What is Disordered Eating?

Understanding Disordered Eating

When it comes to our relationship with food, disordered eating is a term used to describe a wide range of irregular eating behaviors that do not meet the specific diagnostic criteria for any particular eating disorder. It is important to note that disordered eating is not a diagnosis in itself but rather a term used to describe behavior patterns seen in individuals who do not fit within the criteria for a specific eating disorder [1].

Definition and Overview

Clinically defined as "a wide range of irregular eating behaviors that do not warrant a diagnosis of a specific eating disorder," disordered eating encompasses various patterns related to food, exercise, and body image. These behaviors may include obsessive thoughts about food, extreme concerns about calories, significant changes in weight, impaired functioning due to counting calories, binging, purging, exercising, or other behaviors, and eating for reasons other than nourishment or hunger, among others.

Disordered eating behaviors can manifest differently in individuals and may vary in severity and frequency. While disordered eating patterns may not meet the diagnostic criteria for an eating disorder, they can still have a significant impact on an individual's physical and mental well-being.

Relationship with Eating Disorders

It's important to understand the distinction between disordered eating and eating disorders. Disordered eating refers to irregular eating patterns that fall outside the specific criteria for diagnosing an eating disorder. On the other hand, eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder have well-defined diagnostic criteria and are considered more severe and persistent conditions [3].

Disordered eating patterns, if left unaddressed, can potentially develop into a full-blown eating disorder. Research suggests that disordered eating behaviors, including extreme calorie restriction, binging, purging, and obsessive thoughts about shape and weight, can contribute to the development of eating disorders [2]. Therefore, it is important to recognize the signs and symptoms of disordered eating and seek appropriate support and treatment to prevent the progression to an eating disorder.

By raising awareness about disordered eating and understanding its relationship with eating disorders, we can foster a better understanding of these complex issues and work towards promoting healthier attitudes and behaviors related to food and body image. If you're concerned about your own relationship with food or suspect that someone you know may be struggling with disordered eating, it's important to seek professional help and resources to address these concerns effectively.

Types of Eating Disorders

Eating disorders are complex mental health conditions that can have serious consequences on a person's physical and emotional well-being. Understanding the different types of eating disorders is essential for recognizing the signs, seeking help, and promoting recovery.

Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia Nervosa (AN) is characterized by severe calorie restriction and a limited variety of foods, leading to severe weight loss. Individuals with AN often have a distorted body image and an intense fear of weight gain, despite possibly being underweight [1]. Anorexia Nervosa has two subtypes: a "restrictive" subtype and a "binge-purge" subtype.

Long-term effects of Anorexia Nervosa can be extensive and impact various bodily systems. These effects include brain damage, dry skin, hair, and nails, difficulty regulating body temperature, gastroparesis, bloating, pain, constipation, and damage to major organs. Anorexia can increase the risk of developing diabetes, gastrointestinal disorders, cancer, fertility complications, and cardiovascular issues. Shockingly, 5-10% of individuals with anorexia nervosa die within 10 years of the onset of the disorder [4]. If you believe you might have anorexia, consult our article on do i have an eating disorder?.

Bulimia Nervosa

Bulimia Nervosa (BN) involves recurrent episodes of binge eating followed by compensatory behaviors to prevent weight gain. Compensatory behaviors can include self-induced vomiting, extreme exercise, fasting, or misuse of laxatives, diuretics, or other medications. This pattern typically occurs at least once a week for three months [1].

The physical consequences of Bulimia Nervosa can be severe. Frequent purging through vomiting can lead to tooth decay, gum disease, burst blood vessels in the eyes, swollen salivary glands, esophagus damage, heartburn, stomach aches, and intestinal damage. Long-term purging can result in acid reflux, nerve damage, colon damage, and electrolyte imbalances, leading to issues like dizziness, impaired organ functioning, and heart problems [4]. If you suspect you might have bulimia, consult our article on what is an eating disorder?.

