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Disordered eating vs. eating disorders

Reviewed by Stephanie Steinman, PhD, CSAC

Broken green plate on a white background

Despite sounding very similar, disordered eating and eating disorders aren’t the same. But it is possible for one to lead to the other: Disordered eating behavior can easily develop into an eating disorder. Both conditions can affect people of any gender, age, race, ethnicity, body weight, or economic background—and both are treatable.

What are eating disorders?

Eating disorders are mental health conditions involving serious disruptions to a person’s relationship with food. In addition to harming mental and physical well-being, an eating disorder can become life-threatening.1

The American Psychiatric Association’s current diagnostic manual, the DSM-5, has specific criteria to diagnose eating disorders, including:

  • Anorexia nervosa: restriction of calories and fear of gaining weight lead to significantly low body weight
  • Binge-eating disorder: repeatedly eating unusually large amounts of food in a single sitting (to the point of physical discomfort) and feeling upset about and unable to control the behavior
  • Bulimia nervosa: a pattern of binge eating followed by attempts to prevent weight gain (such as exercising too much, taking laxatives or diet pills, or vomiting)
  • Other specified feeding or eating disorders (OSFED): a group of eating disorders that don’t meet all the criteria for the above conditions but still cause serious distress or impairment (some of these disorders have symptoms of anorexia, binge eating, or bulimia, but at lower frequencies)

More than 28 million Americans—about 9% of the total US population—will be diagnosed with an eating disorder at some point in their lives.2

What is disordered eating?

“Disordered eating” is a broad term describing unhealthy eating behaviors that don’t fit the DSM-5 criteria for any of the above diagnoses. A person with disordered eating has an unhealthy relationship with food. They may have some signs and symptoms of an eating disorder, but their behaviors are more subtle or nuanced.

Disordered eating behaviors

It can be hard to determine if someone’s eating is disordered. Signs and symptoms may include:

  • Binge eating or undereating
  • Misusing laxatives or diuretics
  • Dieting or following unnecessary eating restrictions
  • Eating to deal with feelings
  • Extreme concern about body shape and size
  • Preoccupation with controlling food or eating habits

When does disordered eating become an eating disorder?

Disordered eating behaviors can accelerate to a point where they become a pattern—a priority around which a person plans out their days, interfering with normal functioning. Once a person becomes stuck in the pattern of an eating disorder, it can be very hard to return to normal eating habits.

People with disordered eating behaviors can avoid developing an eating disorder if they seek out therapy and other treatment. Early intervention can make it easier to overcome symptoms.

What causes disordered eating?

A variety of external and internal factors can cause disordered eating. Some are within our control, while others aren’t.

Cultural attitudes about weight and beauty can cause a person to develop symptoms, as can pressure from family, partners, friends, community members, advertising, and media.3

Internally, many people feel pressure to lose weight or maintain a certain physique. Genetic predispositions, mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression, and differences in brain function can also contribute to disordered eating.

Diet culture

Diet culture has a profound influence on beauty ideals in many cultures. This strong influence can affect when, where, how, and what we choose to eat, and lead to disordered eating.

Is intermittent fasting disordered eating?

People who participate in intermittent fasting limit their eating to very specific times, often with the goal of weight loss.4 They may also limit the type and amount of food they eat. Intermittent fasting is currently popular as a diet trend, but in some people it’s associated with disordered eating.5

Treatment options

If you think your eating habits may be unhealthy, look for professional help from a doctor or mental health practitioner. With treatment, recovery is possible. Browse our directory to find a licensed therapist who specializes in eating disorders and disordered eating. Therapy can also help treat other mental health conditions, such as anxiety or depression, that may contribute to disordered eating.

Get help now

If you’re in crisis, call 1-800-931-2237 to reach the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) Helpline, or text NEDA to 741741.

About the author

The editorial team at therapist.com works with the world’s leading clinical experts to bring you accessible, insightful information about mental health topics and trends.

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