Disordered Eating vs. Eating Disorder

Reviewed by Diane Warns

Despite sounding very similar, disordered eating and eating disorders are not the same thing. It is, however, possible for one to lead to the other.

What Is Disordered Eating?

Disordered eating is a broad definition used to describe abnormal eating behaviors that don’t fit the four eating disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5): anorexia nervosa, binge eating, bulimia nervosa, and other specified feeding or eating disorders. A person with disordered eating has an unhealthy relationship with food that may be more subtle or nuanced than someone with an eating disorder. 

Disordered Eating vs. Eating Disorder: What’s the Difference?

Over 28 million Americans1 will be diagnosed with an eating disorder at some point in their lives—this accounts for about 9%2 of the total population of the United States. The DSM-5 has specific criteria to diagnose four eating disorders: 

  • Anorexia nervosa
  • Binge eating
  • Bulimia nervosa
  • Other specified feeding or eating disorder

Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia nervosa is a refusal to eat enough calories to sustain a healthy body weight. People with anorexia are often extremely underweight and may have body dysmorphic syndrome, which distorts the way they see themselves. They fear weight gain, which is why they refuse to eat appropriately. 

Binge Eating

Binge eating is when someone eats unusually large amounts of food in a single sitting. A person who binges will eat past the point of fullness to the point that they are physically uncomfortable. They often eat very quickly and lack a sense of control over this behavior. This is a recurrent behavior that is associated with negative emotions, such as sadness, guilt, and shame. 

Bulimia

Bulimia nervosa is a pattern of binge eating followed by behaviors meant to prevent weight gain. People with bulimia eat extreme amounts of food during their binge. They may engage in excessive exercise, take laxatives or diet pills, or even force themselves to vomit after their binge. 

Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder

A person diagnosed with other specified feeding or eating disorder can have symptoms of anorexia nervosa, binge eating, or bulimia nervosa. For example, a confirmed diagnosis for binge eating or bulimia nervosa typically requires recurrence of the associated behaviors at least once a week. Someone who follows the criteria for these disorders at a lower frequency would qualify for a diagnosis for other specified feeding or eating disorder. 

People with disordered eating may have some signs and symptoms of an eating disorder, but their behaviors are more subtle. They fail to meet the criteria for an eating disorder despite the obviously abnormal behaviors they have toward eating. 

Disordered Eating Behaviors

It can be difficult to determine if someone has disordered eating. However, once you begin to spot the signs, it becomes clear that their behaviors and attitudes toward eating aren’t healthy or normal. Some of the signs and symptoms may include: 

  • Binge eating
  • Abusing laxatives or diuretics
  • Unnecessary eating restrictions or dieting
  • Emotional eating

When Does Disordered Eating Become an Eating Disorder?

Disordered eating behaviors can easily develop into an eating disorder. Typically, a person with disordered eating behaviors accelerates to a point where they fall into a pattern. Their disorder becomes a priority around which they plan out their days. It can cause impairment and interfere with their ability to function normally. 

People with disordered eating behaviors can avoid developing an eating disorder if they seek therapy and other treatment. A therapist can help them understand that their behavior may be a result of their need for control over some aspect of their lives or a lack of self-esteem

Early intervention makes it easier to triumph over disordered eating symptoms. Once a person becomes engulfed in the pattern of their eating disorder, it can be very difficult to return to normal eating habits. 

Do I Have an Eating Disorder or Disordered Eating Habits?

If you think you might have an eating disorder or disordered eating, seek professional help. The only way you can confirm a diagnosis is through an evaluation from a doctor or mental health professional. 

What Causes Disordered Eating?

A variety of factors can cause disordered eating. Some are within your control, but others aren’t. The most common contributing factors are: 

  • Genetics
  • Biochemistry
  • Cultural pressure
  • Relational pressure
  • Personal pressure
  • Other mental illnesses

Most of the causes for disordered eating are external influences. Cultural attitudes about weight and beauty can pressure someone to develop symptoms, as well as pressure from people with whom they have relationships. These external pressures can include family and friends. 

Other people are genetically predisposed to developing disordered eating, or feel an internal pressure to lose weight or maintain a certain physique. Mental illnesses and chemical imbalances in the brain can also contribute to disordered eating. 

Disordered Eating and Dieting

Diet culture holds great influence over the ideal for beauty in many cultures. It can impact when, where, how, and what people choose to eat. This strong influence can be a catalyst for the onset of disordered eating behaviors. 

Is Intermittent Fasting Disordered Eating?

Intermittent fasting can be normal, safe, and healthy if done under the direction of a doctor. When someone chooses to engage in intermittent fasting on their own, it is usually considered disordered eating. This is because people who participate in intermittent fasting limit their eating to very specific times of the day, often with the goal of weight loss. They may also limit the type and amount of food they eat to achieve this end. 

Seeking Treatment

If you suspect that you might have disordered eating or an eating disorder, you can benefit from therapy. You can find a therapist in your area who specializes in eating disorders and disordered eating in our directory. They can also help you with any other mental health conditions you may have, as disordered eating often stems from depression, anxiety, or other disorders. 

Get Help Now

If you are in crisis, call 1-800-931-2237 to reach the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline, or text NEDA to 741741. Visit their website to see the days and times they are available via phone, online messenger, or text messages.