Binge Eating Disorder

Binge Eating Disorder (BED) is characterized by recurring episodes of consuming large quantities of food within a short period, typically accompanied by a sense of loss of control and distress. Unlike bulimia, individuals with BED do not engage in compensatory behaviors such as vomiting or excessive exercise [5].

Binge Eating Disorder can lead to increased weight gain and physical consequences similar to obesity, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease, gallbladder issues, Type II diabetes, and joint or knee pain. Additionally, individuals with BED often experience extreme feelings of guilt or shame, leading to increased emotional dysregulation and suicidal ideation [4].

Recognizing the different types of eating disorders is an essential step toward understanding the complexities of disordered eating. If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, it's important to seek professional help and support. Resources for support and various treatment options are available to aid in the recovery process. For more information, refer to our article on national eating disorders awareness week and explore the available treatment options.

Impact of Eating Disorders

Eating disorders have a significant impact on both physical and mental health. Understanding these consequences is crucial in recognizing the seriousness of these disorders and promoting early intervention and treatment.

Physical Consequences

Each type of eating disorder comes with its own set of physical consequences. Here are some of the long-term effects associated with specific eating disorders:

Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia nervosa, characterized by severe food restriction, can lead to severe impairment in the body's ability to function due to malnourishment. Some of the long-term physical consequences include:

  • Brain damage
  • Dry skin, hair, and nails
  • Difficulty regulating body temperature
  • Gastroparesis (delayed emptying of the stomach)
  • Bloating, pain, and constipation
  • Damage to major organs

Furthermore, anorexia nervosa increases the risk of developing other health conditions, such as:

  • Diabetes
  • Gastrointestinal disorders
  • Cancer
  • Fertility complications
  • Cardiovascular issues

It is important to note that anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate among all psychiatric disorders, with 5-10% of individuals with anorexia nervosa dying within 10 years of the onset of the disorder. Early intervention and treatment are essential for improving outcomes.

Bulimia Nervosa

Bulimia nervosa, characterized by binge eating followed by purging behaviors, also has significant physical consequences. Some of the long-term physical effects associated with bulimia nervosa include:

  • Tooth decay
  • Gum disease
  • Burst blood vessels in the eyes
  • Swollen salivary glands
  • Esophagus damage
  • Heartburn and stomach aches
  • Intestinal damage
  • Fingertip damage (from inducing vomiting)

Long-term purging behaviors can lead to additional complications, such as:

  • Acid reflux
  • Nerve damage
  • Colon damage
  • Electrolyte imbalances

These physical consequences can result in symptoms like dizziness, impaired organ functioning, and heart problems. Seek professional help if you suspect you or someone you know may be struggling with bulimia nervosa. For more information, refer to our article on different types of eating disorders.

Binge Eating Disorder

Binge Eating Disorder (BED) can also have physical consequences, often similar to those associated with obesity. Some of the physical effects of BED include:

  • Increased weight gain
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Heart disease
  • Gallbladder issues
  • Type II diabetes
  • Joint or knee pain

In addition to the physical consequences, individuals with BED often experience extreme feelings of guilt or shame, leading to increased emotion dysregulation and suicidal ideation. Seek support and professional help if you or someone you know is struggling with BED.

Mental Health Effects

Beyond the physical consequences, eating disorders also have a profound impact on mental health. They affect the way individuals think about food, eating, weight, and shape, and can lead to dangerous eating behaviors and overall impairment in daily functioning. Some common mental health effects of eating disorders include:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Self-harm behaviors
  • Suicidal thoughts and behaviors

The psychological impact of eating disorders can be severe, and it is crucial to address both the physical and mental aspects of these disorders. Seeking help from healthcare professionals and support groups is essential for comprehensive treatment. For more information on seeking help and treatment options.

Understanding the impact of eating disorders is a vital step in promoting awareness, prevention, and early intervention. If you suspect that you or someone you know may be struggling with disordered eating or an eating disorder, it is important to seek professional help and support. Remember, recovery is possible, and there are resources available to provide guidance and assistance.

