What Is Disordered Eating?

Food plays a central role in our lives—not just for sustaining life but also for engaging in culture, connection, and celebration.

Although we know food is essential to our functioning, we all connect with it differently.

Some of us enjoy eating when hungry and until full, without paying too much attention to the matter.  Some may have persistent disturbances in their eating behaviors, fitting the criteria of eating disorders and hindering multiple areas of their lives.  Yet, for others, things are not as black and white.

Disordered eating encompasses a broad spectrum of problematic eating habits. Some of these habits are minor and cause little dysfunction, while others are out of control, problematic, and even deadly.  A person may engage in disordered eating without having an eating disorder, but that does not mean that the behavior is any less concerning.

While it’s challenging to discern whether someone is undergoing an eating disorder or disordered eating, neither of them is a choice or something to ignore.  They are both serious health concerns that invite us to reflect on our relationship with food and the need for professional help.

Untreated disordered eating can put you at risk of medical problems, further mental health issues, and the development of fully-fledged eating disorders.

If you are exhibiting eating behaviors that do not match an eating disorder diagnosis but are still interfering with your life, you might be experiencing disordered eating.

It’s completely normal to feel confused or unsure about what you are going through.  You may also worry about labeling your symptoms and what those labels mean.  Please know that disordered eating is common but treatable.

Your healing journey starts with gaining insight about disordered eating, the signs to keep in mind, and treatment options.

Let’s dive in.

What Is Disordered Eating?

Disordered eating consists of irregular behaviors, thoughts, and emotions around food that may involve some of the symptoms of eating disorders without fitting their exact criteria.

Common examples of disordered eating behaviors include purging, restrictive eating habits, bingeing, among many others.  These actions may occur less frequently or with less severity than eating disorder diagnoses.

Some people believe disordered eating only affects young women with low weight.  Yet, disordered eating can impact anyone regardless of age or weight level, making it challenging to notice at first sight.  Plus, given their lower severity and recurrence, understanding the warning signs of disordered eating and how they differ from eating disorders is fundamental for prompt intervention.

Difference Between Eating Disorders and Disordered Eating

Eating Disorders

Eating disorders refer to mental health conditions characterized by constant eating disturbances that interfere with all areas of your life.  According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), there are eight clinical eating disorder diagnoses up to date:

  • Anorexia Nervosa: Excessive fear of gaining weight and body image distortion that prevents you from maintaining appropriate weight levels.
  • Bulimia Nervosa: Persistent food limitations, binge eating, and compensatory actions such as vomiting, fasting, laxatives, or overexercising to avoid gaining weight.
  • Binge Eating Disorder: Recurring bingeing or consumption of large quantities of food in a short period of time, without a sense of control.
  • Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID): Severe picky eating or restrictive behaviors that may cause nutritional deficiencies.
  • Rumination Disorder: Constant regurgitation or bringing food back up to the mouth after swallowing it.
  • Pica: Recurring intake of things that are not food or have no nutritional value, such as hair, dirt, paper, or soap.
  • Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder (OSFED): Eating disorders associated with anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder that hinder daily functioning but don’t fit all their criteria.
  • Unspecified Feeding or Eating Disorder (UFED): Problems in feeding and eating behaviors that result in distress and impairment but don’t match any of the above conditions.

Additionally, there are other informal eating disorders that are outside of DSM-5 but are still considered severe conditions:

  • Orthorexia: Obsessive thoughts about “eating healthy” that can cause harm to your physical and mental wellness.
  • Compulsive Exercising (or Anorexia Athletica): Over-exercising to the point that it affects your everyday life and damages your health.
  • Nocturnal Sleep-Related Eating Disorder: Binge eating, intake of rare food items or non-food objects when sleeping, falling asleep, or waking up.
  • Diabulimia: Restricting insulin input to lose weight.

To find out more about the warning signs of clinical and informal eating disorders, visit our Eating Disorders page.

Disordered Eating

Disordered eating is a description used for eating behavior problems that may not necessarily fall under an exact eating disorder category.  If left unattended, disordered eating patterns can turn into eating disorders and pose dangerous physical and mental health risks.

There are two things to consider when differentiating eating disorders from disordered eating:

Look at the Behaviors

People who experience eating disorders may engage in multiple problematic eating behaviors involving food, body image, and other emotional and mental aspects.  They may establish a damaging pattern, performing these actions several times per week for an extended period of time. For example, eating disorders like anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder refer to recurring habits that occur for at least three months or more.

In contrast, people with disordered eating may only exhibit one or very few irregular eating behaviors and engage in them sporadically.

Check Impact on Functioning

If eating habits impair someone’s ability to work, study, socialize, sleep, or simply function, this can be an indication of an eating disorder.

Disordered eating might still affect specific areas of your life without impeding full functioning.  However, this can be a difficult distinction to make.

Thanks to the complexity and nuances involved in distinguishing eating disorders from disordered eating, it’s crucial to seek professional help for an accurate diagnosis.

Who Can Suffer From Disordered Eating?

While awareness about eating disorders is increasing among the general population, it’s essential to keep disordered eating as part of the equation.

Much like eating disorders, disordered eating can affect individuals of any gender identity, age, race, ethnicity, and body shape. 

Although disordered eating is prevalent in young people, middle-aged and older adults can also suffer from it.

