What’s the Difference Between Disordered Eating and an Eating Disorder?

By: Jondra Pennington, LPC

You’re out to lunch with a friend and they tell you they are no longer eating carbs.In a group chat, your best friend says she is going to hit the gym so she can “earn” the brunch you’re having later. At a family dinner, you notice your cousin quietly entering information about the meal into a dieting app on his phone. These scenarios are not at all uncommon and we’ve pretty much normalized them. However, they have attracted the attention of professionals who have identified them as habits of disordered eating or of someone on their way to developing an eating disorder.

What is Disordered Eating?

On the spectrum of eating disorders, disordered eating sits in the middle between normal eating and eating disorders (ED). The term “disordered eating” is a descriptive phrase that refers to a range of irregular eating behaviors that may or may not warrant a diagnosis of an eating disorder. Eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia are diagnosed using a specific and narrow set of criteria that is the product of years of psychological and medical research and study. Not so with disordered eating. Since disordered eating is not a diagnosis let’s take a look at what kinds of behaviors can be identified as disordered eating.

Disordered eating habits may include:

  • Avoiding entire food groups, certain macronutrients, or foods with specific extures or colors without a medical reason.
  • Binge-eating
  • Engaging in compensatory behaviors, such as exercising to “make up for” food you’ve consumed
  • Exercising compulsively
  • Cutting food into small pieces, slowing down the pace of eating, or otherwise attempting to trick yourself into feeling fuller from less food
  • Fasting to lose weight
  • Feeling guilt, disgust, or anxiety before or after eating
  • Following strict food rules or rituals
  • Intentionally skipping meals or restricting food intake — including skipping meals before or after you’ve consumed a large meal, food you consider unhealthy, or alcohol
  • Opting to eat only foods you consider “clean” or healthy
  • Participating in fad diets to lose weight
  • Engaging in purging behaviors, such as using laxatives or making yourself vomit to control your weight
  • Tracking calories to the point of preoccupation
  • Weighing yourself or taking body measurements often


Looking at this list, it’s reasonable to assume that you’re looking at a list of behaviors that describes an eating disorder. And, you’d be right. So, what is the difference between an ED and disordered eating? Its frequency, severity, and impact.

How Do They Differ?

Let’s compare them by examining a compensatory activity like exercise, to make up for what you’ve eaten. With disordered eating, you may feel like you need to exercise for a period of time every day to minimize the impact of food intake, or you consider an hour at the gym 5 times a week sufficient. But, for someone with an eating disorder, compensatory activities are chronic and obsessive. They become obsessed with “getting rid of” what they’ve eaten, moving exercise from a wellness activity to a method of torture. They will go to the gym every day, sometimes twice a day for four or five hours at a time with a 10-mile run added in on the weekends. Severe food restriction may follow for several days after eating.


Detrimental consequences for someone with disordered eating patterns include: A greater risk of developing an eating disorder, bone loss, gastrointestinal disturbances, electrolyte and fluid imbalances, low heart rate and blood pressure, increased anxiety, depression, and social isolation. In addition, a person can experience significant physical, emotional, and mental stress. While both situations have consequences, the severity differs dramatically with an eating disorder because of its impact on nearly every aspect of life particularly physiologically:

  • Cardiovascular (muscle loss, low or irregular heartbeat)
  • Gastrointestinal (bloating, nausea, constipation)
  • Neurological (difficulty concentrating, sleep apnea)
  • Endocrine (hormonal changes – estrogen, testosterone, thyroid)
  • Premature death


Next Steps

Recovery from an eating disorder or effectively putting an end to disordered eating patterns are possible, which makes getting treatment so important. If you think you might have an eating disorder, talk to your doctor or mental health professional. You can also contact one of the following organizations for more information and support:

  • National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA)
  • National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorder (ANAD)
  • The Eating Disorder Foundation
  • Eating Disorders Resource Center (EDRC)

If you or a loved one are coping with an eating disorder, contact the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) Helpline for support at 1-800-931-2237.