Disordered eating vs eating disorders

The line between an eating disorder (ED) and a pattern of disordered eating can be a fine one. All ED sufferers start out with disorders in their eating, but not everyone with disordered eating will develop an eating disorder. You know the saying that all thumbs are fingers but not all fingers are thumbs? The same principle applies here.

Crossing the line

Some people drink when they’re having a hard time and it can cause some serious upsets in their life, but they are not actually alcoholics. With time they manage to pull themselves out of the cycle that they’ve gotten into and get back to a relatively healthy life. Hopefully, they’ll make healthier choices the next time they’re dealing with challenging situations.

There are many individuals who are like that with eating practices, or with thoughts around weight control. They might struggle with “eating on their feelings” or experience a period where they want to over-exercise. Maybe they’ll want to restrict their calorie intake or make sure they only eat foods that they consider “healthy”.

After a while though, they’ll be able to move on from overeating, bulimic, anorexic, orthorexic or any other kind of disordered behaviour. Like many of the people who were engaging in unhealthy drinking as a coping strategy will be able to do. But there are those who won’t; those who will continue to spiral downward.

And that’s when problem drinking becomes a drinking problem. Or when disordered eating morphs into an eating disorder. The slope is slippery, and a lot of the distinction comes down to how intense the issues are. As ED survivor and therapist Temimah Zucker says, when someone suffers from the disorder they will engage in multiple maladaptive behaviours.

Zucker explains that the degree of obsession on food and weight, along with poor body image, will be greater in an ED. Importantly, the impact on an individual’s functionality and quality of life will be less with disordered eating. If someone cancels dinner plans because they need to exercise or because a restaurant doesn’t serve any food that they feel is safe, they’re likely to have crossed the line from disturbed eating to an eating disorder.

Getting help for any eating disturbances

Wherever someone falls on the spectrum of irregular eating, the behaviour is problematic. Let’s be clear; disordered eating in any way is not healthy behaviour. If you’re using it to cope with life, that’s dysfunctional. Going back to our drinking example, if you see a friend consuming excess alcohol – drinking too much – on a regular basis, you know that is cause for concern. If the friend doesn’t get help, the problem is likely to get worse.

Whether they are full-blown alcoholics or still in the problem drinking stages, if they’re using liquor to escape from difficult emotions and situations, they’re not dealing with life in a healthy way. The earlier in the process you can help and support someone with these issues, the better their prognosis. The same goes for disturbances in eating.

If you’re worried about yourself or someone you care about, that’s reason enough to check with a professional. You don’t need to make the diagnosis of ED or disordered eating; your job is to ask for help and be willing to listen to the advice you’re given. Then you, or your loved one, can get the treatment that’s appropriate.

When to ask for help

This could be as simple as learning to manage the anxiety of everyday life so that you don’t act out with irregular eating behaviours or require a more long-term and intensive plan. Everyone’s situation – and solution – is different. If you still feel unsure about when to ask for help, this list of common signs of disturbed eating and the associated thought processes should help:

  • Constantly trying different diets, with the express purpose of losing weight.
  • Obsessing over food, weight or body image.
  • Fasting or skipping meals.
  • Reducing the amount that is eaten at each meal.
  • Over-exercising, either by doing too much at once or by exercising too often.
  • Trying to compensate for food that has been eaten by taking laxatives, vomiting or taking the wrong doses of any medications that could alter weight or shape.
  • Eating large amounts of food in the middle of the night, or after dinner.
  • Eating whether feeling happy or sad.
  • Inability to identify one’s feelings.
  • Feeling out of control before, during or after eating.
  • Feeling guilty after eating, about the food that has been consumed and the effect it will have on body weight.

Hold on to hope

Wherever someone falls on the eating spectrum, once they’ve admitted they have a problem and need help, healing can begin. As clinical psychologist Dr Carrie Gottlieb says, the obsession with weight and size in modern culture can be twisted into an eating disorder. But as individuals start to understand themselves more, they can start to recover.