Common risk factors or triggers associated with disordered eating include:

  • Personal or family history of eating disorders or other mental health problems
  • Hormonal changes or other medical difficulties
  • Stressful life transitions or circumstances (e.g., divorce, moving, financial strain)
  • Traumatic events or incidents (e.g., death of a loved one, accident)
  • Obsessive dieting or skipping meals
  • Body image struggles

Disordered Eating Symptoms

Disordered eating symptoms may overlap with eating disorder signs but vary depending on each individual and their unique condition.

Some of the common symptoms of disordered eating include:

  • Significant changes in eating behaviors (e.g., extreme dieting, restricting whole food categories, over-eating)
  • Major weight fluctuations (higher or lower weight)
  • Pain or discomfort in the stomach or other digestive areas
  • Dental issues related to acid reflux (e.g., cavities, enamel erosion)
  • Fatigue, dizziness, or fainting
  • Anxiety or shame about food, weight, and body image
  • Lack of control around food (e.g., bingeing episodes)
  • Extreme exercise or food routines to compensate for certain eating behaviors (e.g., overtraining, fasting, purging)

Disordered Eating Side Effects

Although disordered eating behaviors may not be as severe as clinical eating disorders, they can still cause harmful consequences to your physical and psychological well-being.

People who experience disordered eating may be at risk of:

  • Developing a clinical eating disorder such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, among others
  • Suffering from gastrointestinal, endocrine, and blood pressure problems
  • Struggling with electrolyte and nutritional imbalances
  • Developing other mental health challenges like depression, anxiety, or suicidal thoughts
  • Withdrawing from others and damaging meaningful relationships
  • Opting for substance abuse to cope
  • Interfering with work or school activities

Perhaps one of the most critical risks of disordered eating is the possibility of it becoming a clinical eating disorder.  Eating disorders are one of the most serious mental health illnesses in the United States, putting people in danger of severe cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, and neurological complications and threatening their life.

Yet, not everyone who experiences disordered eating develops an eating disorder.  Either way, if you suspect you or your loved one are struggling with disordered eating behaviors, do not wait for things to get worse.  Contact us today to see how we can help.  The sooner we intervene, the sooner you can all start healing.

How Is Disordered Eating Diagnosed?

Even though disordered eating may bring significant emotional, mental, and physical distress, sometimes it’s not that easy to recognize.  Regardless of how harmful the symptoms are, they may not align with all the typical signs of eating disorders and could go unnoticed.

To get a proper assessment, visit a doctor, registered dietitian, or licensed mental health professional.  If possible, seek a practitioner who specializes in eating disorders or disordered eating for a thorough evaluation.

These health professionals will be able to review your history and current eating habits to provide a diagnosis.  While there are no specific diagnostic criteria for disordered eating compared to eating disorders, there are certain behaviors and attitudes that specialists can identify to make recommendations on how to move forward.

How Is Disordered Eating Treated?

Once a specialist has performed an assessment and identified disordered eating behaviors, the next step is to prepare a treatment plan.

Similar to treatment options for eating disorders, this action plan may involve a multidisciplinary approach, including education, nutrition, therapy, and medical attention.  The goal is to implement a strategy tailored to your eating habits and needs so you can start recovering.

While in treatment, a team of specialists can support you to:

  • Explore current disordered eating habits and where they might be stemming from
  • Assess and restore your nutritional status
  • Rebalance weight levels
  • Learn healthier ways to eat, think, and relate to food

Having a family and friends support system can also help you navigate challenges and stay on track with treatment.

What Can I Do If My Loved One Suffers From Disordered Eating?

If your partner, children, family member, or friend are experiencing disordered eating, try to:

  • Encourage open communication and let them know you are there to support them
  • Foster an environment where food is valued as nourishing vs. “good” or “bad”
  • Sit down to have meals together as much as possible
  • Avoid making comments about their weight or body image (or anyone else’s, for that matter)
  • Make an effort to connect with them and show them you love them exactly as they are
  • Promote physical activity as a way to have fun and stay active, but not as a compensatory or rewarding method
  • Seek professional assistance to help your loved one learn about disordered eating and find strategies to recover
  • Take them to appointments and check in with them regularly to track their progress

Above all, if you see something that raises concerns, don’t ignore it.  Talk to your loved ones and support them in getting the help they need to navigate this challenge.

We Are Here to Help!

Engaging in disordered eating behaviors may happen gradually or out of the blue, without us realizing it.  Whether you, your partner, teen or relative are showing signs of disordered eating, please know we are here for you.

Here at Madison Park Psychological Services, we provide psychological testing and therapy services to find the answers you seek.  We will help you address these behaviors to start recovering.

Our staff of licensed psychotherapists has the knowledge and expertise to treat disordered eating and eating disorders alike.  We draw from multiple therapy modalities, such as Psychodynamic Therapy, Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT), and others, to ensure we provide a customized plan adjusted to your needs.  We are also happy to work with other health professionals and specialists to foster an integrated approach to your care.

Your journey starts with a consultation.  We will get to know each other, answer your questions, and pair you up with a therapist that best suits you.  Then we will perform an assessment to reach a diagnosis and prepare a treatment plan accordingly.  This may involve weekly therapy sessions, among other strategies to support your wellness path.

You can choose between in-person or teletherapy appointments.

Changing your eating behaviors and improving your relationship with food is possible.  Let’s work together so you can start healing.

Book a consultation or call us at 212-506-5935 if you have any questions about disordered eating.  We are looking forward to hearing from you!

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