As a dietitian, I work with folks across the spectrum of disordered eating and eating disorders. Everyone who struggles in their relationship with food deserves help, whether they have a diagnosis or not. Still, disordered eating can be tough to define, and even tougher to spot in yourself. Here’s more about what disordered eating is and what you can do about it.
What is disordered eating? How is it different from an eating disorder?
Plenty of people know what an eating disorder is. (Loosely, at least.) But when it comes to disordered eating, the definition is much less clear.
According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, “disordered eating is used to describe a range of irregular eating behaviors that may or may not warrant a diagnosis of a specific eating disorder.”
That’s pretty vague, but it’s still helpful. One way to think about it is that all eating disorders are a form of disordered eating, but not all disordered eating is considered an eating disorder.
This doesn’t mean that disordered eating isn’t serious, though. Eating disorders all have specific diagnostic criteria, set by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). Some diagnostic criteria outlines certain behaviors, like restricting food or purging. But there’s also criteria for how often a person engages in these behaviors.
For example, binge eating and purging are criteria for bulimia nervosa. But, in order to be diagnosed with bulimia, someone needs to engage in these behaviors at least once a week (on average) for at least three months.
Similarly, while anorexia nervosa is characterized by food restriction and body image preoccupation, not everyone who restricts food will be diagnosed with anorexia.
But, all of these behaviors count as disordered eating, even if they might not be considered a diagnosable eating disorder. (Disordered eating isn’t an official diagnosis.)
Another confusing piece of this is the Otherwise Specified Feeding and Eating Disorder (OSFED) diagnosis. This is an official eating disorder diagnosis, used when people meet but some or not all the criteria for another eating disorder. Some people with disordered eating will be diagnosed with OSFED. But some won’t, because they don’t meet enough of the criteria.
What are the signs and symptoms of disordered eating?
Just because disordered eating isn’t an official diagnosis, doesn’t mean that it’s not serious. It can really worsen your quality of life, and it can have a negative impact on your health. I’ve worked with many people who have disordered eating but have never been diagnosed with an eating disorder. Most of them are extremely preoccupied with food and body, to the point that it interferes with their life.
Some signs of disordered eating are:
- Skipping meals
- Constantly dieting
- Hopping from one diet to another
- Avoiding certain foods or food groups (unless you’re allergic)
- Only eating at certain times of day (AKA intermittent fasting)
- Obsessively counting calories
- Having “cheat days” on the weekends where you eat otherwise forbidden foods
- Feeling out of control around food
- Binge eating
- Always thinking about food
- Planning all of your meals in advance, so that you know exactly what will go into your body
- Not having any flexibility with what you eat
- Avoiding social occasions because you’re worried about what food will or won’t be there
- Tracking all of your food in an app or a journal (like MyFitnessPal)
Disordered eating also has side-effects, or symptoms, that might show up, like:
- Fatigue or tiredness throughout the day
- Difficulty concentrating
- Feeling weak
- Rapidly losing or gaining weight
- Constantly losing and regaining weight
- Digestive issues like gas, bloating, and constipation
- Difficulty sleeping
- Excessive soreness
- Muscle tears of bone fractures
- Worsened athletic performance
What to do if you’re struggling in your relationship with food
While disordered eating can really worsen your quality of life, it’s also incredibly common. Many people struggle with disordered eating for their whole lives and assume it’s normal. Our culture is obsessed with dieting so always being on a diet might not seem like a bad thing. Likewise, lots of people obsess over calories and macros, so you might not realize that food tracking apps are harming you.
But ultimately, the best way to nourish your body and protect your mental health is to break free from disordered eating and dieting. If you want to start exploring how you might end your disordered eating behaviors, here are a few blog posts that might help you out:
The Binge Restrict Cycle: How Dieting Causes Binge Eating
How to Eat Intuitively When You Don’t Trust Your Intuition About Food
What Is Orthorexia — And Do I Have It?
Body Acceptance Is Key to Intuitive Eating. Here’s How to Practice It.
Since intuitive eating is the opposite of disordered eating, I also recommend the Intuitive Eating book and the Intuitive Eating Workbook.
It can be really tough to overcome your disordered eating behaviors alone, especially if you’ve been living with them a long time. That’s why I recommend working with a professional or a team of professionals who specialize in an anti-diet approach. My nutrition counseling is great for folks with eating disorders or disordered eating (and you can learn more about it here). And there are so many great therapists out there than can help you with the mental health piece of healing your relationship with food.
If you’re struggling with an eating disorder or disordered eating, I can help! I’m a dietitian who takes an anti-diet, body-positive, identity-affirming approach to recovery and healing your relationship with food. . Learn more about nutrition counseling, offered in Raleigh, NC, and virtually to clients in several states. Not ready to commit to counseling but want more information about the anti-diet approach? Subscribe to my weekly newsletter.