Understanding the Difference Between a Feeding and Eating Disorder in Your Child

Contributor: Courtney Howard, BA, writer for Eating Disorder Hope

When a child refuses to eat a certain food group or only eats a specific texture of food, it can be difficult for parents to determine whether it is a feeding or eating disorder at play. These two kinds of disorders fall under the same category in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), and often have overlapping diagnostic criteria.

There are many commonalities between feeding and eating disorders. Both distinctions are characterized by a disordered relationship with food in some way. Feeding disorders are more often linked to infants and children, while eating disorders are more commonly associated with teens and adults. Despite these associations, it should be noted that either condition can be present at any age.

Some professionals firmly believe in the connection between feeding disorders in youth and the development of eating disorders later in life. However, as a 2012 article [1] on the topic counters, “…although childhood feeding disorders are typically described in the history of adolescents and adults with eating disorders, there is little research on the developmental continuity between childhood, adolescent and adult disorders that involve aberrant eating behaviors.”

What is a Feeding Disorder?

Young Girl 640x456Feeding disorders are not often talked about. This can leave children experiencing related symptoms and their parents feeling confused and isolated. While eating disorders are not really about the food, but rather a coping mechanism gone wrong, feeding disorders actually are more often the direct result of food preferences or perceived intolerances.

Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID) is one of the more common feeding disorders and is characterized by restriction and the exclusion of certain food groups, textures, colors, or other classifications. These symptoms often overlap with those of anorexia nervosa, an eating disorder, but the basic psychology and motives behind the restriction in ARFID and anorexia are extremely different. For example, body dysmorphia is not a factor in cases of ARFID.

Another more common feeding disorder is pica, or the regular consumption of non-food substances. This can include chalk, dirt, paper products, and more. Many young children experiment with eating non-food substances at some point, but a pica diagnosis is only called for when these behaviors are severe and impact an individual’s mental and/or physical health.

How is This Different Than an Eating Disorder?

Young boyThe difference in the psychology behind feeding and eating disorders is vast. Behaviors, however, often overlap. As previously mentioned, ARFID and anorexia nervosa are both characterized by extreme restriction. However, there are certain red flags that indicate an eating disorder is behind disordered food behaviors.

Body dysmorphia and related behaviors, such as negative body talk, body-checking, or frequent weighing, are common with eating disorders. These thoughts and behaviors are not associated with feeding disorders. The use of compensatory behaviors, including self-induced vomiting or laxative abuse, is also only found in cases of eating disorders. Despite the distinct differences between the two, feeding and eating disorders can co-occur.

Feeding Disorders and Developmental Disabilities

A 2000 article [2] authored by researchers from the University of Maryland School of Medicine reports that 25 percent of all children, and as many as 80 percent of children with developmental disabilities, present with a feeding disorder of some kind. The Center for Autism and Related Disorders (CARD) confirms that feeding disorders are most common among the developmentally disabled population.

According to CARD, food and/or fluid refusal is common among children who fall on the autism spectrum. Behavioral problems specific to mealtimes can indicate a feeding disorder, as well as being dependent on bottles past the appropriate age.

What Can Parents Do?

Happy ParentsParents can best help their children struggling with feeding or eating disorders by getting them the care they need. If you are unsure whether your child has an eating disorder, a feeding disorder, or is simply a picky eater, this is okay. You are encouraged to seek professional help to obtain the correct diagnosis and treatment plan for your child.

It is natural to feel scared. Once a diagnosis is made, you can educate yourself on the condition and support your child in his or her recovery. Reaching out and finding support within the eating disorder community might be an integral part of your own process. Just remember that recovery is possible for your child and for your family.

Community Discussion – Share your thoughts here!

What types of support for your child have your accessed within the eating disorder community?

Courtney Howard Image - 2-17-16About the Author: Courtney Howard is the Administrative Assistant for Eating Disorder Hope and Addiction Hope. She 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]: Uher, R., & Rutter, M. (2012). Classification of feeding and eating disorders: review of evidence and proposals for ICD-11. World Psychiatry, 11(2), 80–92.
[2]: Manikam, R., & Perman, J.A. (2000). Pediatric feeding disorders. J Clin Gastroenterol, 30(1):34-46.

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 March 8, 2016
Published on EatingDisorderHope.com