Disordered Eating: What You Need To Know

What is disordered eating?

empty plates for eating

Disordered eating encompasses a range of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors surrounding food and body image. Although your eating patterns may not fit the standards for a specific eating disorder, disordered eating patterns include a variety of abnormal behaviors that aren’t typical of healthy eating habits.

By Melody Smith, LAC

What does disordered eating look like?

Falling along a spectrum between healthy eating and erratic behaviors, symptoms can range from the occasional unhealthy diet to more extreme signs such as binging and restricting.

Forms of disordered eating may include:

  • Rigid habits surrounding exercise and food
  • Food restriction to “make up for” food consumed
  • Eating to self-soothe or avoid uncomfortable emotions
  • Thoughts that are preoccupied with body image and food
  • Compulsive eating or feeling a loss of control when you eat
  • Preoccupation with tracking calories and weighing yourself
  • Feeling shame, guilt, disgust, or anxiety before or after you eat
  • Choosing to eat “clean, healthy” foods or avoid major food groups
  • Overcompensating for food intake by engaging in purging behaviors such as laxative use or excessive exercise

What’s the difference between an eating disorder and disordered eating?

It can be challenging to understand the tipping point where disordered eating progresses into an eating disorder. Because disordered eating can be subtle and difficult to recognize, you may be wondering where the line is between an eating disorder and disordered eating. Both encompass eating patterns for controlling weight and meeting body image ideals. The main difference between the eating disorders and disordered eating comes down to the severity of symptoms.

Getting curious and asking questions can help you gain a deeper understanding of where the tipping point is.

  • Are you always worrying about your weight and appearance?
  • Do you find yourself preoccupied with food?
  • How often do you track your calories and weight yourself?
  • Is it difficult to eat around others?
  • Does food feel like it’s taking over your life?

To deepen your understanding of the progression of food and body behaviors, let’s take a look at some examples:

Perhaps you find yourself closer to one end of the spectrum or somewhere in between. Although disordered eating does not meet the criteria for a recognized eating disorder, people who engage in dysfunctional eating behaviors are at higher risk for developing an eating disorder over time. Therefore, it is crucial to stay aware of and understand the warning signs and symptoms.

What causes disordered eating?

The root of disordered eating can stem from a range of psychological, physiological, and sociocultural factors. The impact of these factors vary depending on each individual’s experience and perspective, so the cause can be different for each person. Risk factors include: 

  • Biological factors such as diabetes
  • Past use of weight control methods
  • History of sexual abuse or other trauma
  • Family history of eating disorders or mental illness
  • Social influences including:
  • Heavy exercise, growth spurts, or illness that cause negative energy balances (when the calories you burn exceed the calories you take in)
  • Psychological issues including:
    • Low self-esteem
    • Perfectionism
    • Mental health issues like anxiety, depression, or obsessive-compulsive disorders

Disordered eating is complex and can be influenced by multiple factors. Therefore, treatment focuses on the factors that contribute to disordered eating symptoms rather than focusing on one sole “root cause.” There are several types of therapy and treatment options that can work to address the elements fueling disordered eating behaviors.

If you need support with disordered eating, you can contact us here.

Our therapists support the mental health of kids, families, teens, couples, and adults of any age. Let us know how we can help you by reaching out.

Jo, D., Spencer, S. D., & Masuda, A. (2020). Mindfulness attenuates the positive association between disordered eating cognition and disordered eating behavior in a sample of college women. Current Psychology, 41(7), 4536-4544. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12144-020-00969-w
Manzato, E., Cuzzolaro, M., & Donini, L. M. (2021). Hidden and lesser-known disordered eating behaviors in medical and psychiatric conditions. Springer Nature.
National Eating Disorder Association. (2022). Risk Factors. https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/risk-factors

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