disorder: There is no choice within eating disorders, as it is not within the conscious rational control of the individual but rather driven by compulsive activities related to food and the body.
2. Hunger Cues
Disordered Eating: The affected person can perceive hunger cues and will meet their body's demands. Therefore, they do not suffer from excessive emotional or intuitive eating.
Eating Disorder: Individuals suffering from an eating disorder may feel hunger cues but either refuse to eat or decide to binge. Eating disorders can also lead to the loss of hunger cues when the body realizes the signal of hunger is being disregarded.
3. Emotional Relationship to Food
Disordered Eating: While disordered eating is troublesome, the emotions regarding food and eating are often neutral.
Eating Disorder: With an eating disorder, negative feelings are related to food and eating. Certain foods might even elicit unpleasant emotions, reinforcing the eating disorder habit. Those suffering from an eating disorder are terrified of losing control.
Disordered Eating: Disordered eating typically does not impair the person’s ability to engage in daily tasks without thinking about food. However, the person may often fail to eat mindfully based on how they feel, such as being stressed or bored.
Eating Disorder: Individuals suffering from eating disorders devote a significant amount of their mental energy and time thinking about food and calories and how they will affect them. They may be extremely anxious and panicky, focusing their attention on the emotions that are triggered when confronted with consuming food, particularly something unusual.
5. Social Life
Disordered Eating: Disordered eating usually does not interfere with the affected person’s social life.
Eating Disorder: Many social engagements are focused around meals, which could be very stressful for a person with an eating disorder. As a result, socialization is typically avoided.
6. Body Image
Disordered Eating: The affected person may compare themselves to others and judge their bodies. They may be concerned about their weight, but it does not control their thoughts and behaviors. Once a “target weight” is achieved, they are comfortable with stopping the weight loss.
Eating Disorder: The affected person may obsessively compare themselves to others and weigh themselves numerous times in a day. They are inclined to worry about food and weight constantly throughout the day.
Disordered Eating: Cooking does not cause anxiety or dread in those who are careful about what they make for themselves.
Eating Disorder: People with eating disorders may have “safe foods” that they stick to, as well as “fear foods” that are avoided. May choose only certain plates or bowls because they are accustomed to what their meal looks like. Cooking could be used as a method of control over what and how much they eat.
No matter where you are in your relationship with food, we hope this article helped shed some light on the differences between eating disorders and disordered eating. Remember, if you need support in making peace with food and your body, we’re here for you. With compassion and care, our team of certified dietitians can help you start your recovery journey today. Contact us to get started.
As a reminder, the Branz Nutrition blog is nutritional information, not medical nutrition therapy or professional consultation. Branz Nutrition cannot provide medical nutrition therapy to individuals who are not our patients. If you have questions or concerns about your health, please schedule an appointment with our team.