Disordered Eating vs. Eating Disorders: What’s the Difference?

Medically Reviewed on 7/25/2022
Disordered Eating vs. Eating Disorders: What's the Difference?
If not treated properly, disordered eating can lead to an eating disorder

While an eating disorder is a clinical diagnosis, disordered eating is an unhealthy eating pattern or behavior that does not meet the criteria for an eating disorder diagnosis. 

All people with eating disorders start with disordered eating, but not everyone with disordered eating has an eating disorder. If not treated properly, disordered eating can lead to an eating disorder.

There are three elements to examine when determining whether a person has disordered eating habits or a full-blown eating disorder: obsession, behavior, and functioning. The combination and severity of each of these criteria determine whether a patient has an eating disorder or disordered eating.

What is disordered eating?

A person with disordered eating may not completely obsess over their food, but they will frequently have significant anxiety surrounding food. They may obsessively monitor their daily calorie intake, exercise incessantly at the gym, or avoid social events that involve food. 

The obsession regarding weight or calorie counting, however, is not crippling as seen in an eating disorder.

What is an eating disorder?

With an eating disorder, however, there is a clear fixation in which eating-related thoughts become all-consuming. 

When it is time to eat, the person may be so impaired by their obsession that they experience poor concentration, sleep deprivation, and excessive levels of stress.

Disordered eating vs. eating disorders: 7 differences

1. Choice and control

  • Disordered eating: Disordered eating is a choice. People with disordered eating behavior may try different diets every few months or embrace specific foods as “the answer” to their health, weight, and emotional issues. They may be enthusiastic about specific eating methods, such as vegetarianism or a low-carb diet. Most people who eat in a disordered way cannot keep it up. Their bodies and brains protect them by making it harder and harder to continue unhealthy eating patterns. Dieters almost always stop extreme dieting. Weird food regimens are generally abandoned for others
  • Eating disorder: Eating disorders are not within the conscious rational control of the individual but rather driven by compulsive activities related to food and the body. A person suffering from an eating disorder may realize that what they are doing is wrong, irrational, and harmful, yet this does not lead them to recovery or seek treatment. Many people with eating disorders continue to suffer both mentally and physically because they find it difficult to break their unhealthy relationships with food.

2. Hunger cues

  • Disordered eating: The affected person can perceive hunger cues and will meet their body's demands. Therefore, they do not suffer from excessive emotional or intuitive eating.
  • Eating disorder: Individuals suffering from an eating disorder may feel hunger cues but either refuse to eat or decide to binge. Eating disorders can also lead to the loss of hunger cues when the body realizes the signal of hunger is being disregarded.

3. Emotional relationship to food

  • Disordered eating: While disordered eating is troublesome, the emotions regarding food and eating are often neutral.
  • Eating disorder: In the case of an eating disorder, negative feelings are related to food and eating. Certain foods might even elicit unpleasant emotions, reinforcing the eating disorder habit. Those suffering from an eating disorder are terrified of losing control.

4. Thoughts

  • Disordered eating: Disordered eating typically does not impair the person’s ability to engage in daily tasks without thinking about food. However, the person may often fail to eat mindfully based on how they feel, such as being stressed or bored.
  • Eating disorders: Individuals suffering from eating disorders devote a significant amount of their mental energy and time thinking about food and calories and how they will affect them. They may be extremely anxious and panicky, focusing their attention on the emotions that are triggered when confronted with consuming food, particularly something unusual.

5. Social life

  • Disordered eating: Disordered eating usually does not interfere with the affected person’s social life.
  • Eating disorders: Many social engagements are focused around meals, which could be very stressful for a person with an eating disorder. As a result, socialization is typically avoided.

6. Body image

  • Disordered eating: The affected person may compare themselves to others and judge their bodies. They may be concerned about their weight, but it does not control their thoughts and behaviors. They may have a target weight in mind, and they usually take it easy once they achieve that weight.
  • Eating disorders: The affected person may obsessively compare themselves to others and weigh themselves numerous times in a day. They are inclined to worry about food and weight constantly throughout the day. 

7. Cooking

  • Disordered eating: Cooking does not cause anxiety or dread in those who are careful about what they make for themselves.
  • Eating disorders: People with eating disorders may have “safe foods” that they stick to, as well as “fear foods” that are avoided. May choose only certain plates or bowls because they are accustomed to what their meal looks like. Cooking could be used as a method of control over what and how much they eat.

What to do about disordered eating vs. eating disorders

It is possible to break disordered eating behaviors before they progress to an eating disorder. Professional assistance can help, depending on the degree and severity of the problem. For example, registered dietitians and therapists can help the person confront their fear of food and practice more intuitive eating.

However, patients with eating disorders may require long-term therapy. It is a life-threatening psychiatric illness that requires an extensive, evidence-based approach.


Binge eating disorder is best described as… See Answer

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Medically Reviewed on 7/25/2022
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Eating Disorders vs. Disordered Eating: What's the Difference? https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/blog/eating-disorders-versus-disordered-eating

Disordered eating vs. eating disorder—what’s the difference? https://blog.providence.org/blog-2/disordered-eating-vs-eating-disorder-what-s-the-difference

Eating Disorders Vs. Disordered Eating. https://www.unh.edu/healthyunh/blog/emotional-wellness/2020/12/eating-disorders-vs-disordered-eating

Eating Disorders vs. Disordered Eating, What's the Difference? https://nutrition.arizona.edu/news/2022/02/eating-disorders-vs-disordered-eating-whats-difference