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Disordered Eating vs Eating Disorders: What’s the Difference?

what is the difference in disordered eating vs an eating disorder

At some point in your life, you might have found yourself wondering what, if any, the differences are between disordered eating versus eating disorders. Maybe you used to be caught up in a fad diet that severely restricted your calorie intake. Maybe you’ve used several tubs of ice cream to cope with intense emotions in the past. Is there a point where you should be worried? Are Eating Disorders the same as disordered eating? What exactly is disordered eating and when do you need to seek help from a professional?

Eating Disorders: The Diagnostic Specifics

You might be familiar with Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa. These are two of the most common eating disorders categorized within the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM). The DSM is a tool that psychologists, psychiatrists, counselors, therapists, and other mental health professionals use to diagnose patients. 


To meet the DSM’s diagnostic criteria for Anorexia, a person has to have “significantly low weight, intense fear of gaining weight, persistent behavior that interferes with gaining weight, and a disturbance in the way one’s body weight or shape is experienced”. 

There are some specifiers that are of note for clinicians. These include if a person is ‘restricting’, or fasting, avoiding food, or exercising excessively. This could also be if a person is ‘binge-eating/purging’, meaning the person uses laxatives, diuretics, or binges food and then forces themselves to vomit. 


To meet the DSM’s diagnostic criteria for Bulimia, a person must experience “recurrent episodes of binge eating”. Binge eating is defined as eating a larger portion of food than what most individuals would eat in the same period of time. Characterized by a feeling of losing control, those struggling with bulimia also engage in compensatory behaviors to prevent weight gain such as self-induced vomiting, laxatives, fasting, and/or excessive exercise. These episodes must occur at least once a week for 3 months and are unduly influenced by body weight and shape. 

You might be at least somewhat familiar with these diagnoses, as they’re shown from time to time in movies, music videos, and TV shows. However, the DSM also specifies several other eating disorders, including:

  • Pica: eating substances that are not food
  • Rumination Disorder: regurgitation of food
  • Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder: feeding/eating disturbance due to lack of interest, sensory characteristics of food, or concern about the consequences of eating
  • Binge-Eating Disorder: consuming more food in a specific period of time than most individuals normally would without purging behaviors
  • Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorders: symptoms characteristic of other disorders, but do not meet the full criteria

As you can see, the criteria needed for a clinical diagnosis of an eating disorder can be a bit complex. Diagnosis requires a qualified professional for accurate specifiers. 

Eating Disorders require a clinical diagnosis – but what about disordered eating? Is it the same thing? According to mental health professionals, there are some very important distinctions between the two.what actually is disordered eating

Disordered Eating

Disordered eating is defined as irregular behaviors surrounding eating that do not meet criteria for an eating disorder as defined by the DSM’s diagnostic criteria. 

That definition might sound like disordered eating is a step down from a full-blown eating disorder. However, disordered eating can cause a significant amount of anxiety for someone. Additionally, preoccupation with food or dieting can sometimes be the slippery slope towards a diagnosed eating disorder. 

To more fully understand disordered eating, let’s look at an example:

Social media sites like Instagram seem like a great way to gain inspiration, right? Transformation photos, exercise tutorials, and meal plans aplenty. You start following fitness and healthy recipe accounts after the holiday season to kickstart your year. 

At first glance, they seem to be full of helpful tips and tricks to make quick and easy healthy meals. Beautiful photos of delicious looking healthy snacks inspire you and your grocery list. However, as you spend more time diving into hashtags, accounts, and trends, you notice your eating habits are changing. This is the dark side of social media – how #gymlife or #Whole30 can negatively impact and influence your eating and exercise habits. 

Photos of girls that lift and meal prep every day has convinced you to skip two a day a few times a week. 

Maybe you don’t realize until a close friend or family member points it out or until you have pushed your body to its brink, but one day (hopefully) you come to the realization that you were caught up in a whirlwind of fad diets and photoshopped bodies. 

Disordered Eating Can Happen Quickly

The behavior described above is just one example of behavior that could qualify as disordered eating. It was an irregular behavior surrounding eating that did not continue over a long period of time.

At the time, you simply seemed preoccupied with “healthy” eating but are quick to recognize your irrational eating choices and are able to reassess. You have a supportive group of friends, who sympathize and then cheer you on to continue what you know is a healthy, moderated relationship with food and eating.

With the availability of social media increasing at a seemingly exponential rate, it is no surprise that the prevalence of disordered eating is on the rise. Signs of disordered eating might seem more common just because they’re present on social media. Obsessive calorie counting, obsessive exercise routines, or a strict avoidance of several certain types of foods might seem like just another thing people are doing to be “healthy”. 

Key Differences to Be Aware Of With Disordered Eating

The key difference between eating disorders and disordered eating is the frequency with which the unusual and irregular patterns surrounding eating occur. Those suffering from eating disorders are often unable to think about much else. Their thoughts are consumed with their relationship with food and eating. And can be so overwhelming that they are often unable to focus on their daily tasks of living. 

managing disordered eating

Red Flags

Disordered eating can sometimes be a warning sign of an eating disorder to come. 

If you are find that that you are exhibiting the following potential warning signs, you may want to reach out for professional help. 

  • The use of laxatives or diet pills to manage weight becomes more and more frequent
  • Fasting becomes a daily ritual in the pursuit of avoiding weight gain 
  • It is becoming common for you to self-induce vomiting after every dinner

Please bear in mind it is not necessary to wait until these behaviors become increasingly frequent. You can speak with a therapist or counselor at any time. 

Managing Disordered Eating 

Even if disordered eating does not consume your daily thoughts, it might present some challenges. A mental health professional can help you work through some of the challenges that disordered eating might present. If you struggle with: 

  • Body image issues
  • Anxiety surrounding food/eating
  • Fear of your gaining weight
  • Feelings of shame
  • Obsessive thoughts about food/eating or your body image

A professional can help you. Integrative Life Center has a strong team of qualified mental health professionals ready to assist with healthy coping skills, life goals, and becoming more empowered in your eating habits as well as yourself. 

Therapy can help you redirect negative self talk, respecting your body’s optimal nutrition needs, and allow you to become more confident and content with yourself. 

Reach out today to speak with a member of the ILC team to begin your journey to healing. 


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