What is Disordered Eating?

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Disordered eating is not an eating disorder, per se, but an abnormal eating behavior that can become dangerous if not addressed.

Many people obsess over healthy eating. We label certain foods as good and others as bad, count calories, celebrate weight loss, and use certain foods as rewards. Often this complex relationship with food falls into a behavior pattern called disordered eating.

While not defined as an eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia, disordered eating can lead to significant risk, and you shouldn’t take it lightly.

What is Disordered Eating?

Disordered eating occurs when an individual eats for reasons other than hunger or nourishment. Eating out of boredom or stress, to cover up emotions, skipping out on major food groups, or simply eating the same thing every day is disordered eating.

It’s any irregular or restrictive behavior around food and eating that is unhealthy and doesn’t meet the diagnostic criteria of an actual eating disorder.

The person’s goal may be to lose weight or increase overall health, but the preoccupation with food or dieting can be the first step toward an eating disorder. Avoiding certain foods, counting calories, and obsessing about exercise are also common.

Psychologists have found that these behaviors arise from a need for control. But, it is not entirely about food. Instead, it is a reaction to experiencing trauma. Dealing with trauma can lead people to seek ways to escape from their pain and control their environment. In some people, that focus is directed toward eating and food.

When you turn to rigid behaviors surrounding food to control your environment, you may develop a dangerous, disordered eating pattern that requires medical and psychological intervention to treat.

Disordered Eating vs. an Eating Disorder

Disordered eating and eating disorders have a great deal in common. The primary delineating factor between the two is the frequency and severity of the abnormal eating pattern. Both can stem from past trauma and a need to control circumstances, and both can lead to life-threatening medical emergencies if not treated effectively.

People who suffer from eating disorders are consumed with their relationship with food and eating. They rarely can think about anything else, so they become overwhelmed and unable to function healthily.

On the other hand, it is far more socially acceptable and deceptive to the individual involved. Fad diets and restrictive eating have become so common that they rarely raise red flags. In fact, some people view disordered eating as virtuous and even admirable. The media celebrates diet culture, which often fuels issues, and that destructive pattern can pave the way for significant disease.

Physical, Mental, and Emotional Effects

Disordered eating has many life-threatening consequences and the risk of developing an eating disorder.

Effects of disordered eating include: 

  • Malnutrition
  • Impaired cognition
  • Stunted and defective bone growth
  • Bone loss
  • Gastrointestinal issues
  • Electrolyte and fluid imbalances
  • Low heart rate and blood pressure
  • Physical, emotional, and mental stress
  • Increased risk of anxiety and depression
  • Social isolation

Signs and Symptoms

So how can you tell if you or someone you love is falling into a pattern of disordered eating behavior?

Signs and symptoms of disordered eating include:

  • Fluctuations in weight
  • Extreme and Frequent dieting
  • Anxiety associated with specific foods
  • Changes in skin and hair
  • Fainting
  • Social withdrawal or eating in private
  • Rigid food rituals and routines surrounding food and exercise
  • Fasting and/or purging
  • Compulsive eating habits
  • A feeling of loss of control around food
  • Stomach and bowel issues
  • Menstrual irregularity
  • Dizziness or fainting
  • Dry and brittle skin and hair
  • Dental issues
  • Focus on body image
  • Preoccupation with weight, food, dieting, calories, and carbohydrates

Disordered eating can progress into using diet pills or laxatives to maintain or lose weight, fasting daily, always looking for the latest fad for weight loss, or self-induced vomiting after meals.

The rigid behavior often begins with dieting that evolves into unhealthy patterns. Counting calories, fat grams, and lost pounds can spiral out of control and interfere with daily life.

Who is at Risk?

Disordered eating does not have a “type.” Anyone can suffer from it. But one aspect that unites many people is the experience of trauma or a low self-image. Physical and emotional reactions to traumatic events overwhelm people’s ability to cope and lead them to find ways to feel more in control of their lives.

Binge eating, food restriction, and other forms of disordered eating often provide pleasure and comfort, to fill a void, numb, or help people disassociate from trauma. Disturbing events such as childhood sexual abuse create a sense of body shame, leading people to begin habits that harm their bodies. In one clinical study, 70% of women diagnosed with an eating disorder had experienced a traumatic event.

Working with a therapist who can work with the client to identify unhealthy food relationships and, ultimately, the root cause of the problem is an essential part of breaking negative patterns and rebuilding a healthy relationship with food.

How We Can Help

Understanding the connection between the person and their disordered eating is the first step in treating the issue. Thus, the path to healing begins by understanding, accepting, and treating the cause. The next step will then be to learn how to manage your behavior and break destructive patterns.

All Counseling can help you connect to a therapist if you or someone you know is showing signs of disordered eating. Use All Counseling’s online therapist directory to find the help you need.