Signs and Symptoms

Recognizing the signs and symptoms of disordered eating is crucial for early intervention and support. Disordered eating behaviors can manifest in various ways, affecting both behavior and emotional well-being. Understanding these indicators can help individuals, their loved ones, and healthcare professionals identify and address potential concerns. Here, we will explore both the behavioral indicators and emotional and psychological signs associated with disordered eating.

Behavioral Indicators

Disordered eating behaviors can encompass a range of irregular eating patterns and actions. While these patterns may not meet the diagnostic criteria for an eating disorder, they are still significant and should not be overlooked. Some common behavioral indicators of disordered eating include:

  • Obsessive thoughts about food and body weight
  • Extreme concerns about calorie intake and weight gain
  • Significant changes in weight, either intentional or unintentional
  • Impaired functioning due to excessive focus on counting calories or engaging in restrictive eating patterns
  • Binging or purging behaviors, such as self-induced vomiting, excessive exercise, or the use of laxatives or diuretics
  • Eating for reasons other than nourishment or hunger, such as emotional eating or using food as a coping mechanism
  • Avoiding major food groups or following restrictive diets
  • Restricting or controlling food intake irregularly or on a limited basis

It's important to note that these behaviors may occur infrequently or on a limited basis. If these behaviors occur at least once a week for a three-month period, they may meet the criteria for an eating disorder. For more information on the differences between disordered eating and eating disorders, refer to our article on disordered eating vs. eating disorders.

Emotional and Psychological Signs

In addition to behavioral indicators, disordered eating can have a significant impact on emotional and psychological well-being. The following signs may be indicative of disordered eating:

  • Preoccupation with shape, weight, and body image
  • Low self-esteem and poor body image
  • Mood disturbances, including anxiety and depression
  • Feelings of guilt or shame associated with eating habits and body image
  • Social withdrawal and isolation due to concerns about food and appearance
  • Distorted perception of body size and shape
  • Changes in sleep patterns and energy levels
  • Difficulty concentrating and impaired cognitive function

It's worth noting that disordered eating behaviors can be influenced by various factors, including societal pressures, dieting practices, and emotional distress. If you suspect that you or someone you know may be struggling with disordered eating, it is important to seek professional help and support. Identifying and addressing these concerns early on can help prevent the development of more severe eating disorders.

Seeking Help and Treatment

When it comes to seeking help and treatment for disordered eating, it's essential to reach out to the right resources for support. With proper guidance and assistance, individuals can find the help they need to overcome their challenges. Here are some valuable resources and treatment options to consider.

Resources for Support

Finding the right support system is crucial in the journey toward recovery. Several organizations and helplines provide information, resources, and guidance for those affected by disordered eating. Here are some notable resources:

  • The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) offers a range of resources to find eating disorder treatment providers, both locally and online. They also provide support and education resources for parents and caregivers through organizations like F.E.A.S.T [6].
  • In Canada, the National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC) operates a toll-free helpline and live chat services, providing resources, referrals, and support to individuals across the country affected by disordered eating and related concerns.

These organizations offer helpline services, email support, and live chat services to assist individuals struggling with disordered eating. They are valuable sources of information and can help connect individuals with appropriate treatment options.

Treatment Options

Treating disordered eating often involves a combination of approaches, tailored to the specific needs of the individual. Treatment typically includes psychological therapy (psychotherapy), nutrition education, medical monitoring, and sometimes medications. The specific treatment plan will depend on the particular disorder and symptoms, and may involve hospitalization or inpatient programs if standard treatment doesn't improve the condition or causes health problems [7].

