Disordered Eating: What It Is and How it Differs From Eating Disorders

Woman with a plate of food

Getty Images / Kelvin Murray

While there are eating behaviors most individuals can agree are unhealthy, that doesn't mean everyone is exempt from falling into those patterns from time to time. For some, this might look like eating past the point of fullness or over-indulging in response to negative emotions. Or perhaps you’ve noticed you have a tendency to yo-yo diet, swinging from fad to fad. While you might have a gut feeling that these behaviors aren’t helping you, it's important to note how serious they are, and evaluate whether or not you might be on a path toward an eating disorder.

The truth is, there’s often a fine line between an unhealthy eating behavior (disordered eating) and a diagnosed eating disorder. While the two have quite a bit of overlap, they're not the same thing.

If you suspect that you or someone you care about has an eating disorder, it’s best to leave a diagnosis to a qualified professional. However, some basic guidelines for understanding the difference between disordered eating and eating disorders can serve as a helpful foundation.

What Is Disordered Eating?

According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, “disordered eating is used to describe a range of eating behaviors that may or may not warrant the diagnosis of an eating disorder.”

In other words, everyone who has an eating disorder has disordered eating, but not everyone with disordered eating fits the diagnostic criteria for a specific disorder like anorexia nervosa or bulimia. Instead, disordered eating may look like certain beliefs or behaviors that don’t promote health or a good relationship with food.

How Disordered Eating Differs From Eating Disorders 

Eating disorders are serious, sometimes even fatal, conditions associated with severe disturbances in behaviors, thoughts, and emotions. These are typically diagnosed by criteria outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). Recognized eating disorders include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, ARFID, binge eating disorder, and other specified feeding and eating disorders (OSFED), a diagnosis that serves as a catch-all for less well-researched conditions like orthorexia nervosa or specific food phobias.

An eating disorder often has dire consequences for physical health (such as serious malnutrition or extreme weight gain or loss); disordered eating is less likely to manifest in this way. That said, disordered eating can still drastically affect an individual's quality of life. Having a relationship with food that’s fraught with fear, restriction, or guilt can steal the joy of eating, limit your ability to socialize, and even exacerbate health problems like depression and anxiety. Disordered eating is also often the first step toward an “official,” diagnosable eating disorder.

Signs and Symptoms of Disordered Eating

Each person's experience with an eating disorder is unique, so signs and symptoms may vary.

Signs of Disordered Eating

  • Strictly avoiding certain foods (even if you enjoy them) because they might be fattening
  • Not allowing yourself to eat when you’re hungry
  • Eating to soothe negative feelings like guilt, boredom, or sadness
  • Excluding large food groups as part of a “clean eating” regimen
  • Feeling fear toward certain foods or food groups
  • Frequently going on “crash” or fad diets 
  • Experiencing anxiety about eating with others
  • Fear of weight gain

If you or a loved one are coping with an eating disorder OR DISORDERED EATING, contact the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) Helpline for support at 1-800-931-2237. 

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Causes of Disordered Eating

From social media to glossy magazine covers, society is filled with messages about how we should look and eat. Diet culture is a likely culprit behind many people’s disordered relationship with food. As far back as 2006, research revealed that disordered eating was likely driven by the “cult of thinness” promoted in the media.

Another key factor in the development of unhealthy diet patterns could be a history of trauma. According to a 2018 study, exposure to trauma was associated with disordered eating in women, especially women of color.

Your social circle might also lead you to some not-so-healthy beliefs and behaviors around food. Parents' comments about what's on the dinner plate or friends obsessing over macronutrients can affect how you view certain foods as well. It's not just in-person influences that can have this impact; some research has found a correlation between the use of social networking sites and irregular eating behaviors—with social comparison being the most likely driver.

How to Cope With Disordered Eating

If you’ve identified some dietary patterns you’d like to change, there are steps you can take to curb disordered eating, veering from eating disorder territory.

Talk to a Safe Person

Sharing your feelings with a trusted friend or family member may be the best place to start. Seeking a professional counselor who can provide talk therapy for disordered eating is a wise course of action as well. A registered dietitian—especially one who specializes in disordered eating—can be another helpful resource.

Practice Mindfulness

Practicing mindful and intuitive eating could also go a long way toward healing your relationship with food. By incorporating principles of present-moment awareness during meals and practicing self-compassion, you’ll retrain yourself to both enjoy food and consume it in appropriate amounts.

Avoid Dieting

Steer clear of diets that heavily restrict calories or certain food groups. While they may produce weight loss or other health results for a short amount of time, these eating plans often do more harm and prove to not be sustainable.

Clean Up Your Social Feeds

While social media, TV, and music are all regular elements of society, they are also quick to spread harmful messaging. If you find yourself struggling with disordered eating, doing an audit of what you see and hear on social platforms is a great way to rid harmful, triggering messaging from your life.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

You always have the right to speak to your healthcare provider about problematic feelings or behaviors around food. But some signs and symptoms definitely warrant a visit to a doctor, dietitian, or therapist.

If you’ve gained or lost a significant amount of weight or are experiencing physical symptoms like fatigue or dizzy spells as a result of not eating, it’s time to get help. Similarly, if you feel unhealthy patterns of eating are interfering with your quality of life (such as keeping you from dining with friends or causing obsessive thoughts), don’t hesitate to make an appointment with a health professional.

A Word From Verywell

Because of their many similarities, it can be difficult to tease apart disordered eating from a full-blown eating disorder. A visit to a doctor, dietitian, or mental health professional can set the record straight on which one you’re experiencing. With the right interventions, you may find yourself on the path to a greater love of food—and perhaps even greater respect for yourself.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What are the risks of disordered eating?

    Disordered eating can easily lead to an eating disorder, so it’s important to address these behaviors sooner, rather than later. It’s also possible for disordered eating to have a negative impact on your everyday life, whether by bringing you down emotionally, interfering with your enjoyment of food in a social setting, or affecting your nutrition status.

  • How does diet culture impact disordered eating?

    Society is often saturated with messages about the “right” diet that will lead to weight loss or even physical perfection. This pervasive marketing plays into many disordered eating behaviors and beliefs. That said, diet culture is just one of many factors that can drive people toward unhealthy dietary patterns.

  • What is intuitive eating?

    Intuitive eating is a dietitian-developed approach to eating according to your body’s physical cues of hunger and fullness. Many people find its 10 principles of eating with mindful, judgment-free intention helpful for overcoming disordered eating.

5 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. What Is Disordered Eating?

  2. National Institute of Mental Health. Eating Disorders.

  3. Hesse-Biber S, Leavy P, Quinn C, and Zoino J. The mass marketing of disordered eating and Eating Disorders: The social psychology of women, thinness and culture. Women's Studies International Forum. 2006(29):208-224. doi:10.1016/j.wsif.2006.03.007

  4. Breland J, Donalson R, Dinh J, and Maguen, S. (2018) Trauma exposure and disordered eating: A qualitative study. Women & Health, 58:2, 160-174, doi:10.1080/03630242.2017.1282398

  5. Zhang J, Wang Y, Li Q, Wu C. The Relationship Between SNS Usage and Disordered Eating Behaviors: A Meta-Analysis. Front Psychol. 2021 Aug 2;12:641919. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2021.641919

By Sarah Garone, NDTR
Sarah Garone, NDTR, is a freelance health and wellness writer who runs a food blog.

Edited by
Lily Moe
Lily Moe for Verywell Fit

Lily Moe is a former fitness coach and current Editor for Verywell Fit. A wellness enthusiast, she can often be found in a hot yoga studio, trying a new recipe, or going for a long run in Central Park.

Learn about our editorial process