Disordered eating

On this page you will learn more about disordered eating.

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What is disordered eating?

Dieting and comfort eating are behaviours that have become normalised in society, and this has made it very difficult to distinguish between regular eating behaviours and what qualifies as disordered eating.

When a person’s eating behaviour does not impact their daily life, and they’re comfortable in situations involving food, this is considered non-disordered eating. People with non-disordered eating will usually eat when they’re hungry, stop when they’re full, and follow a balanced diet. They may, however, still eat when they’re bored, have similar meals multiple times a week for convenience or even cut out main food groups. It’s worth noting that some people who have with similar eating behaviours may actually be affected in their everyday life, whereby they may not be comfortable in situations where food is involved.

Disordered eating can be described as a range of eating behaviours that are irregular and also have a negative impact on a person’s life. These behaviours may lead to them being diagnosed with a specific eating disorder, but people’s behaviours don’t always fall into one single category. For a person to be diagnosed with an eating disorder, their symptoms should align with the criteria outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5).

What are some examples of disordered eating?

Some examples of disordered eating include frequent dieting, obsessive calorie counting, skipping meals, worrying because of food, chronic changes in weight and an obsession with food, exercise, body image and weight. Other examples of disordered eating associated with eating disorder diagnoses include food restriction, binge-eating, purging, excessive exercise, the use of laxatives or feeling guilt or shame associated with eating.

Signs of disordered eating

Individuals with disordered eating may not be fully aware of the impact that their behaviours have on their mental and physical health. They may perceive themselves differently than others, and down-play their disordered eating behaviour.

Signs of disordered eating include increased social isolation, anxiety and depression. People with disordered eating are more at risk of developing an eating disorder, becoming obese, having gastrointestinal issues, electrolyte and fluid disturbances, osteopenia or osteoporosis, and low heart rate and blood pressure.

Eating disorders vs disordered eating

Disordered eating behaviours may be similar to behaviours displayed by people diagnosed with eating disorders, and these behaviours can at times align with the criteria outlined in the DSM-5 for eating disorders, but sometimes they do not.

The term, disordered eating, is a way to describe irregular eating behaviours, it is not a diagnosis of an eating disorder. Therefore, some people who display disordered eating behaviours can sometimes fit the criteria outlined to be diagnosed with an eating disorder, and others may not.

Any concerns around a person’s eating behaviours should be addressed and warrant attention, as the person’s social life or physical and mental health may already be negatively affected. Individuals with eating disorders often report that their eating disorder began as disordered eating. This does not suggest that everyone who displays disordered eating behaviours will be diagnosed with an eating disorder, but it does emphasise the importance of awareness and being there to support loved ones if there’s any cause for concern.

Thinking about disordered eating and eating disorders on a scale may be helpful when trying to understand them, as they are often distinguished by the severity of the behaviours and symptoms. Though individuals with disordered eating may display similar behaviours as those with eating disorders, it’s usually not as often and less severe. It can be helpful to understand the severity of a person’s disordered eating and eating disorders by looking at their obsession with eating. Individuals who don’t have disordered eating will normally think about food when they’re feeling hungry or plan their next meal. However, people struggling with eating disorders may find thinking about food to be all-consuming, to the point that it impacts their concentration and ability to do things they would otherwise normally do.

Disordered eating treatment

It’s important to note that there are steps people can take to help avoid falling into disordered eating patterns, such as avoiding crash dieting and making sure that you engage in exercise that you enjoy and not using exercise as a way to burn the calories you have consumed.

Another thing to do is to refrain from speaking negatively about your body and asking yourself, would I speak to a friend this way? And if not, why would you speak to yourself this way?

There are many sides to people’s relationship with food. A person may face difficulties with food and body image, whether they’re struggling with an eating disorder or not.

Therapy can help individuals  understand their relationship to food and to themselves, as well as explore what has contributed to these relationships and work towards regular eating and body acceptance.

Updated: 2022-04-25

Author: Antigone Lanitis

Reviewed by: Marina Moran