Disordered Eating Levels & Diagnosis: What is Wrong With Me?

Woman laying in grass, struggling with Disordered Eating

Disordered eating is becoming a popular term within clinical settings and can be part of a severe eating disorder. Westernized societies often have unrealistic views on dieting, weight, shape, and exercise.

Research has shown that over 50% of the U.S. population has problematic relationships with food or exhibit disordered eating characteristics [1].

Characteristics of These Issues

When a person has disordered eating behaviors, they can share components with an individual who has an eating disorder. Disordered eating can have severe physical, emotional, and mental consequences.

Individuals who do engage in disordered eating are at a higher rate to develop an eating disorder [1].

Some characteristics for those with disordered eating, often have difficulty concentrating or sustaining focus.

Individuals may have invasive thoughts about food, body, and exercise. It can affect academic, professional, and interpersonal areas in their life.

Often those with these behaviors begin to isolate from others and withdraw from social activities they used to enjoy due to constant planning around food or consumption of food.

Food is often used as a coping skill to manage life stressors or transitions. Many times these individuals struggle with change. Axis 1 disorders, such as anxiety and depression, will often increase with disordered eating creating a cycle of unhealthy symptomatology [1].

Other behavioral characteristics include engaging in binge eating behaviors, dieting fads, or skipping meals on a regular basis. Some individuals will engage in purging behaviors or obsessive calorie counting [2].

Research has shown that adolescents who do participate in moderate diets are five times more likely to develop an eating disorder than those who do not diet, and those who engage in severe dieting are eighteen more times to form an eating disorder [2].

Levels of Disordered Eating

Anorexia nervosa is when a person restricts the food they are eating which leads to dangerously low weight. A person with anorexia will typically stop eating specific foods or food groups.

Lack of eating and malnutrition can increase distress and anxiety, and can also increase the fear of gaining weight or becoming fat.

Bulimia nervosa is when a person will engage in episodes of binging and purging. Purging can be self-induced vomiting or use of diuretics, laxatives, and excessive exercise to rid the body of calories consumed.

Binge eating is when a person engages in binge eating but does not use compensating behaviors. Binge eating episodes can occur 3-4 or more times per week, and some people struggle with many binge eating incidents within a 24-hour period.

Symptoms and Signs

There are various signs and symptoms of disordered eating. They have some overlap with eating disorders and include some of the following behaviors.

Woman with an eating disorderBehavioral symptoms such as food restriction, binge eating, and purging can be a part of disordered eating patterns. Mental distress such as low self-esteem and self-worth are some of the issues where the emphasis is on body weight and shape.

Cognitive symptoms can be negative thinking about types of food, quality of food, and fear that food eaten outside of the person’s control could be “contaminated” or unclean. There is often a significant fear of food having toxins, be a cause for disease development and other contamination fears.

Other symptoms typically include thoughts that focus on body weight, shape, and size. Often an individual will body check, shame, and critique their self and compare themselves to others.

Individuals may have a different perception of the way they experience their body and may feel they are overweight even when they are not. Some individuals often follow an excessive or rigid exercise routine and may engage in calorie counting.

Those with disordered eating tend to struggle with anxiety around food, may only eat specific foods, or be inflexible with eating.

Types of Disordered Eating

Disordered eating categories are orthorexia, purging disorder, night eating syndrome, atypical anorexia, and rumination eating.

Woman struggling with Orthorexia

Atypical anorexia is when a person has the symptoms and characteristics of anorexia nervosa, but has an average weight range or is above their weight range.

Rumination disorder is a type of disordered eating where a person will engage in regurgitation of their food ingested. Behaviors can include chewing and spitting, re-chewing food, or re-swallowing food [3].

Night eating syndrome is when an individual consumes at least 25% of their daily food at night or after the evening meal. It can also include going to bed and then waking up to eat.

Orthorexia is when a person will follow a pure, clean, healthy eating lifestyle to have an internally perfect body. Often orthorexia is a spiritual practice to the sufferer and eventually becomes obsessive. It is not about a fear of gaining weight or becoming fat for these individuals, but about being ‘perfect.’

Disordered eating is when behaviors are affecting or interfering with overall daily functioning. They can cause issues within various areas in a person’s life but are not as severe as an eating disorder.

Eating disorders are diagnosable mental health disorders which affect the physical, mental, emotional, social, academic, and occupational functioning of the person. If the disordered eating behaviors continue for a long period of time, the individual can develop an eating disorder.

Getting Proper Help

Regardless of whether you have an eating disorder or disordered eating, both are alarming and can result in serious medical complications or even death. Obtaining an assessment with a professional is essential and can aid in symptom relief.

Working with a treatment team that can provide therapeutic treatments such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), group therapy, and nutritional support are components that are essential for recovery.

Being able to seek help and assistance for your disordered eating is essential. Treatment teams understand that it is difficult to admit that there is a problem, and can guide individuals through their recovery process.

Image of Libby Lyons and familyAbout the Author: Libby Lyons is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Certified Eating Disorder Specialist (CEDS). Libby has been practicing in the field of eating disorders, addictions, depression, anxiety and other comorbid issues in various agencies. Libby has previously worked as a contractor for the United States Air Force Domestic Violence Program, Saint Louis University Student Health and Counseling, Saint Louis Behavioral Medicine Institute Eating Disorders Program, and has been in Private Practice.

Libby currently works as a counselor at Fontbonne University and is a Adjunct Professor at Saint Louis University, and is a contributing author for Addiction Hope and Eating Disorder Hope. Libby lives in the St. Louis area with her husband and two daughters. She enjoys spending time with her family, running, and watching movies.


[1] Action, C. P. (2014, February 23). Disordered Eating or Eating Disorder: What’s the Difference? Retrieved December 04, 2017, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/contemporary-psychoanalysis-in-action/201402/disordered-eating-or-eating-disorder-what-s-the
[2] Disordered eating and dieting. (n.d.). Retrieved December 04, 2017, from https://www.eatingdisorders.org.au/eating-disorders/disordered-eating-a-dieting
[3] Types and Symptoms • National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders. (n.d.). Retrieved December 04, 2017, from http://www.anad.org/get-information/about-eating-disorders/eating-disorder-types-and-symptoms/

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published on January 23, 2018.
Published on EatingDisorderHope.com