Disordered eating vs. eating disorder—what’s the difference?

This article was refreshed in February 2022 to reflect recent information.


In this article:

  • National Eating Disorders Awareness Week is February 21-27, 2022.

  • The differences between an eating disorder and disordered eating can be subtle but identifying an eating disorder as soon as possible will aid in a successful recovery.

  • A variety of helpful, supportive resources are available for both individuals with an eating disorder and those caring for someone with an eating disorder.

Do you always eat the same food for lunch? Do you sometimes skip meals to limit your calories for the day? Do you “eat your feelings” or eat when you’re bored? Do you keep up with every new diet trend? Answering, “Yes” to any of those questions may just mean you have a food quirk or two. Or it could be disordered eating or even an eating disorder.

Knowing the difference could be vital to your health, explained Valerie Edwards, MS, RD, LD, outpatient dietitian at Providence Portland Medical Center.

With National Eating Disorders Awareness Week coming up on February 21-27, 2022, we invite you to join us for a closer look at disordered eating and eating disorders as we outline each condition, detail the warning signs, and offer solutions.

Eating disorders

An eating disorder is a serious condition that disrupts your life and affects your health in numerous ways, including kidney and heart issues, weakened bones, hair loss, organ failure and even death. Eating disorders can involve a number of behaviors ranging from severe overeating to self-imposed starvation. 

The different types of eating disorders include:

  • Anorexia nervosa – a condition that causes you to severely restrict the amount of food you eat because you are convinced that you’re too heavy, even when you’re dangerously underweight.
  • Binge eating – a condition that causes repeated episodes during which you feel out of control as you eat large amounts of food in a short timeframe, even when you’re not hungry or already uncomfortably full.
  • Bulimia – a condition that causes a repeating cycle in which you to binge eat large amounts of food in a short amount of time and then purge yourself in a variety of ways, including self-induced vomiting, excessive laxative or enema use, or misuse of diuretics to compensate.
  • Other specified feeding or eating disorder (OSFED) – a condition in which you don’t meet the strict criteria for anorexia or bulimia, but you have a significant eating disorder that is affecting your health and longevity.

What is disordered eating?

Disordered eating refers to a spectrum of irregular eating behaviors or habits that may or may not signal an eating disorder. While disordered eating isn’t as serious as an eating disorder, it can still be a health concern. 

“It’s all on a continuum. Some disordered eaters are a step or two away from an eating disorder. Or they’re working on their recovery but not totally better,” said Valerie Edwards. “Someone with disordered eating habits spends a lot of time and energy thinking about food, but they are not completely obsessed with it to the same degree that someone with an eating disorder would be,” she added.

Some of the signs of disordered eating include:

  • Anxiety that centers around eating or food
  • Chronic weight fluctuations
  • Feelings of guilt or shame that are associated with food or eating
  • Hiding food or concealing what you are eating
  • Inaccurate perception of your weight, size, or shape
  • Inflexible routines around eating, like eating the same food every day, or only eating at certain times or in specific locations
  • Obsessive awareness of the number of calories and the amount of food you consume
  • Rigid adherence to an exercise routine, which is often excessively rigorous
  • Self-esteem based on your body shape and size

The same list could also describe someone with an eating disorder. The severity of your symptoms is the determining factor.

What’s the difference between an eating disorder and disordered eating?

The difference between an eating disorder and disordered eating can be difficult to determine. According to Valerie, “It can get fuzzy. Diagnosis depends upon several factors including the behavior, the severity of that behavior, your past history and your age.”

Stopping the progression to eating disorders

Disordered eating is often the precursor to an eating disorder, according to the National Eating Disorders Association. “If you’re susceptible, it can start you down a road that could be dangerous,” said Valerie.

Being aware that a potential problem exists is an important step to deter the progression from disordered eating to eating disorder. Once you’ve pinpointed that you have some disordered eating behaviors, there are strategies you can adopt to manage it or even prevent it from becoming a serious health concern, including:

  • Be kind to yourself. Practice positive self-talk. Give yourself credit for your successes and cut yourself a little slack when you fall short.
  • Eat a balanced diet. Stay away from fad or crash diets that are overly restrictive, with strict limits for your food choices and the amount of food you’re allowed.
  • Get rid of your scale. Weighing yourself can become an obsession and good health is about more than the numbers.
  • Set healthy limits on exercise. You don’t have to overdo it to get results.
  • Watch your social media consumption and be aware of its impact on body image.

The role of social media

A study in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that social media consumption led to greater body image dissatisfaction. And with media consumption totaling almost 8 hours every day for 8 to 18-year-olds, according to the National Eating Disorders Association, the barrage of images depicting bodies that are often unattainable is constant.

Curbing consumption of social media can help reduce body image dissatisfaction. This may involve decreasing the number of hours spent on social apps or finding and focusing on content that shows only body-positive images and inspiration.  

Getting help for disordered eating

Early diagnosis and intervention are among the most effective tools when battling unbalanced eating. The first step is noticing that something is wrong. This online eating disorder screening assessment can help. Danger signs include:

  • Fasting for an extended period
  • Making yourself vomit
  • Practicing extreme dieting
  • Routinely skipping meals
  • Using laxatives, stimulants or diuretics

If you or someone you care about engages in this type of eating behavior regularly, it’s time to seek professional assistance.

It can be especially important for caregivers of children with eating disorder symptoms to remember that all hope is not lost. When your child knows they have your support, you’ve both taken an important first step on a journey to recovery. Be sure to keep lines of communication open, and let them know that you’re in the fight for healing together.

Eating disorder treatment options

Full recovery from an eating disorder is possible. There’s no shame in needing help to achieve it. There are different types of care available. The treatment program you or your loved one needs can depend on the stage of the eating disorder. Patients may need to stay at the hospital overnight for treatment (called inpatient care) or come in regularly for treatment (called outpatient care).

At Providence, we offer programs for both adolescents and adults. Patients work with one another, their family members, and program staff to develop and practice coping skills while changing their eating behaviors. Treatment may involve:

  • Ongoing physical assessments
  • Ongoing psychiatric assessments and medication management
  • Group, family, and individual therapy
  • Nutritional evaluation and counseling
  • Therapeutic meal groups
  • Future prevention planning

There are also programs available, at Providence and beyond, to help caregivers, including community forums to share feedback and experiences with others going through a similar situation.

With an eating disorder, recovery is a process that requires persistence, courage, and effective treatment resources.


Find a doctor

If you are looking for a primary care doctor, or a doctor that can assist with an eating disorder, you can search for one that’s right for you in our provider directory

Related resources

Binge-eaters may have a new weapon to enable healthy eating

5 warning signs you might be a junk food junkie

Focus on Teens’ Health, Not Weight

Nine Truths about Eating Disorders

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional’s instructions.

About the Author

We are all about food! The Providence Nutrition Team loves to talk about and share our expertise on how to help you find the right diet, food types and maintenance tactics to help you live life to the fullest...while also enjoying the best foods that mother nature has to offer.

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