What Is Disordered Eating?

Disordered eating refers to a range of irregular eating behaviors that may or may not warrant a diagnosis of a specific eating disorder. Eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa, are diagnosed according to criteria specified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5).

Some estimates state that 5% to 20% of people in the population struggle with symptoms that do not meet the full criteria of an eating disorder. For example, some people may binge or purge at times but not often enough to be diagnosed with bulimia. However, even cases of disordered eating that do not meet DSM-5 criteria for eating disorders can lead to significant distress.

man sitting at home, eating burgers, and watching a sports match alone

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Signs and Symptoms

Physical Symptoms

The most common physical symptoms of disordered eating include:

  • Significant fluctuations in weight
  • Stomach complaints and pain
  • Changes in bowel habits
  • Changes in menstrual regularity, including stopped or missed periods
  • Feeling dizzy, weak, or tired
  • Fainting
  • Changes in skin and hair (such as being dry and brittle)
  • Acid-related dental problems, including cavities and erosion of enamel (caused by purging)

Emotional Signs

The most common emotional signs include:

  • Being preoccupied with weight, food, dieting, calories, and carbohydrates to the point that eating and managing weight become a primary concern over other activities
  • Being preoccupied with body image, body size or shape, a specific part of the body, and weight
  • Significantly limiting the variety of foods by restricting whole categories of food and only considering a very small number of categories of food safe to eat
  • Performing specific food rituals
  • Withdrawing from social eating activities

Disordered Eating vs. Eating Disorder

The term “disordered eating” is a descriptive phrase, not a diagnosis. Many people who have disordered eating patterns may fit the criteria for an eating disorder. It is also possible to have disordered eating patterns that do not fit within the current confines of an eating disorder diagnosis.

Risks of Disordered Eating

Many people who suffer with disordered eating patterns either minimize or do not fully realize the impact these patterns have on their mental and physical health. Complications that disordered eating can cause include:

  • A greater risk of obesity and eating disorders
  • Bone loss
  • Gastrointestinal disturbances
  • Electrolyte and fluid imbalances
  • Low heart rate and blood pressure
  • Increased anxiety
  • Depression and social isolation

Who’s At Risk of Disordered Eating?

Body dissatisfaction is a well-replicated risk factor for disordered eating in research studies, but not all individuals with body dissatisfaction exhibit disordered eating.

One study that examined the role of perceptions of social norms on the relationship between body dissatisfaction and disordered eating found that norms of peer thinness and peer acceptability interacted with body dissatisfaction to encourage disordered eating behaviors among college-aged women. This was not true, however, for college-aged men.

The pressure may be even higher for those in “lean” sports, where thinner denotes better performance and societal perception. One study that looked at the risk of disordered eating among lean and non-lean sports found that the primary influence of disordered eating in female athletes came from external social pressures that may therefore dictate their exercise and nutritional habits.

When to Seek Help

Ask yourself these questions to determine if you need help:

  • Do you use food to escape from stress?
  • Does the number on your weighing scale affect your thinking?
  • Are you constantly thinking of food?
  • Do you binge eat?

Treatment

People who suspect they have disordered eating can seek treatment with a mental health professional. Psychotherapy can help people understand their relationship with food, achieve body acceptance, and explore the relationship patterns and other psychological issues that contribute to disordered eating. 

Often people with disordered eating are unaware that their eating patterns are problematic or harmful. Working with a dietitian who has a background in counseling patients with eating disorders can help a person get the help they need for their disordered eating and prevent it from progressing to an eating disorder.

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Article Sources
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  1. Cleveland Clinic. How to recognize the warning signs of disordered eating (and what to do). Published August 29, 2018.

  2. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. What is disordered eating? Updated February 2020.

  3. Forney KJ, Ward RM. Examining the moderating role of social norms between body dissatisfaction and disordered eating in college students. Eat Behav. 2013 Jan;14(1):73-8. doi:10.1016/j.eatbeh.2012.10.017

  4. Wells EK, Chin AD, Tacke JA, Bunn JA. Risk of disordered eating among Division I female college athletes. Int J Exerc Sci. 2015 Jul 15;8(3):256-264.

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