What is Disordered Eating?

June 26, 2024

Discover what disordered eating really is, its impact, signs, and how to seek help. Knowledge is power.

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Understanding Disordered Eating

Definition and Overview

Disordered eating, a term that often raises questions like "what is disordered eating?", is used to describe a range of irregular eating behaviors that may or may not warrant a diagnosis of a specific eating disorder. It is not as well-defined as specific eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa, which have clear diagnostic criteria outlined by the American Psychiatric Association.

Disordered eating can include behaviors such as frequent dieting, anxiety about specific foods or food groups, rigid food and exercise routines, and feelings of guilt and shame associated with eating. It also encompasses a preoccupation with food, weight, and body image.

Prevalence and Impact

Disordered eating is a widespread issue, affecting individuals across all ages, genders, and backgrounds. However, the prevalence can be difficult to quantify, given the broad range of behaviors it encompasses and the fact that many individuals may not recognize or report their disordered eating behaviors.

The impact of disordered eating can be significant and far-reaching. Many people who suffer from disordered eating patterns either minimize or do not fully realize the impact it has on their mental and physical health. The effects can include nutritional deficiencies, physical health problems, increased risk of eating disorders, and a negative impact on mental well-being.

Registered dietitian nutritionists play a vital role in the detection and treatment of disordered eating. By educating individuals about healthy eating behaviors and helping them understand the potential risks associated with disordered eating, they can play a crucial part in preventing the progression to more serious eating disorders.

Types of Eating Disorders

Eating disorders are serious and often fatal illnesses associated with severe disturbances in eating behaviors and related thoughts and emotions. Preoccupation with food, body weight, and shape may also signal an eating disorder. Some of the common eating disorders include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge-eating disorder, and avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID).

Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia nervosa is characterized by an intense fear of gaining weight and a distorted body image that results in self-imposed starvation and excessive weight loss. It is a serious, potentially life-threatening condition. People with anorexia nervosa are at risk of dying from medical complications associated with starvation, and suicide is the second leading cause of death for individuals diagnosed with this disorder. Anorexia nervosa has an extremely high mortality rate compared to other mental disorders [2].

Bulimia Nervosa

Bulimia nervosa is characterized by recurrent episodes of eating unusually large amounts of food (binge-eating) followed by compensatory behaviors such as forced vomiting, excessive use of laxatives or diuretics, fasting, or excessive exercise. Unlike anorexia nervosa, people with bulimia nervosa may be slightly underweight, normal weight, or overweight.

Binge-Eating Disorder

Binge-eating disorder involves losing control over eating and having recurring episodes of consuming unusually large amounts of food. Unlike bulimia nervosa, these binge-eating episodes are not followed by purging behaviors, and individuals with binge-eating disorder often feel distress, guilt, or embarrassment after a binge. Individuals with this disorder are often overweight or obese, and it is the most common eating disorder in the U.S..

Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID)

Avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID) is a condition where individuals limit the amount or type of food eaten due to certain sensory characteristics of food or fear of aversive consequences (like choking or vomiting). Unlike anorexia nervosa, people with ARFID do not have a distorted body image or extreme fear of gaining weight. ARFID is most common in middle childhood and often has an earlier onset than other eating disorders.

Understanding the different types of eating disorders is crucial in identifying the signs and symptoms, seeking appropriate help, and raising awareness about these severe mental health conditions.

Signs and Symptoms of Disordered Eating

Understanding the signs and symptoms of disordered eating can help individuals identify problematic behaviors and seek help early. Disordered eating refers to abnormal eating patterns that do not meet the criteria for an eating disorder diagnosis. It 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. Below we delve into some common signs and symptoms, including dieting behaviors, emotional eating, and obsessive thoughts.

Dieting Behaviors

One of the common signs of disordered eating is frequent dieting and engaging in restrictive food practices. These behaviors can include avoiding major food groups, only eating certain foods, and extreme concerns about calorie intake.

