What’s the Difference between Disordered Eating and Eating Disorders?

Disordered eating is an epidemic in our culture. It is easy to develop an unhealthy relationship with food when it is made out to be the enemy. Food then turns into something to be feared or develops the allure of the forbidden fruit, paving the way for disordered food behaviors.

The National Eating Disorders Association reports that approximately 35 percent of “normal dieters” develop a pattern of pathological dieting [1]. Individuals with eating disorders exhibit disordered eating, but not all disordered eaters can be diagnosed with a full-blown eating disorder. The difference lies in the frequency and severity of behaviors and the distress they cause to the individual.

How Are They Similar?

Disordered eating is present when an individual engages in abnormal eating patterns or food behaviors on a regular basis. This does not generally apply to those with specific food intolerances or health problems, who might have no choice but to adhere to a certain diet.

Woman in depressionPeople who turn to disordered eating often do so to cope with uncomfortable emotions. They might begin focusing on weight and calorie intake to distract themselves from other areas of their lives in which they feel inadequate, or with the idea that reaching their goal weight will finally make them happy.

Once that goal weight is reached, a lower one is often set. This is how eating disorders can develop. Emotional eating can also lead to binges, sometimes resulting in the development of binge eating disorder or bulimia nervosa.

Those with disordered food behaviors, regardless of whether they fit the diagnostic criteria for an eating disorder, often feel extreme anxiety around food. They might track their daily food intake down to the calorie, exercise obsessively at the gym, or avoid social situations in which food will be present.

The Slippery Slope to an Eating Disorder

It is common to hear a co-worker mention he or she was “bad” for having had a donut in the break room, or to hear loved ones mention they need to go to the gym for an extra hour the next day to work off a big meal.

Studious Woman Writing SomethingFood shaming, which is negative food talk directed at other people or at oneself, breeds hostility toward food and a culture in which disordered eating is slowly becoming the norm. This is exacerbated by the recent rise in “healthy” or “clean” eating.

Disordered food behaviors may develop with restrictive diets, such as the gluten-free diet, veganism, or the Paleo diet. This is not to say that anyone who follows these rigid food rules has an eating disorder, there may be specific health benefits for some. The social acceptability of these diets also makes eating disorders more difficult to detect in those who do struggle with them.

Orthorexia is an eating disorder characterized by an obsession with “clean” eating and the accompanying extreme diet restrictions. Though not yet included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), orthorexia is generally recognized within the eating disorder community.

It is normal to get swept up in fads. However, this can be dangerous when it comes to diets and extreme exercise regimens. It is a slippery slope from going on cleanses to lose a few pounds to developing an all-consuming and life-threatening eating disorder.

How to Break Disordered Eating

Breaking disordered eating habits before they lead to an eating disorder can be done. Depending on the severity of an individual’s behaviors, professional help might be recommended.

Relaxed young woman lying on couchA registered dietician (R.D.) can help you face fear foods and practice more intuitive eating. If other psychological issues are the underlying cause of disordered food behaviors, a psychotherapist can help you develop alternative coping mechanisms.

Food nourishes our bodies and gives us the energy we need to get through our day, contribute to the world around us, and be present for our loved ones. Somehow this message got lost in translation as fitness trackers and crash diets took over.

Practicing intuitive eating and having awareness of these disordered views on food and body image can help individuals maintain truly healthful eating habits.

Courtney Howard Image - 2-17-16About the Author: Courtney Howard graduated summa cum laude with a B.A. from San Diego State University, holds a paralegal certificate in Family Law and is a Certified Domestic Violence Advocate. After obtaining her certification as a life coach, Courtney launched Lionheart Eating Disorder Recovery Coaching in 2015 and continues to be a passionate advocate for awareness and recovery.


[1]: Shisslak, C. M., Crago, M., & Estes, L. S. (1995). The spectrum of eating disturbances. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 18(3), 209-219.

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.

Author: Courtney Howard, BA.

Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on November 2, 2022


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