What’s the difference between disordered eating and an eating disorder? And what are the signs? We’re covering it all in today’s post.
Today’s post is another instalment in my spreading awareness for Canadian Eating Disorder Awareness Week (February 1-7). After sharing my orthorexia story yesterday and what orthorexia is, I received many questions from my Instagram community as well as interest in learning more.
It can be hard to detect signs of disordered eating because many of them are seen as acceptable or “normal” in society today. Because of this, disordered eating can go unchecked and stick with you for many years.
Living in a healthy, balanced, enjoyable way is difficult when we have an unhealthy relationship with food. So in today’s post I’m going to share some insights into what disordered eating looks like and also the difference between it and a full-blown eating disorder.
Before I get started, I want you to know that if you or someone you know is struggling with disordered eating, you are not alone, and there is nothing to be ashamed of. There is so much wonderful support for you (I’ll share some resources below). Know that I have totally been there and I’m here for you!
Disordered Eating vs. Eating Disorders
The terms ‘disordered eating’ and ‘eating disorder’ seem so similar that they can get mixed up, but there are subtle differences between the two. Let me clarify them here.
In order to be diagnosed with an eating disorder, you must meet specific criteria as outlined by the The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) by the American Psychiatric Association. This will totally depend on the type, for example: anorexia, bulimia, binge-eating disorder, etc.
Eating disorders typically involve a few key factors: negative behaviours, obsession, and functionality (impeding normal daily life)
Disordered eating on the other hand can exist without the diagnosis of a specific eating disorder (although sometimes can warrant a diagnosis depending on severity) and is generally defined as various forms of irregular, abnormal eating behaviours.
While disordered eating is different from an eating disorder, it’s still serious and should not be taken lightly. Those with disordered eating behaviours still experience disruptions to their daily life and mental/emotional wellbeing, and are at higher risk of developing an eating disorder.
Signs of Disordered Eating
The following 7 signs are associated with disordered eating behaviours:
1. Anxiety associated with specific foods (e.g. food phobia or “food fears”)
2. Rigid food and/or exercise routines or rituals
3. Feelings of guilt and shame associated with food choices
4. Obsession with food related to weight and/or body image that negatively affects daily life
5. Feeling out of control around food, including compulsive eating
6. “Starting fresh tomorrow” or using food restriction, fasting, purging, or exercise to “make up for eating bad foods”
7. Chronic weight fluctuations, yo-yo dieting
Nowadays, these kinds of behaviours around food are very common and even considered quite normal. Negative food talk toward other people or oneself, known as food shaming, breeds negativity toward food and perpetuates a culture in which disordered eating is normal. This is exacerbated by diet culture, whereby the need to be thin or manipulate your physical appearance through food and exercise is promoted and desired, as well as the rise in “clean” eating and “non-toxic” living.
There’s no doubt that the gluten-free diet, veganism, keto, or the paleo diet have a useful (and sometimes even necessary!) place in many people’s lives, but in some cases, they can be a guise for disordered eating. I would argue that a lot of people use these diets or lifestyles as a way to control their food intake in a disordered way.
Of course, not everyone who follows specific dietary rules or plans have an eating disorder, especially when we consider those who follow a specific diet for a medical reason, such as Celiac Disease or lactose intolerance, or for ethical reasons. However, these diets can put you at risk of developing issues with your relationship with food in future. The social acceptability as well as prominence of these diets throughout social media also makes disordered eating more difficult to detect in those who are struggling.
Not only do the characteristics of disordered eating make it difficult to nourish yourself in an enjoyable, balanced way, but it keeps you stuck in a start-stop cycle of eating healthy or following a diet, and then “falling off the wagon” and feeling guilty, a cycle that continuously repeats.
Healing Your Relationship with Food
Healing your relationship with food or recovering from disordered eating behaviours takes a lot of time and patience, and that’s okay! It’s to be expected. It simply takes time to shift your beliefs and habits around food. Here are some examples of ways one can begin to improve their relationship with food:
- Having awareness. This is an important first step.
- Identifying thoughts and emotions around food
- Questioning your food rules, where they came from, and if they’re truly serving you
- Learning about mindful eating practices and intuitive eating can be an invaluable part of the journey. I highly recommend the book Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch for anybody, especially those who want to get out of the dieting mindset.
- Unfollowing social accounts that perpetuate disordered or rigid eating or that make you feel bad about your health or body
You might find my blog post on How to Create a Healthy Relationship with Food helpful. I also plan on sharing more information on healing your relationship with food in future posts.
If you need more help and are concerned that you or someone you know may have an eating disorder, seek help from a doctor, psychologist, and/or nutritionist or Dietitian that specializes in this area. Some common treatments may include food exposure therapy (exposing yourself to food fears) and response prevention, behaviour modification, cognitive restructuring, various relaxation techniques, and education on scientifically sound nutrition information to better understand and let go of false food beliefs.
Remember that you are not alone if you are struggling with any of the above signs of disordered eating. If you have any questions, please leave them below! Additionally, here are some helpful resources: