Disordered Eating Habits vs Eating Disorder – Do You Need Treatment?

It’s not uncommon to hear someone say that they’ve been “bad” for having had a breakfast doughnut or a bowl of ice cream for a snack. Others may pat their bellies after a big meal and note that they’ll have to hit the gym for an extra hour the following day. Although those kinds of remarks are often made in a joking manner, they reflect a deep-seated and distorted view of eating. Of course, disordered eating habits are not equivalent to an eating disorder. While people with eating disorders certainly exhibit disordered eating habits, the same does not hold true the other way around. Not all disordered eaters have an eating disorder.

What, then, is the difference? And, do you perhaps, suffer from either?

What Are Disordered Eating Habits?

Disordered Eating Habits vs Eating DisorderDisordered eating is becoming a more and more recognizable phenomenon. An ever-increasing number of people engage in abnormal eating patterns or food behaviors on a consistent basis.*

Disordered eating habits can include:

  • Feeling anxiety around food – Pursuing an inflexible approach to food. This may involve rigid meal times, not eating outside the home, or viewing some foods as good and others as bad and, therefore, only eating certain foods.
  • Having a distorted view of body and health – Like falling within a healthy weight range but always thinking you’re overweight. This may lead to excessive or overly strict exercise routines, obsessive calorie counting, or following fad diets every few months. It may also cause you to believe that certain miracle foods hold the answer to your health and weight problems.
  • Basing self-worth on body image – Extreme focus on body shape and weight to control happiness. Hoping to boost your mood through specific approaches to food, such as low-carb diets, veganism, etc. It’s an attempt to distract yourself from areas of your life where you feel inadequate.
  • Undereating, overeating, or erratic eating – The kind of behaviors that are similar but don’t quite fall under eating disorders yet.

Sadly, disordered eating isn’t harmless. It often hurts your body and unsettles your brain, despite not being a full-blown eating disorder.

What Is an Eating Disorder?

Simply put, an eating disorder is a problem with brain function that causes obsessive thinking and compulsive behavior related to food and your body. In short, it is a mental illness.

Eating disorders are usually divided into four types:

  • Anorexia Nervosa – Insufficient food intake that leads to unhealthily low weight due to fear of weight gain. It may include binging and then purging. While noting what you’re doing, you may lack a true understanding of the severity of the issue.
  • Bulimia Nervosa – Episodes of out-of-control eating of excessive amounts of food are followed by periods of trying to prevent weight gain. May include purging, self-induced vomiting, or fasting. And can involve depression and low self-esteem.
  • Binge Eating Disorder – Frequent and recurring episodes of extreme overeating. May include eating to the point of feeling great discomfort or eating when you’re not hungry. Due to feeling strong shame or guilt about the bingeing, you may often eat alone.
  • Eating Disorders Not Otherwise Specified – Including purging disorder (without binge eating), night eating syndrome (excessive eating in the evening or at night), and orthorexia (obsession with clean eating and extreme dietary restrictions).

How One Eating Problem May Lead to the Other

The social acceptance of many diets that encourage disordered eating can make it difficult for those people who struggle with eating disorders to identify their problem.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that everyone who follows a strict diet may have an eating disorder. But the risk of developing one often starts with disordered eating.

Getting swept away by fad diets, extremely specialized eating patterns, and excessive exercise regimens aren’t “abnormal.” However, caution is definitely warranted. Your disordered eating habits could easily cross the line between trying to lose a few pounds and an acute, life-threatening eating disorder faster than you think.

For example, once you’ve reached your goal weight, you may find that it’s not as satisfactory as you had hoped and inevitably set a lower goal. Step by step, you could end up walking straight into disaster without ever being aware of it.

Or perhaps you are an emotional eater. You overeat when you feel upset, anxious, lonely, or stressed. In time, those habits could become so obsessive that you’re in real danger of developing binge eating disorder or bulimia nervosa.

Don’t take it lightly! The road to an eating disorder is a slippery slope.

How to Know if You Need Treatment

Really, anyone can fall prey to disordered eating. Troubling as it may be, though, unhealthy eating can be overcome with logical reasoning. And if nothing else, your body and brain eventually start protecting you by making it harder to continue with crazy eating habits.

But if you’re suffering from an eating disorder, you have no such choice. As much as you may wish, you have no conscious, logical control over your ailment. Rather, your behavior continues to increase in frequency and severity, causing much distress and a relentless decline, mentally and physically.

To decide if you need treatment, ask yourself to what extent your distorted eating patterns affect your daily functioning:

  • Do my thoughts about food, my body, and exercise keep me from focusing and concentrating at school or work?
  • How much irritation, stress, or anxiety do my thoughts about these things cause me? Do I have trouble deflecting them?
  • Is my social life disrupted by my discomfort and worries of eating certain foods or eating outside of my own home?
  • Do I use eating or food restrictions to help me handle stress or manage problems in my life?

Should you detect a negative pattern when answering those questions, it may be a good idea to consult with one of our professional mental health experts who can make an accurate diagnosis of your problem. To start, take a look at further information on disordered eating and call to schedule an appointment at 832-559-2622 or schedule an appointment online. We look forward to helping you!

(*Note: Disordered eaters do not include people with specific food intolerances, food allergies, or other health problems that require them to follow a strict diet.)

Rachel Eddins, M.Ed., LPC-S, CGP on Twitter
Rachel Eddins, M.Ed., LPC-S, CGP
Rachel’s passion is to help people discover their personal gifts and strengths to achieve self-acceptance, create a healthy relationship with food, mind and body, and find meaning and fulfillment in work and life roles. She helps people create nurturance and healing from within to restore balance and enoughness and overcome binge eating, emotional eating, anxiety, depression and lack of career fulfillment.

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