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The Difference Between Eating Disorders and Disordered Eating

In any individual, eating disorders can be tough to notice or diagnose, especially because they are so common. Diet-culture and the glorification of over-exercise may leave many warning signs of eating disorders unnoticed and are sometimes mistakenly seen as positive instead of worrisome.

It can be confusing to distinguish the difference between disordered eating and eating disorders. There is a gray area which disordered eating sits because of the potential less severe or less frequent restricting, purging, overeating, or irregular eating patterns. These patterns are usually much more frequent, and sometimes obsessive, in eating disorders. In this blog, we will dive into the differences between disordered eating and eating disorders.

What Disordered Eating May Look Like

In short terms, disordered eating includes unhealthy behaviors including anything from food and eating to what we think about our body image. These behaviors are usually promoted by the desire to lose weight or be “healthier” but, most likely, the diet will not actually work. There are studies that show that those who diet frequently may end up gaining weight, which is the opposite of what most diets advertise. Diets very frequently lead to disordered eating in anyone of any age. Disordered eating may also lead to severe health complications; it is important to stay vigilant of the warning signs and symptoms that you or someone else may be showing. Common examples of disordered eating are as follows:

  • Dieting or restriction of specific foods
  • Cleanses of food or liquid
  • Hyper-focus on appearance
  • Skipping meals throughout the day
  • Misusing supplements
  • Taking diet pills
  • Focus on food and appearance on social media
  • Undereating or overeating

Unfortunately, disordered eating is extremely common due to the normalization of many of the above examples. Some forms of disordered eating are more common than others, and some people may engage in one or more at a time.

What an Eating Disorder May Look Like

Eating disorders are severe, potentially life-threatening mental illnesses. Those who are affected by an eating disorder experience serious disturbance in behaviors, thoughts, and feelings related to food and body image. This can lead to severe medical complications, mental and physical issues, and social isolation.

There are different types of diagnosable eating disorders, including anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder (BED), or other specified feeding or eating disorder (OSFED). Many eating disorders include extreme fixation on food and/or body weight or shape that impairs a person’s everyday life and becomes an unhealthy obsession. Those who have avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID); in contrast, often have a lack of interest in specific foods due to taste or textures that result in physical complications.

Signs and symptoms of these eating disorders can include:

  • Dramatic weight loss or weight gain
  • An obsessive preoccupation with food or body image
  • Changes in food intake
  • Purging, restricting, or binge eating
  • Misuse of diet pills or laxatives
  • Eating in secret or hiding food
  • Feeling out of control with food
  • Medical complications
    • Dizziness or fainting
    • Menstrual irregularities
    • Dry skin
    • Hair loss
    • Digestion problems
    • Heart disease
    • Organ failure
    • Co-occurring mental disorders

When Does Disordered Eating Turn Into an Eating Disorder?

The trickiest part of this discussion is the turning point – when disordered eating becomes an eating disorder. Understanding when the transition happens is difficult, but thankfully, there are a few questions to ask that can help you understand.

  • Are these patterns of behaviors?
  • Is there an excessive preoccupation with food and body image?
  • Is there any impairment?

If the answer was yes to these questions, it’s likely an eating disorder.

Looking at the progression of disordered behaviors can be helpful in determining the level of severeness. Below are simple ways to determine if disordered eating has escalated into an eating disorder.

  • Weight management
    • When health-promoting behaviors lead to infrequent dieting, then frequent dieting, which in turn leads to unhealthy weight management
  • Physical activity
    • Starts with moderate activity, leading to minimal or excessive exercise, then obsessive exercise or no exercise at all, reaching an unhealthy degree of physical activity
  • Eating
    • Begins with regular eating patterns, moving to erratic eating, then binge eating or restricting then turning to unhealthy eating patterns

If any of the above examples sound familiar to you or a loved one, it may be time to assess if an eating disorder is prevalent. If you are struggling to determine an eating disorder even with the examples, feel free to take our eating disorder quiz or reach out for additional support.

Factors that Assist in Eating Disorder Development

There are many risk factors in the development of eating disorders, including genetics, attention to detail, perfectionism, impulsiveness, past and present trauma, and social influences like social media and culture. Eating disorders can develop in anyone regardless of age, gender, race, and more. Other factors can be a drastic change to someone’s diet by either undereating or overeating. Stress, in addition to other co-occurring illnesses like depression, can be a significant contributor in eating disorders.

Getting Professional Help

Sometimes the line of disordered eating to an eating disorder is tough to distinguish. If questions or concerns remain it is best to seek professional help. If you know someone suffering from an eating disorder, or you are experiencing symptoms yourself, it is important to reach out to get help as soon as possible. Veritas Collaborative has many different care options and is committed to offering the very best evidence-based care to our patients. Please reach out to us at 855-875-5812 to discuss more.

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