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

Part one of a two-part series that outlines disordered eating vs. eating disorders, their warning signs, and treatment options


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.

Join us for a closer look at disordered eating and eating disorders in a two-part series that outlines each condition, details the warning signs and offers solutions.

In this first article we’ll define each condition and list a few ways you can differentiate between the two.

Eating disorder

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. They can involve 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

Disordered eating

Disordered eating refers to a spectrum of irregular eating behaviors or habits that may or may not signal an eating disorder. It’s not as serious as an eating disorder but it could 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:

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

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

What’s the difference?

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

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. 

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, what, if anything should you do?

There are strategies you can adopt to manage or even prevent disordered eating before it becomes a serious health concern, including:

  • 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.
  • Be kind to yourself. Practice positive self-talk. Give yourself credit for your successes and cut yourself a little slack when you fall short.
  • Set healthy limits on exercise. You don’t have to overdo it to get results.
  • Get rid of your scale. Weighing yourself can become an obsession and good health is about more than the numbers.

Getting help

Early diagnosis and intervention are among the most effective tools when battling unbalanced eating. When your diet dictates a large portion of your day, it may be a sign something is seriously wrong.

Danger signs include:

  • Routinely skipping meals
  • Extreme dieting
  • Self-induced vomiting
  • Use of laxatives, stimulants or diuretics
  • Extended fasting

If that describes behavior you or someone you care about engages in regularly, it’s time to seek professional assistance. Full recovery from an eating disorder is possible. There’s no shame in needing help to achieve it.

Find a doctor

If you need help developing a balanced, sustainable eating plan, the nutrition team at Providence has the expertise and experience you’re looking for. Our registered and licensed dietitians can help you whether your goal is to treat a health condition, lower your risk of disease, manage your weight or eat wisely while maintaining a busy lifestyle. Find a doctor in our provider directory. Or use one of the regional directories below:






Share your perspective at #healthyfood with readers @psjh.

Related resources

Providence Adult Eating Disorders Treatment Program

Providence Adolescent Eating Disorders Program

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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