Eating Disorders vs. Disordered Eating, What's the Difference?

Feb. 9, 2022

How do you know if someone has an eating disorder or is struggling with disordered eating?


We live in a society where diet culture is the norm, and it seems like there is a new diet trending every week, it can be hard to tell the difference.

Eating Disorders

When someone is struggling with an eating disorder they often have specific behaviors  such avoiding eating, avoiding specific foods or food groups, engaging in bingeing and/or purging. These behaviors impact their everyday life. Those with an eating disorder tend to have  obsessive thoughts about food, calories, and exercise.   It is “normal” to have some thoughts around food or even feel obsessed with food when you haven’t eaten in awhile. But with an eating disorder, the level at which an individual obsesses about food can affect the person’s daily functioning. They may not be able to concentrate on anything else. They may avoid social situations that involve food. While not always the case,  this obsessiveness can result in changes in weight which often leads to a cycle that reinforces the behaviors. The most common eating disorders are binge eating, anorexia nervosa, and bulimia nervosa.

Some common signs of an eating disorder are: eating in secrecy or privacy, hiding food, extreme variation in weight, low self-esteem, excessive eating rituals, feelings of distress around food, cooking meals but refusing to eat them, and laxative and diuretic abuse.


Disordered Eating

While there is no clinical definition of disordered eating, it is important to know the difference between an eating disorder and disordered eating. In many eating disorder treatment centers, disordered eating is described as abnormal behaviors around food and eating that do not yet fit the criteria for an eating disorder. An individual struggling with disordered eating may skip meals from time to time, restrict specific food groups, eat to cope with stress or eat the same thing every day. The biggest factor that differentiates an eating disorder from disordered eating is that a diagnosable eating disorder has an increased level of severity and higher frequency than disordered eating. That being said, both an eating disorder and disordered eating are serious and problematic.


How to help someone (or yourself) with disordered eating or an eating disorder

  • Set boundaries around diet talk and negative body talk. Instead of focusing on your body or how many calories you are consuming, focus your energy and time on conversations that are meaningful and full of substance
  • Avoid fad diets – diets or "wellness protocols" are full of rules and restriction. This can result in disordered eating patterns and encourage an unhealthy relationship with food. All foods can fit on your plate.
  • Set aside time to talk to someone about your concern in private- If you are concerned about a friend or family member, be sure to make your conversation a one-on-one situation so that person can feel safe and heard
  • Share resources – UA campus health has many resources and counselors to help you or a friend who is struggling