Disordered Eating vs. Eating Disorders – What’s the Difference?

July 06, 2023

In a society that often places tremendous emphasis on appearance and body ideals, our relationship with food and eating can be complex and fraught with challenges. Many of us have heard the terms “disordered eating” and “eating disorders,” but distinguishing between the two can be confusing. Eating disorders are clinically diagnosed illnesses and “disordered eating” is a term used to describe certain behaviors. Here, we explain the difference between the two terms in detail. Then, we will dive into what it means to break free of disordered eating patterns and embrace a balanced and less value-driven approach to eating. Whether you or a loved one is suffering from an eating disorder, exemplifying disordered eating behaviors, or hoping to improve your relationship with food and your body, you deserve to find support. Know that you are not alone and help and support are available. 

What’s the Difference Between Disordered Eating and Eating Disorders?

Disordered eating and eating disorders are not the same thing, though they share many similarities. These two terms exist on a spectrum that spans an individual’s potential relationship with food. On the far left of the spectrum, picture intuitive eating, when someone eats to nourish and fuel themselves and has almost a neutral relationship with food. At the other end are clinically diagnosed eating disorders. Between these extremes falls disordered eating, which encompasses behaviors around food that have negative consequences but don’t necessarily meet the diagnostic criteria for an eating disorder. 

Though it’s a spectrum, the primary difference between disordered eating and eating disorders is whether or not the behaviors cause a significant impairment in the individual’s life. Furthermore, “disordered eating” is a descriptive term that can be used to describe behaviors. For example, both someone with an eating disorder and someone who counts calories can be said to show signs of disordered eating. Though people who demonstrate disordered eating behaviors may not be diagnosed by a medical professional, they are more at-risk of developing an eating disorder and other associated health consequences. Here, we’ll go into more detail about both disordered eating and eating disorders to showcase how they are different, yet intertwined. 

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What Is Disordered Eating?

“Disordered eating” is a term that refers to a range of behaviors and attitudes toward food and body image that have negative consequences for physical or mental health, but don’t necessarily meet the criteria for an eating disorder. Patterns of disordered eating may look different for each individual. In some cases, disordered eating may look similar to signs of an eating disorder, but may differ in severity and frequency. More often, disordered eating is conveniently hidden under the guise of “health” due to the prevalence of diet culture. While not a formal diagnosis itself, disordered eating serves as a valuable clinical descriptor for behavior patterns that can have significant consequences for one’s overall well-being.

Signs of Disordered Eating

Disordered eating includes irregular or inflexible eating patterns, attitudes toward food and exercise, and body perception. All the behaviors that fall under disordered eating may also be present in someone diagnosed with an eating disorder. But one or more of these behaviors may not warrant a clinical diagnosis of an ED. Some common examples of disordered eating patterns include:

  • Dieting: Though it’s so normalized in our society, dieting with the intention of weight loss is a prime example of disordered eating. This can include engaging in fad diets, avoiding specific food groups, or limiting calories to achieve a specific body weight or shape.
  • Compulsive Eating: Sometimes, food is used as a coping mechanism for emotional distress or stress, often leading to episodes of overeating without a sense of control. This includes binge eating and emotional eating. 
  • Exercise and Compensatory Behaviors: Exercise can become a sign of disordered eating when it’s used to compensate for calories consumed. Other compensatory acts, such as purging or using laxatives, are also types of disordered eating behaviors. 
  • Body Dissatisfaction: Another sign of disordered eating that is all too common in our society is body dissatisfaction. This includes persistent negative thoughts about one’s body, feeling the need to change its appearance, or feeling guilty about eating because of how it affects your body.
  • Food Preoccupation: Food is an important part of life (it gives us the energy to do all the amazing things we do each day!), but how or what we eat doesn’t change our intrinsic worth. When someone is overly preoccupied with food––constantly thinking about food planning or the number of calories—this can be a sign of disordered eating.

Taking Disordered Eating Seriously

Recognizing disordered eating behaviors is crucial because they can have a significant impact on an individual’s physical health, emotional well-being, and overall quality of life. Even though these behaviors may not meet the full criteria for a specific eating disorder, they are not to be dismissed. Early intervention and support are essential to prevent these behaviors from escalating and evolving into more severe conditions. 

Addressing disordered eating requires a compassionate and understanding approach. If you or a loved one shows signs of disordered eating, seek guidance from healthcare professionals, such as registered dietitians or therapists, to help deconstruct these potentially harmful eating habits and thought patterns.

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What Is An Eating Disorder?

An eating disorder is a complex and serious mental illness that affects one’s relationship to food. Often, but not always, they involve an individual’s intricate relationship with food, exercise, body image, and self-worth, leading to severe negative consequences for their overall well-being. These conditions are clinically recognized and require compassionate, professional care to address effectively.

It is crucial to recognize that eating disorders are not a choice; rather, they are the result of a convergence of influences that can include genetic, biological, social, and environmental factors. Contrary to popular misconceptions, individuals experiencing an eating disorder are not simply “seeking attention” or trying to follow societal trends. Instead, they are grappling with a serious mental health disorder that manifests through their eating behaviors.