Research indicates that dieting can contribute to disordered eating, which can then cause an eating disorder. Disordered eating patterns can include the use of self-induced compensatory behaviors following eating, such as self-induced vomiting, extreme exercise, or the use of laxatives or diuretics.

Signs of dieting behaviors can include but are not limited to:

  • Frequent dieting
  • Anxiety about specific foods or food groups
  • Rigid food and exercise routines
  • Feelings of guilt and shame associated with eating


Emotional Eating

Emotional eating is a type of disordered eating where individuals use eating as a means to deal with stress or difficult emotions. 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.

Obsessive Thoughts

Obsessive thoughts about food, weight, and body shape are common signs of disordered eating. These thoughts can lead to impaired functioning due to excessive calorie counting, exercising, or other behaviors. Significant changes in weight and eating for reasons other than nourishment or hunger can also be indicative of disordered eating.

Recognizing these signs and symptoms is the first step towards addressing the issue and seeking help. If you or someone you know is showing signs of disordered eating, it's important to reach out to a healthcare provider or a registered dietitian. Early intervention can help prevent the progression of disordered eating behaviors and promote healthier relationships with food.

Relationship Between Disordered Eating and Eating Disorders

Understanding the relationship between disordered eating and eating disorders is crucial for recognizing their development and progression, as well as acknowledging their impact on mental and physical health.

Development and Progression

Eating disorders are a range of psychological conditions that cause unhealthy eating habits to develop, often starting with an obsession with food, body weight, or body shape. These can include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge-eating disorder, and avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID) [2].

On the other hand, disordered eating behaviors can include obsessive thoughts about food, extreme concerns about calories, significant changes in weight, and eating for reasons other than nourishment or hunger [3]. These behaviors may not meet the criteria for an eating disorder, but they can still have a significant impact on an individual's health and well-being.

While disordered eating does not always lead to an eating disorder, it can be a risk factor for their development. Persistent disordered eating behaviors, such as extreme calorie restriction or frequent binge eating, can eventually progress into a full-blown eating disorder. Therefore, early intervention is crucial in preventing the escalation of disordered eating into a more severe and potentially life-threatening eating disorder.

Impact on Mental and Physical Health

Disordered eating and eating disorders can have serious consequences on both mental and physical health. According to Healthline, eating disorders are among the deadliest mental illnesses, second only to opioid overdose. They can lead to serious health consequences and even death if left untreated.

The impact on physical health can vary depending on the type of eating disorder. For instance, anorexia nervosa can be fatal with an extremely high mortality rate compared to other mental disorders. People with anorexia are at risk of dying from medical complications associated with starvation, and suicide is the second leading cause of death for individuals diagnosed with anorexia nervosa.

Similarly, bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder can result in numerous health complications due to the repeated cycle of bingeing and purging, or overeating. These can include gastrointestinal problems, heart conditions, and metabolic abnormalities, among others.

In addition to physical health issues, disordered eating and eating disorders can also have a significant impact on mental health. They are often associated with feelings of shame, guilt, and low self-esteem, as well as conditions such as depression, anxiety, and substance abuse disorders. These mental health issues can further exacerbate the eating behaviors and contribute to a vicious cycle of disordered eating.

It's important to note that eating disorders can affect people of any gender at any life stage, but they are increasingly common in men and gender nonconforming individuals who may seek treatment at lower rates or not report their symptoms at all.

Recognizing the signs of disordered eating and seeking help early on is crucial for preventing the development of eating disorders and reducing their impact on mental and physical health. If you or someone you know is struggling with disordered eating, reach out to a healthcare professional who can provide the necessary support and treatment.

Seeking Help for Disordered Eating

Addressing disordered eating involves several resources and support systems. From registered dietitian nutritionists to various organizations and initiatives, many avenues can assist those affected by disordered eating.

