Eating Disorders vs. Disordered Eating 2023

Diet culture’s destructive relationship with food has led to many people’s catastrophic eating disorders and disordered eating habits. In an age of social media pop psychology, “eating disorder” and “disordered eating” are being used interchangeably.

On one hand, digital mental health awareness has helped people notice problematic eating practices and sometimes encouraged them to improve their relationship with food. But, conflating a broken connection with food with a serious, dangerous mental health disease like an eating disorder adds to the pandemic-spawned infodemic about health and wellbeing.

Yet, their symptoms often overlap, making it difficult for non-professionals to distinguish them. Eating disorders and disordered eating have many symptoms, including binge eating, feeling out of control around food, poor weight control that causes weight swings, and most crucially, a distorted body image. Mixing them up isn’t really people’s fault. Consult a specialist before diagnosing an eating disorder based primarily on internet research.

“When someone’s eating behaviors lead them away from regular functioning, this might be a significant signal of an eating problem,” says therapist Temimah Zucker, who has battled an eating disorder. A lady who worries her friends’ judgment while eating may not go out with them. A compulsion to exercise may cause someone to miss work or school many times. While these instances may seem excessive, persons battling regularly claim eating problems as affecting their social functioning and other obligations.”

The DSM does not consider disordered eating a mental illness. 50% have disordered eating. Globally, 9% have clinical eating problems.

In other words, while disordered eating can cause a person to obsess over what they’re eating and how it’s affecting their body, it doesn’t affect their lives as much as having an eating disorder does owing to its consistency, severity, and health effects. Zucker says an eating disorder’s food addiction may be “all-consuming” and “impair attention, the capacity to be present, and sleep, among other things.”

Disordered eating can lead to an eating disorder. Dr. Katherine Hill, an eating disorder specialist, says disordered eating seldom affects mental or physical health or self-esteem. “[G]enerally, persons with disordered eating aren’t suffering with common medical or psychological repercussions of an eating disorder, such mood swings, menstrual irregularities, [gastrointestinal] symptoms, bone density, or heart function.”

Disordered eating can include anxiety about trying new foods, regret over eating more than anticipated, missing meals, crash dieting, and covert snacking. These encounters may not uproot one’s life, but they upset one’s mental wellness, revealing how a broken connection with nourishment may affect one’s quality of life.

Zucker emphasizes addressing disordered eating, which can lead to an eating disorder. Dieticians, nutritionists, and therapists should be consulted immediately for dietary issues, she says.

Yet, disturbed eating may potentially be an eating disorder. Many are good at masking their eating issue, making it look milder than it is. “Parents and caregivers are often astonished to hear that their child has an eating issue and that it has been going on for a while without anybody knowing,” says doctor Dr. Hill.

Society’s fixation with possessing the perfect—or “impossible”—body is the origin of eating disorders and disordered eating behaviors. But, food culture should be curtailed when attractiveness threatens our health. Instead of calling our culture’s concern with unhealthy and unattainable standards abnormal and striving to fix them, we call people’s perfectly natural reaction to this toxicity—eroding faith in our body and disregarding its needs—an oddity.

Eating disorders and disordered eating won’t decrease until society learns to properly celebrate the truth that beauty comes in various shapes and sizes and that optimal health isn’t a one-size-fits-all.

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