What Is the Difference Between Eating Disorders and Disordered Eating?
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The term eating disorder has been around for a long time and may be a familiar term to you. However, disordered eating may be less understood. Are they the same thing? Are they related? Does one precede the other? What is the difference between eating disorders and disordered eating?

What Are Eating Disorders?

Often believed to be simply behavioral, eating disorders are actually serious psychological disorders characterized by severe disturbances in eating behaviors that can be fatal. Stigmatized as lifestyle choices or weaknesses in character, they are a commonly overlooked category of mental health diagnoses.

Often based on a fear of food, the behaviors are merely symptoms of a much more severe psychological illness. External indicators include a preoccupation with food, body weight, or shape. Specific disorders are:

  • Anorexia Nervosa: marked by severely restricting food intake, avoiding food, eating minimal quantities of food, and weighing oneself repeatedly. The two subtypes are restrictive, severely restrictive eating, and binge-purge, where individuals consume large amounts of food and then purge by vomiting or using laxatives or diuretics. Both starvation and suicide are high risks with this disorder.
  • Bulimia Nervosa: marked by a patient’s frequent episodes of eating large quantities of food and feeling a lack of control, followed by forced vomiting, use of laxatives or diuretics, fasting, and excessive exercise or a combination of any or all of those to compensate. 
  • Binge-Eating Disorder: the most common eating disorder in the United States, patients have recurring uncontrolled episodes of eating large amounts of food and are usually overweight or obese.
  • Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID): previously known as selective eating disorder, patients limit the amount or type of food eaten. This disorder often has an earlier onset than other disorders, commonly beginning in middle childhood, and prevents children from consuming enough calories to grow and develop properly. Adults cannot maintain essential body functions due to low caloric intake.

Psychotherapy such as Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can be effective in the treatment of eating disorders. Psychiatric treatment of co-occurring depression or anxiety can also be helpful. In some situations, families may also be engaged in therapy and help assume responsibility for feeding a young patient with anorexia nervosa, for example, to improve eating habits. Because of the severity of the disorders, treatment is necessary to save lives.

Is Disordered Eating Different?

Disordered eating often involves some of the same symptoms and behaviors of eating disorders, but they are less frequent or severe and are not life-threatening. Those with disordered eating often experience feelings of guilt, shame, and failure. They may self-isolate, mainly out of fear of socializing with others when people are eating. This isolation can create social withdrawal and contribute to low self-esteem.

Mental health side effects also commonly associated with disordered eating are anxiety and depression, fatigue, and poor quality of sleep. Disordered eating also commonly co-occurs with addiction. Other physical symptoms include:

  • Malnourishment
  • Osteoporosis or osteopenia
  • Constipation or diarrhea
  • Headaches
  • Muscle cramps
  • Metabolic and nutritional issues

When left untreated, particularly the psychological causes, disordered eating can become a severe eating disorder. Psychotherapy is highly recommended.

What Are Some Types of Disordered Eating?

There are many symptoms of disordered eating, and patients may exhibit one or more of the following:

  • Dieting
  • Compulsive eating
  • Irregular or inflexible eating patterns
  • Skipping meals
  • Fasting
  • Binge eating
  • Anxiety around food or eating
  • Avoiding a food group or type of food
  • Self-induced vomiting
  • Diuretic, laxative, or enema misuse
  • Steroid or creatine use
  • Diet pill usage
  • Fluctuations in body weight
  • Using food as an emotional coping mechanism
  • Overexercising to make up for overeating

What Is Orthorexia?

Orthorexia extends beyond disordered eating but does not quite fit the criteria for an eating disorder, either. It is known as a nonclinical eating disorder. Orthorexia is an obsession with healthy eating, including associated restrictive behaviors. The thinking behind it is, “I’ll be safe if I eat safe foods.” However, due to the hyper-focusing on certain types of food only, orthorexia can lead to malnourishment.

What Is Healthy Eating in Recovery?

A well-balanced diet is still the healthiest way to meet your body’s nutritional needs. For those who have an eating disorder or experience disordered eating, simply learning to eat again is the most critical lesson to discover. Remember that eating issues are typically psychological and not physical and that therapy is just as important as what you eat or how often you eat. Keep this fact in mind—as long as you are eating, you are likely to be healthy.

What is the difference between eating disorders and disordered eating? Eating disorders are serious psychological disorders characterized by severe disturbances in eating behaviors that are often fatal. Disordered eating includes less severe eating behaviors such as dieting, compulsive eating, or inflexible eating patterns. Both can be detrimental to your mental and physical health. The Ho Tai Way – Recovery For Women recognizes that both eating disorders and disordered eating often co-occur with addiction. Our detox and residential treatment program offer education about nutrition with a licensed nutritionist for those with eating disorders. Located between the cool, calming mountains and the warm, sunny beaches of Southern California Costa Mesa, our facility provides trauma-informed care in a safe, tranquil refuge for healing. Our staff offers wisdom and compassion in a non-judgmental space as you begin your recovery from addiction and co-occurring disorders. Please contact us today at (714) 581-3974 for more information on our program.