Role of Registered Dietitian Nutritionists

Registered Dietitian Nutritionists (RDNs) play a substantial role in helping individuals navigate disordered eating. They provide evidence-based dietary guidance and create individualized nutrition plans that encourage a healthy relationship with food. RDNs work closely with their clients to understand their unique needs and challenges, helping them make positive, sustainable changes to their eating habits.

Resources and Support Organizations

Several resources and organizations provide support to those affected by disordered eating. The National Eating Disorders Association offers a confidential screening tool for those concerned about struggling with an eating disorder. It's an accessible first step for anyone unsure about their relationship with food.

For immediate assistance regarding eating disorder concerns, there are helplines available such as the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline (988) and Crisis Text Line (text "HOME" to 741-741).

F.E.A.S.T is another organization that offers support and education resources to parents and caregivers of individuals impacted by eating disorders. It provides a community of other individuals facing similar challenges and allows for shared experiences and strategies.

National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) Initiatives

The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) has several initiatives to support individuals affected by disordered eating. This organization offers resources and services including NEDAWalk, the NEDA Blog, News & Press, and ways to get involved and give support.

The Grace Holland Cozine Resource Center, provided by NEDA, offers critical information for people in recovery journeys and their loved ones. It aids in providing education and awareness about disordered eating and its impact.

Seeking help for disordered eating can be a challenging step, but it's a crucial one. Resources like registered dietitian nutritionists, support organizations, and NEDA initiatives can provide the necessary guidance and assistance. Remember, help is always available, and recovery is possible.

Prevention and Awareness

Addressing the issue of disordered eating requires a multifaceted approach, focusing not only on treatment but also on prevention and awareness. This involves educating individuals and communities about disordered eating, promoting critical thinking around food and body image, and providing resources and support for those affected.

Education and Support Programs

Education is a key component in the prevention of disordered eating. By providing accurate information about what disordered eating is, its risks, and how it can be overcome, individuals can be better equipped to identify and address these issues in their own lives or in the lives of others. These educational efforts can be supplemented with support programs, which provide a safe and understanding environment for individuals dealing with disordered eating. This combination of education and support can play a crucial role in preventing the onset or progression of disordered eating behaviors.

Promoting Critical Thinking Skills

Critical thinking skills are also vital when it comes to preventing disordered eating. These skills can help individuals to challenge societal ideals around body image, question harmful dieting practices, and resist the pressure to conform to unrealistic standards of beauty. By promoting critical thinking, individuals can develop a healthier relationship with food and their bodies, reducing the risk of disordered eating.

NEDIC's Focus and Services

The National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC) is one organization that is leading the way in the fight against disordered eating. NEDIC focuses on awareness and the prevention of eating disorders, food and weight preoccupation, and disordered eating by promoting critical thinking skills. They offer programs such as professional development workshops, educational workshops for children and youth, a biennial conference, and free online curricula for young people in grades 4 through 8.

In addition to their preventative efforts, NEDIC provides critical support services to individuals affected by disordered eating. They operate Canada’s only national toll-free helpline and live chat, providing resources, referrals, and support to people across Canada either directly or indirectly affected by disordered eating and related concerns.

NEDIC is committed to helping individuals who experience eating disorders or disordered eating, regardless of how it manifests for them. The organization acknowledges that bodies do not have to conform to specific appearance ideals to deserve respect, and emphasizes supporting individuals irrespective of the body they have [5].

NEDIC also provides critical information for people in recovery journeys and their loved ones through the Grace Holland Cozine Resource Center [6].

By focusing on education, critical thinking, and support, organizations like NEDIC can play a vital role in preventing disordered eating and supporting those who are affected by it.


[1]: https://www.eatright.org/health/health-conditions/eating-disorders/what-is-disordered-eating

[2]: https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/eating-disorders

[3]: https://www.verywellmind.com/difference-between-disordered-eating-and-eating-disorders-5184548

[4]: https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/common-eating-disorders

[5]: https://nedic.ca/

[6]: https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/national-eating-disorders-association/

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