Disordered Eating Patterns vs. Eating Disorders: What’s the Difference?

What’s the difference between having “disordered eating patterns” and having a diagnosed eating disorder? Each must be taken seriously, as both are valid and should be addressed in treatment. Both conditions share similar characteristics but it is important to differentiate between them to gain insight into the proper course of action for treatment.

Someone who experiences disordered eating patterns likely has an unhealthy relationship with food but does not meet the full criteria for a diagnosed eating disorder. Nonetheless, struggling with your relationship with food is extremely important to address because it can often lead to a fully developed eating disorder with dangerous consequences. Having a chronic unhealthy relationship with food is known to cause feelings of guilt, inadequacy, and shame. It involves feeling as if food has control over one’s life, impacting decisions and behavior in a negative way. Eating behaviors can become erratic, disordered, and obsessive, leading to a cycle of unhealthy behaviors that must be overcome to reach a place of health and balance.

Further, a person struggling with an unhealthy relationship with food will often turn to food for comfort in times of stress or sadness. They will begin to categorize food as ‘good’ or ‘bad’; thinking about foods as being ‘better’ than others in terms of outcome. This type of thought process can lead to guilt for every single bite taken and can over-complicate a person’s relationship with something as vital as food. Eating can become an internal struggle, something completely removed from pleasure and enjoyment, and instead, a chore of guilt and calculation.

Another type of behavior that indicates an unhealthy relationship with food is a consistent dieting mentality. Most commonly known as ‘yo-yo dieting,’ this behavior is often seen when a person feels like they must follow restrictive rules and guidelines in order to be healthy. They may try to cut out entire food groups or count their calories meticulously, removing the enjoyment of food for a goal that may be unrealistic or unattainable. This lack of balance often leads to guilt, restriction and overeating once the strict guidelines are abandoned.

If left untreated, patterns of disordered eating behavior can lead to a fully developed eating disorder. Eating disorders can be classified under different DSM-5 diagnoses, such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge-eating disorder, and more. Eating disorders are severe, and the physical and psychological health consequences can be long-lasting and even fatal. People with anorexia nervosa, an eating disorder characterized by an extreme fear of gaining weight and an abnormally low body weight, often restrict food intake and downplay the importance of hunger. Those with bulimia nervosa, an eating disorder that involves recurrent episodes of bingeing and purging, eat large amounts of food in one sitting, eventually attempting to compensate and avoid weight gain through self-induced vomiting, use of laxatives, or extreme and excessive exercise. Individuals with binge-eating disorder often have episodes in which they consume large amounts of food in one sitting, without attempting to compensate by purging.

The causes of eating disorders are multifaceted and include biological, psychological, and environmental influences. Although it’s unclear why some people develop an eating disorder and others do not, certain risk factors such as depression, trauma, compulsive thinking, hyper-perfectionism, and genetic predispositions, can increase a person’s likelihood for developing an eating disorder. Treatment of eating disorders typically include psychological, nutritional, and medical components. Each should be tailored to each individual’s needs.

Knowing the difference between disordered eating patterns and a diagnosable eating disorder can help inform the direction of one’s treatment. Although both are seen at the outpatient therapy level, sometimes people with diagnosed eating disorders struggle more with severe symptoms where they may benefit from a higher level of care. No treatment decisions should be made without proper assessment from a mental health professional. Each person’s journey is unique to them. At River Oaks Psychology, we urge you to contact us if you or a loved one is experiencing difficulties relating to food, body image, or any eating behaviors. We would be honored to work with you!


Written by Lauren Presutti


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