Types of Eating Disorders

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5) is a tool that healthcare providers use to classify and diagnose mental health disorders. DSM-5 recognizes five types of eating disorders that each have unique diagnostic criteria. 

  • Anorexia Nervosa: Characterized by an intense fear of gaining weight, individuals with anorexia nervosa often have a distorted body image and engage in behaviors like restrictive eating and excessive exercise to control their weight. For more information on Anorexia Nervosa, refer to our resource page.
  • Bulimia Nervosa: Individuals with bulimia nervosa engage in recurrent episodes of binge eating, followed by behaviors to compensate for excessive food intake, such as purging through self-induced vomiting or misuse of laxatives. Learn more about the signs, symptoms, dangers, and treatment of Bulimia Nervosa
  • Binge Eating Disorder (BED): This involves recurrent episodes of consuming large quantities of food within a short period, accompanied by a sense of loss of control. Unlike bulimia nervosa, there is a lack of compensatory behaviors. To learn more about BED, refer to our page
  • Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID): ARFID is characterized by being overly selective of the types of food one eats, which often leads to nutritional deficiencies. It is not typically driven by body image concerns, but is often linked to sensory issues or aversions. Learn more about ARFID.
  • Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder (OSFED): This category encompasses eating disorders that do not precisely fit the criteria for other specific disorders, but still pose significant challenges to one’s physical and mental well-being, including Atypical Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa or BED of low frequency and/or limited duration, Purging Disorder, and Night Eating Syndrome. Learn more about types of OSFED.

Each of these disorders requires a tailored and compassionate treatment approach, which can involve medical, nutritional, and psychological interventions to promote healing and recovery.

Signs of an Eating Disorder

Eating disorders are mental health conditions that often have physical symptoms and ramifications. They often co-occur with other mental illnesses like anxiety and depression. The signs of an eating disorder may differ depending on the individual and/or the specific diagnosis. Often, eating disorders include many of the same behaviors covered under disordered eating. But, in a clinical diagnosis, the behaviors may end up resulting in health issues like malnourishment, significant weight fluctuations, dizziness and fatigue, and sleep difficulties, among others. For a full list of signs and symptoms associated with each eating disorder diagnosis, refer to our resources pages linked above. When left untreated, eating disorders can have long-term health consequences. They may affect cardiovascular health, muscle retention, fertility, and bone strength, and can ultimately be life-threatening. If you or a loved one is suffering from an eating disorder, finding treatment is important. Please reach out to The Alliance to get support in finding treatment options that work for you.

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Embracing Non-Disordered Eating

Understanding the differences between disordered eating and eating disorders may seem clear. After all, it’s the difference between a description of behavior and a clinical diagnosis. But you may see the list of examples of disordered eating and think that those behaviors sound “normal.” If you do, you are not alone. We live in a world heavily influenced by diet culture. Conflating body size with moral value has made many examples of disordered eating the “norm.” Casual comments about others’ bodies or fitness levels have become standard small talk, and we are often unfazed by the aggressive ads for weight loss supplements. 

In this environment, envisioning a non-disordered relationship with food can feel like an elusive goal. However, breaking free from this toxic culture is possible, and it’s all about embracing non-disordered eating. But what does that look like? Here, we go into some steps to embracing non-disordered eating. As with any systemic issue, it’s not a simple matter to achieve any of these.

Reframing the Narrative

Non-disordered eating involves shifting the narrative away from the pursuit of an “ideal” body shape or size. Instead, it encourages embracing body diversity and recognizing that each person’s unique body deserves respect and acceptance. This shift in perspective liberates individuals from the pressures of diet culture and allows them to cultivate self-compassion for themselves and their bodies.

Honoring Body Signals

At the heart of non-disordered eating lies the practice of listening to our body’s signals. Honoring hunger and fullness cues becomes a priority, guiding us to eat when we are hungry and to stop when we are satisfied.

Breaking Free from Guilt and Shame

In a diet-centric culture, guilt and shame often accompany eating habits, especially when “indulging” in certain foods. Non-disordered eating encourages us to let go of guilt and embrace a more balanced approach. It acknowledges that food is both about sustenance and enjoyment. Additionally, this is about embracing the idea that one food group isn’t “better” than another, and we need a balance of all the types of nutrients. 

Seeking Support

If you are concerned that you may be suffering from an eating disorder, or aware that you are engaging in patterns of disordered eating, you deserve help. At The Alliance, we can help connect individuals with the best-fit support for their situation. Whether you are diagnosed with an eating disorder or not, you can call our free helpline. You’ll talk to licensed therapists who can connect you to treatment centers, mental health professionals, and support groups. Remember, the road to recovery is not without its challenges, but with the right support, it can become a path filled with hope, growth, and empowerment. The Alliance is here to support you along the way, offering empathy, expertise, and a caring hand to help you heal your relationship with food, body, and self.