What is the difference between an eating disorder and disordered eating? This is a common question our professionals get asked at Center for Discovery. While there are similarities between eating disorders and disordered eating, it is important to note the significant differences between the two.
When discussing the presentation of disordered eating and/or an eating disorder, we take a look at various factors including: what the behaviors are, what purposes the behaviors serve, the influence the behaviors have on an individual’s life, and the thought processes underlying the behaviors.
Disordered eating vs. eating disorder behaviors
Both eating disorders and disordered eating can have similar warning signs due to overlapping rules and restrictions. These rules and restrictions can include (but are not limited to): restrictions surrounding what food is “allowed” to be consumed, contingencies surrounding when food can be consumed, identification of “good foods” and “bad foods”, exercising a specific amount, having a specific goal weight and/or tracking calories consumed and calories burned.
While both eating disorders and disordered eating can have similar warning signs, people struggling with an eating disorder demonstrate the compulsions to follow through with the warning signs we mentioned above.
The warning signs for individuals with disordered eating tend to plateau, or disappear entirely after a short to moderate period of time. However , individuals with eating disorders engage in these behaviors to a ritualistic degree andthe behaviors tend to worsen and increase over time.
Behaviors can be defined as “worse” by a change in the frequency of the behavior, the dedication to the behavior, the level of rigidity surrounding the behavior and a change in the severity of the behavior.
The behaviors behind disordered eating and eating disorders
Many times both disordered eating and eating disorders serve the purpose of helping us to avoid emotion. Redirecting our energy on food feels more comforting and comfortable than directing our energy into feeling our own emotions.
Additionally, consuming food can be soothing. For example, when we “allow” ourselves a piece of cake as a reward after a long and stressful day at work, we aree training ourselves to use food as a coping skill for our emotions.
Eating disorders and disordered eating can both also help us to feel accepted. It is human nature is to crave acceptance and approval. While there are numerous variables that play into our interpretation of our own worthiness, we commonly associate our physical appearance with how successful and “good” we are at life.
Because of this, it is a normal behavior for people to connect looking “good enough” to feeling “good enough.” It is also commonplace for people to believe that if we looked good enough, then all of the other areas in our lives would fall into place and others would accept us fully. Hence, the difference between disordered eating or an eating disorder.
Individuals with disordered eating behaviors and eating disorder behaviors can use food to serve both of the aforementioned needs. However, individuals with eating disorders also specifically believe that these behaviors are necessary for survival.
Individuals with disordered eating do not hold this perspective. For an individual with an eating disorder, the behaviors serve as a protective mechanism and create a sense of safety and stability in everyday life. There is an all-encompassing, obsessive need to hold on to the behaviors for an individual with an eating disorder.
Alternatively, while an individual with disordered eating may intermittently focus his/her thoughts on the eating behaviors, he/she can refrain from engaging in a behavior and rather quickly shift to the next activity without obsessively thinking about focusing on this deviation from their pattern. A deviation from a predetermined behavior would be mood-altering for an individual with an eating disorder.
Influence on everyday life
While individuals with disordered eating habits engage in some abnormal behaviors, these behaviors do not interfere with everyday functioning. Individuals with eating disorders engage in behaviors to a debilitating degree. This is often evidenced by medical complications, relational tensions and a general decreased ability to participate in everyday life.
Why is disordered eating a problem?
If disordered eating does not take us away from being able to participate in everyday life, why is it a problem? The answer is using a food to fill an emotional deficit is a problem. Food will not fill emotional hunger; food will fill physical hunger.
If we do not connect to our emotional hunger, those need remain unfulfilled. When we spend a significant amount of time denying our emotional needs, we begin to engage in more dysfunctional behaviors, disconnect from our peers, have a lower quality of life and our self esteem drops.
Food for thought
If we are engaging in disordered eating to help our self esteem, wouldn’t it be more effective to start from a place of self-respect (listening to our bodies) as opposed to starting from a place of disregard (disordered eating)?