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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 becomes something to be feared or desired, paving the way for disordered food behaviors.
Disordered eating can look like dieting. Those who diet (even moderately) are five times more likely to develop an eating disorder. And those who follow an extreme diet are 18 times more likely to develop an eating disorder. 
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.
Disordered eating is present when an individual regularly engages in abnormal eating patterns or food behaviors. People with specific food intolerances or health problems have no choice but to adhere to a particular diet. People with eating disorders are different.
People who turn to disordered eating often do so to cope with uncomfortable emotions. For example, 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 goal weight is reached, people will inevitably set a lower one, and eating disorders develop. Emotional eating can also lead to binges, sometimes resulting in the development of a binge eating disorder or bulimia nervosa.
Those with eating disorders, regardless of whether they fit the diagnostic criteria or not, often feel extreme anxiety about food. As a result, 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.
How Disordered Eating Habits May Lead to an Eating Disorder
Coworkers mention they are “bad” for eating donuts in the break room, or loved ones say they need to go to the gym for an extra hour the next day to work off a big meal. Unfortunately, we’re surrounded by these messages constantly.
Food shaming (negative food talk directed at others or oneself) breeds hostility toward food and a culture in which disordered eating is slowly becoming the norm. The recent rise in “healthy” or “clean” eating exacerbates the problem.
Researchers say about 25% of people follow dietary advice they read on a clean eating site.  Advice might include:
- Placing food into categories of “good” and “bad”
- Reading labels to spot types of ingredients deemed unhealthy
- Attempting to cure diseases by changing diets
- Restricting calories
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, diets and extreme exercise regimens can be dangerous. It is a slippery slope from going on cleanses to lose a few pounds to developing an all-consuming and life-threatening eating disorder.
While some people who follow these rigid food rules do not have an eating disorder now, they are at higher risk of developing one. The social acceptability of these diets also makes eating disorders more difficult to detect in those who struggle with them.
How to Break Disordered Eating
It’s possible to break disordered eating habits before they lead to an eating disorder. However, depending on the severity of an individual’s behaviors, professional help might be recommended.
A registered dietitian (RD) can help you face your fears 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 an awareness of these disordered views on food and body image can help individuals maintain truly healthful eating habits.
- Statistics and Research on Eating Disorders. (n.d.). National Eating Disorders Association. Accessed September 2022.
- Allen M, Dickinson K.M., Prichard I. (2018). The Dirt on Clean Eating: A Cross Sectional Analysis of Dietary Intake, Restrained Eating and Opinions about Clean Eating among Women. Nutrients, 10(9):1266.
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.
Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on January 1, 2023