When we hear the term “disordered eating,” we naturally assume it’s another way of saying one has an eating disorder. However, these terms are not interchangeable. So what distinguishes disordered eating from a full-blown eating disorder?  It’s all about the degree.


With an eating disorder, food intake and weight issues consume your thoughts and actions making it nearly impossible to focus on anything else (therefore considered more of a mental illness); often causing multiple, serious physical problems and, in severe cases, can become life threatening.

On the other hand, disordered eating is much more common and symptoms typically occur less frequently than those of an eating disorder. Changes in eating patterns due to momentary stressors, athletic events, or even an illness would be considered disordered eating. Disordered eating can be defined as an unhealthy relationship with food; whereas an eating disorder is a psychiatric illness that is far more complex.

Individuals with both disordered eating as well as eating disorders will develop atypical eating habits which can lead to nutritional deficiencies. The biggest concern for those with disordered eating is that it can lead to an eating disorder.

The William Alanson White Institute of Psychiatry, Psychoanalysis & Psychology shares the following:

1) Signs and Symptoms of Disordered Eating

Symptoms of disordered eating may include behavior, commonly associated with eating disorders, such as food restriction, binge eating, purging (via self-induced vomiting or excessive exercise, and use of diet pills and/or laxatives).  However, disordered eating might also include:

  • Self-worth or self-esteem based highly on body shape and weight
  • A disturbance in the way one experiences their body i.e. a person who falls in a healthy weight range, but continues to feel that they are overweight
  • Excessive or strict exercise routine
  • Obsessive calorie counting
  • Anxiety about certain foods or food groups
  • A rigid approach to eating: only eating certain foods, inflexible meal times, refusal to eat in restaurants or outside of one’s own home

2) Assessing the risk of Disordered Eating

As with other mental health issues, it is important to explore how and to what extent disordered eating is affecting your daily functioning.  Issues to consider include the following:

  • Concentration and ability to focus: do thoughts about food, body and exercise prevent concentration or impede performance at work or school?
  • Social life: is socializing compromised because it might require eating in a restaurant, consumption of foods that are scary or uncomfortable, or disruption of exercise routine?
  • Coping skills: Is food consumption or restriction used as way to manage life’s problems or cope with stressors?
  • Discomfort or anxiety: How much discomfort do thoughts of food and body cause?  Are these thoughts hard to shake and anxiety provoking?

A mental health professional can help to distinguish between disordered eating, eating disorders, a more normative diet and exercise patterns and determine whether you might be at risk.

3) Preventing and Managing Disordered Eating

Here are some things you can do to prevent or manage disordered eating:

  • Avoid fad or crash dieting: many diets are both too restrictive in terms of both quantity and variety, causing a feeling of deprivation and possibly lead to binge eating.  It is healthier to adopt a more inclusive meal plan in which all foods are incorporated in moderation.
  • Set healthy limits on exercise and focus on physical activities that are enjoyable.
  • Stop negative body talk: be mindful of overly critical talk about yourself or your body.
  • Throw away the scale: people with disordered eating often weight themselves daily or multiple times per day.

4) Treatment

The road to recovery with disordered eating starts with admitting that a problem exists. Although this can be really tough at first especially if your still clinging to the belief that weight loss is key to success, confidence and happiness. Remember that old habits are difficult to unlearn but the great news is that disordered behavior is learned behavior and this can be unlearned if you are motivated for change and willing to ask for help. Psychotherapy and the help of a Dietician specializing in this area is recommended to assist you on your road to recovery.


Disordered eating and eating disorders are different although they seem similar. If you feel you may have one or the other – don’t delay in seeking assistance. You never need to deal with this alone, a helping hand may be all you need.