Here are a few treatment options commonly used in the management of disordered eating:

  • Psychotherapy: This form of therapy focuses on addressing the underlying emotional and psychological factors contributing to disordered eating. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), and interpersonal therapy (IPT) are commonly used approaches.
  • Nutritional Counseling: Working with a registered dietitian can help individuals establish a balanced and healthy relationship with food. Nutritional counseling aims to educate individuals about proper nutrition and develop meal plans that meet their unique needs.
  • Medical Monitoring: Regular medical check-ups are essential to monitor physical health, address any complications, and ensure that the individual is progressing toward recovery. Medical monitoring may involve physical examinations, blood tests, and assessments of vital signs.
  • Medications: In some cases, medications may be prescribed to manage co-existing mental health conditions, such as depression or anxiety, which often accompany disordered eating. Medications are typically used as part of a comprehensive treatment plan, in conjunction with therapy and other interventions.

It's important to remember that treatment should be tailored to the individual's needs and circumstances. Seeking professional guidance from healthcare providers specializing in eating disorders is crucial for developing an effective treatment plan.

By utilizing the resources available and exploring the various treatment options, individuals affected by disordered eating can take positive steps toward recovery. Remember, reaching out for help is a courageous step, and with the right support, individuals can regain a healthy relationship with food and achieve overall well-being.

Prevention and Recovery

When it comes to disordered eating, prevention and recovery are fundamental aspects of promoting a healthy relationship with food. By addressing the underlying issues and implementing long-term strategies, individuals can work towards a healthier mindset and behavior around eating.

Promoting Healthy Relationships with Food

Promoting a healthy relationship with food involves fostering a positive and balanced approach to eating. Some strategies that can help include:

  1. Education and awareness: Understanding the difference between disordered eating and eating disorders is essential. By learning about the potential signs, symptoms, and consequences of disordered eating, individuals can be better equipped to recognize problematic behaviors and seek help if needed.
  2. Body positivity: Encouraging a positive body image and self-acceptance is crucial. Emphasize the importance of self-care, self-compassion, and focusing on overall well-being rather than solely on appearance or weight.
  3. Rejecting diet culture: Encourage individuals to challenge societal pressures and unrealistic beauty standards. Promote the idea that health is not determined by size or weight, but rather by nourishing the body with a balanced and varied diet.
  4. Seeking support: If someone is struggling with disordered eating, it is important to encourage them to reach out for support. This can involve talking to a trusted healthcare professional, seeking guidance from a registered dietitian, or joining support groups that specialize in disordered eating.

Long-Term Recovery Strategies

Recovering from disordered eating often requires a multifaceted approach that addresses both the physical and psychological aspects of the condition. Here are some long-term recovery strategies:

  1. Therapy and counseling: Psychotherapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), can be beneficial in addressing the underlying emotional and psychological factors contributing to disordered eating. Therapy can help individuals develop healthier coping mechanisms, improve self-esteem, and challenge negative thoughts and behaviors surrounding food and body image.
  2. Medical and nutritional support: Collaborating with a team of healthcare professionals, including doctors and registered dietitians, can provide comprehensive support during recovery. These professionals can help individuals establish regular eating patterns, develop balanced meal plans, and monitor physical health.
  3. Support network: Building a strong support network is crucial for long-term recovery. This can involve involving family members, friends, or support groups who can provide encouragement, understanding, and accountability.
  4. Self-care practices: Encouraging self-care practices such as stress reduction techniques, mindfulness, and engaging in activities that bring joy and fulfillment can promote overall well-being and help individuals maintain their recovery journey.

Recovering from disordered eating is a process that requires time, patience, and professional guidance. It's important to remember that everyone's journey is unique, and progress may vary. With the right support and treatment, individuals can work towards a healthier relationship with food, cultivate self-acceptance, and regain control over their lives.


[1]: https://changecreateschange.com/disordered-eating-vs-eating-disorders-whats-the-difference/

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

[3]: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/disordered-eating

[4]: https://www.eatingdisorderhope.com/long-term-effects-health

[5]: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/eating-disorders/symptoms-causes/syc-20353603

[6]: https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/get-help/

[7]: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/eating-disorders/in-depth/eating-disorder-treatment/art-20046234

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