Here on the blog we’ve been talking quite a bit about eating disorders and disordered eating, but we haven’t talked very much about what these terms really mean. Do they mean the same thing? Or if they’re different, how can we tell them apart?
Eating disorders and disordered eating are actually distinct from one another. The simple answer is that an eating disorder is a clinical diagnosis, whereas disordered eating is not. It’s helpful to think of a continuum with “normal” eating on one end and eating disorders on the other. Disordered eating would fall in between the two.
But there’s more to it than that, so let’s dig a little deeper into eating disorders and disordered eating.
Eating disorders are diagnosed based on criteria found in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-V (DSM-V), which lists Anorexia Nervosa (AN), Bulimia Nervosa (BN), Binge Eating Disorder (BED), Other Specified Feeding and Eating Disorder (OFSED) and Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID) as the main eating disorders1. As we explained in our post “How to Get Help for an Eating Disorder“, an eating disorder is a serious mental illness that requires intensive treatment and support. Eating disorders are often evidenced by extreme concerns about eating, body weight and body image2. There are many influences that lead to the diagnosis of an eating disorder, including genetic, biological, environmental and social factors3.
Disordered eating, on the other hand, is quite a broad umbrella term that includes disordered relationships with food, exercise and your body. Symptoms of disordered eating are seen in individuals with clinically diagnosed eating disorders4, but not all individuals who engage in disordered eating behaviours have eating disorders. Someone struggling with disordered eating may show similar symptoms to someone with an eating disorder, just to a lesser degree or at a lower frequency5.
Disordered eating is clinically defined as “a wide range of irregular eating behaviors that do not warrant a diagnosis of a specific eating disorder”1. So, disordered eating is not a diagnosis in itself, but it is a term used to describe the behavioural patterns exhibited by someone who does not fit within the specific criteria for any of the eating disorders listed in the DSM-V.
When defining disordered eating, it may be helpful to define what non-disordered eating looks like. Non-disordered eating involves four main components: regularity, variety, flexibility, and fun6.
- Regularity involves eating at regular times and in regular amounts. Regular eating often involves eating approximately every three hours, which usually works out to 3 meals and 2-3 snacks per day7.
- Variety means that non-disordered eating involves consuming many different foods from all the different food groups.
- Flexibility in eating is the ability to adapt to changes in your routine. It’s like being flexible with your social life and spontaneously changing your plans when your friend texts you to hangout.
- Fun means eating for pleasure, celebrating special occasions with eating, and enjoying “treat” foods just because!
Now that we’ve drawn a bit of a picture of what non-disordered eating looks like, let’s look at some common symptoms of disordered eating1,5,8:
- Distorted body image
- Body shape or weight is used as a primary measure of self-worth
- Strict rules surrounding eating
- Unhealthy weight control behaviours (i.e. skipping meals, using diet pills, vomiting after eating, laxative abuse)
- Frequent fluctuations in weight
- Rigid exercise routine with the sole purpose of burning calories
- Feelings of guilt and shame resulting from an inability to maintain food and exercise habits
- Restricted social life due to conflicts with food or exercise regime
- Feeling out of control when eating
Disordered eating behaviours stem from a distorted relationship with food, body and exercise. Both eating disorders and disordered eating can lead to serious physical and emotional consequences, however, recovery is possible in both situations. If you think you may be struggling with disordered eating or an eating disorder, the best thing to do is to reach out and talk to someone about it. Find someone you trust and feel comfortable with and ask them to help you seek professional help.
- Anderson, M. (2015). What is disordered eating? In eatright.org.Retrieved fromhttps://www.eatright.org/health/diseases-and-conditions/eating-disorders/what-is-disordered-eating
- What are eating disorders. (2018). Retrieved from http://www.cci.health.wa.gov.au/docs/What%20Are%20Eating%20Disorders%2030-01-18.pdf
- Busting the myths about eating disorders. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/busting-myths-about-eating-disorders
- Kurtz, D. (2011). Disordered eating. In National eating disorder information centre. Retrieved from http://nedic.ca/news/disordered-eating
- Contemporary Psychoanalysis in Action. (2014, February 23). Disordered eating or eating disorder: what’s the difference? [Web log post]. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/contemporary-psychoanalysis-in-action/201402/disordered-eating-or-eating-disorder-what-s-the
- Fleming, K. (2018). Normal eating vs. disordered eating. In Centre for clinical interventions. Retrieved from http://www.cci.health.wa.gov.au/docs/Normal%20Eating%20vs.%20Disordered%20Eating%2025-01-18.pdf
- Fleming, K. (2018). Regular eating for recovery. In Centre for clinical interventions. Retrieved from http://www.cci.health.wa.gov.au/docs/Regular%20Eating%20for%20Recovery
- Croll, J., Neumark-Sztainer, D., Story, M., & Ireland, M. (2002). Prevalence and risk and protective factors related to disordered eating behaviours among adolescents: relationship to gender and ethnicity. Journal of Adolescent Health, 31(2), 166-175. doi: