Difference Between Disordered Eating and Eating Disorders

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Disordered eating and eating disorders share some commonalities, but it is important to recognize that they are not the same. Where an eating disorder is a clinical diagnosis, 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.

This article discusses the key differences between eating disorders and disordered eating. It covers the symptoms of each, their causes, and some of the treatments that can help.

Disordered Eating vs. Eating Disorder: Key Differences

There are a few key differences between disordered eating and eating disorders. People with disordered eating do not necessarily meet the diagnostic criteria for an eating disorder. They also may not have the same intense fear of gaining weight that is characteristic of eating disorders.

The primary difference between disordered eating and eating disorders involves the severity and degree of the symptoms. Disordered eating frequently involves many of the same behaviors that occur in eating disorders, but such symptoms occur less frequently or less intensely.

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.

Eating Disorder
  • 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
  • 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

What Is Disordered Eating?

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.

Disordered eating is not a condition recognized in the "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders." The term refers to a type of abnormal eating behavior that occurs on a regular basis and has the potential to become dangerous.

The term disordered eating is often used to identify and describe some of the different eating behaviors that do not necessarily meet the diagnostic criteria for an eating disorder. 

Not everyone who engages in disordered eating behaviors will develop an eating disorder. However, some people believe that these abnormal eating patterns can play a part in the eventual development of a clinical eating disorder.

Symptoms of Disordered Eating

The symptoms of disordered eating are similar to those of eating disorders. However, these behaviors are less severe or more infrequent, so they do not meet the criteria for the diagnosis of an eating disorder.

So what type of eating behaviors can be defined as disordered? Some examples include:

  • Avoiding certain food groups
  • Binge eating
  • Calorie restriction or extreme dieting
  • Changes in weight
  • Eating due to boredom
  • Eating as a way to cope with stress
  • Eating to deal with emotions
  • Elaborate rituals related to food and eating
  • Eating the same things every day
  • Engaging in limited or irregular binging and purging
  • Feeling guilty for eating or eating certain foods
  • Labeling foods as "good" or "bad"
  • Misusing diuretics, laxatives, or enemas
  • Only eating certain foods
  • Self-inducing vomiting
  • Skipping meals
  • Taking an all-or-nothing approach to healthy eating
  • Using diet pills or supplements to lose weight

Types of Disordered Eating

Disordered eating can include behaviors that are abnormal as well as those that are very similar to those of eating disorders. Disordered eating patterns can include the use of:

  • Cleanses
  • Diet pills
  • Emotional eating
  • Excessive exercise
  • Fad diets
  • Laxative abuse
  • Misusing supplements
  • Overeating
  • Skipping meals or fasting
  • Social withdrawal

Disordered eating can also include the use of self-induced compensatory behaviors following eating. This may involve self-induced vomiting, but it can also include other actions like extreme exercise or the use of laxatives or diuretics. Such behaviors may be viewed as disordered if they occur infrequently but would meet the criteria for an eating disorder if they occur at least once a week for a three-month period.

Research indicates that dieting can contribute to disordered eating, which can then cause an eating disorder.

Emotional eating can be a common type of disordered eating. When people experience negative or challenging emotions, they may turn to pleasurable activities, such as eating, to boost their mood and avoid painful feelings. Such eating patterns sometimes begin in childhood and then persist into adulthood.

This can become an unhealthy coping mechanism contributing to further negative feelings. In some cases, overeating might be followed by feelings of shame and guilt.

Causes of Disordered Eating

The causes of disordered eating are varied and complex. Factors that can play a part include:

  • Culture and society, including celebrity culture, television and movies, social media, and online influencers, can lead to distorted body image and unhealthy relationships with food.
  • Mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) may contribute to the onset of disordered eating behaviors.
  • Stress or difficult life changes can trigger the onset of disordered eating patterns, such as loss of appetite or eating for comfort.
  • Trauma can make people more vulnerable to disordered eating and eating disorders.

What Is an Eating Disorder?

An eating disorder is a complex condition characterized by abnormal eating habits that impair health and an individual's ability to function.

Types of Eating Disorders

The three most common eating disorders are binge eating disorder, anorexia nervosa, and bulimia nervosa, but there are other types as well. Each has its own set of symptoms and diagnostic criteria.

Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia nervosa is a type of eating disorder that is characterized by an intense fear of gaining weight, severe restriction of food intake, and a distorted body image. People with anorexia nervosa often see themselves as overweight, even when they are severely underweight.

Anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any mental disorder.

Symptoms of anorexia include:

  • Intense fear of gaining weight
  • Severe restriction of food intake
  • Distorted body image
  • Excessive exercise
  • Extreme weight loss
  • Preoccupation with food and weight

In addition to extreme restrictions on food intake, people with anorexia will also go to extreme lengths to eliminate the calories they consume, such as excessive exercise, self-induced vomiting, or laxative/diuretic use.

While many people with anorexia are underweight, it is not required for diagnosis. The latest DSM-5 diagnostic criteria require losing a significant amount of weight through the use of unhealthy behaviors.

Binge Eating Disorder

Binge eating disorder is characterized by episodes of binge eating followed by feelings of shame, guilt, and distress. Binge eating disorder is the most common type of eating disorder in the United States. People with binge eating disorder often consume large amounts of food even when they are not hungry and feel that they cannot control their eating.

Symptoms of binge eating disorder include:

  • Eating large quantities of food in a short period
  • Feeling out of control during a binge
  • Eating even when you are not hungry
  • Feeling guilty, ashamed, or distressed after eating

Bulimia Nervosa

Bulimia nervosa is characterized by episodes of binge eating followed by purging behaviors, such as vomiting or using laxatives. Like anorexia, bulimia nervosa involves distorted body image and a fear of weight gain. However, the behaviors that result from these distortions and fear are different.

To be diagnosed with bulimia, a person must engage in the following behaviors:

  • Binging (which involves consuming excessive amounts of food over the course of a two-hour period) and a sense of feeling out of control
  • The repeated use of compensatory, self-induced purging behaviors such as the use of laxatives, diuretics, vomiting, and extreme exercise to avoid potential weight gain

Such behaviors must occur at least once a week for a minimum of three months. The primary focus of such behaviors must be related to body weight and shape, and such behaviors must not be related to anorexia.

Other types of eating disorders include avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID), other specified feeding or eating disorder (OSFED), night eating syndrome, pica, purging disorder, and rumination disorder.

Signs of an Eating Disorder

It is difficult to determine how much time a person spends engaging in dieting behaviors. Still, there are certain behaviors that might indicate that a person may have an eating disorder. Some signs to look for:

  • Constantly feeling cold and wearing thick layers to stay warm
  • Avoiding social situations where eating may be involved
  • Engaging in periods of extreme food restriction
  • Exercising excessively to prevent weight gain or to lose weight
  • Hiding, stealing, or hoarding food
  • Only eating in private
  • Poor self-esteem
  • Spending a lot of time preparing food for others and then refusing to eat
  • Symptoms of anxiety and depression
  • Wearing baggy clothing to hide weight loss

Such behaviors take up a great deal of time and mental energy. They may interfere with a person's ability to function normally in different areas of their life, including home, work, school, and relationships. In many cases, people may avoid social events to avoid having to eat around other people.

Coping and Prevention

If you recognize signs of disordered eating, you can take steps to manage your behavior and develop a healthier relationship with food. Finding coping methods may help prevent such behaviors from progressing to a full-fledged eating disorder. Some steps you can take include:

Avoid Fad Diets

Crash diets tend to be highly restrictive and lead to feelings of hunger and deprivation. This often results in cravings and overeating behaviors, leading to feelings of failure and guilt. Instead of following fad diets, focus on eating in moderation and avoid labeling foods as inherently "good" or "bad."

Use Positive Self-Talk

Disordered eating is often accompanied by negative self-talk and self-criticism. Instead of comparing your body to others or berating yourself over your appearance, focus on appreciating your good qualities. Think about what you like about your body and how your body serves you.

Building a positive relationship with your body, noticing the things you love about yourself, and using positive affirmations to build your confidence can be helpful.

Practice Body Neutrality

It can also be helpful to use an approach known as body neutrality to shift your focus. Body neutrality involves practicing accepting your body and focusing on caring for your body with adequate food, rest, water, and care. Learning to appreciate your body can help improve body image and combat disordered eating behaviors.

Strategies that can help include avoiding weighing yourself every day, limiting your exposure to unrealistic body standards, and practicing gratitude.

Try Mindful Eating

Mindfulness is a practice that involves focusing entirely on the present moment. When applied to eating, it can help you avoid unconscious, distracted eating and instead fully appreciate the food you eat and the experience of consuming it.

Mindful or intuitive eating can help you become more attuned to your body and learn to recognize when you are hungry and when you are full. It can also help you learn to identify unhealthy eating behaviors, such as using food to distract yourself from challenging emotions.

How to Get Help

Eating disorders can lead to serious health outcomes, including dental problems, malnutrition, menstrual irregularities, anxiety, depression, organ failure, and substance use. This is why it is so critical to seek treatment if you are experiencing symptoms of an eating disorder.

There are many different types of treatment available for eating disorders. Treatment typically includes a combination of individual, group, and/or family therapy and nutritional counseling. Treatment is multifaceted and designed to address thoughts, behaviors, coping skills, and lifestyle factors to help people recover.

If you are experiencing disordered eating or suspect that you might have an eating disorder, it is important to seek help as early as possible. Research suggests that early intervention improves the course of recovery and treatment outcomes. Treatment during the early stages of an eating disorder can reduce the detrimental impacts on physical health, increase the effectiveness of recovery, and minimize the need for higher levels of inpatient care.

If you think you might have an eating disorder, talk to your doctor or mental health professional. You can also contact one of the following organizations for more information and support:

If you or a loved one are coping with an eating disorder, contact the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) Helpline for support at 1-800-931-2237

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

A Word From Verywell

The ever-present influence of media depictions of the thin ideal play a role in body dissatisfaction, disordered eating, and eating disorders. While it can be challenging to overcome these influences, finding more positive and uplifting depictions of a range of body types and sizes can help you develop a healthier, more realistic view of your own body.

Practicing body positivity or neutrality can also give you the chance to appreciate your body and minimize the risk of engaging in disordered eating behaviors. Whether you are trying to adopt healthier behaviors or are concerned that you might have an eating disorder, talking to a healthcare professional or therapist can also be an essential place to start your path to a healthier relationship with food and yourself.

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Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Kristen Fuller, MD
Kristen Fuller is a physician, a successful clinical mental health writer, and author. She specializes in addiction, substance abuse, and eating disorders.