Eating Disorders VS. Disordered Eating

** If you or someone you know, is struggling with an ED please reach out for help. This article is meant to provide information and is not a substitute for any professional help**

This is a question I get so often as a registered dietitian working with individuals who struggle with eating disorders (ED) and disordered eating. I think it is important to talk about the differences and clarify what disordered eating is. In this article, you will learn the differences between the ED and disordered eating, as well as what to do if you suspect you, or someone you know, may be struggling. I also added a self-assessment questionnaire to help you assess your current relationship to food. Okay, let us dive in!

Eating Disorders

Eating disorders (ED) are serious mental illnesses related to one’s relationship to food and eating behaviours that interferes with many aspects of their lives such as thoughts, behaviours, beliefs, feelings, body and relationships. EDs have the highest rate of mortality of any mental disorders and need to be taken very seriously. EDs have specific diagnosis criteria establish in the DSM-V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) from American Psychiatrist Association. EDs can only be diagnosed by a physician or psychiatrist. There are 5 types of ED: Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, Binge Eating Disorder, Avoidant and Restrictive Food Intake Disorder and Unspecified ED. To learn more about the specifics – check out this article on ED.

When someone struggles with an ED, getting support from health professionals is essential to recovery. Depending on severity of ED, the individual may require an inpatient program to fully recover.

Often in ED, eating behaviours can be used as a coping mechanism and/or can be the symptoms of another issue. It is about the food, but not about the food. The mental illness runs deeper than “just the food”, and there are often psychological factors.

Disordered Eating

In the social environment we live in, disordered eating has unfortunately become the norm. This normalization of unhealthy eating behaviours makes it more difficult to realize someone may be struggling and receive adequate help. In my experience, I would say that 90% of people have some sort of disordered eating behaviours. Disordered eating cannot be diagnosed as it is not an official illness and has no diagnosis criteria (which again, makes it hard for people to get help!)

Literally EVERY diet is disordered eating. I have not come across any diet that is not disordered in some way. Disordered eating often comes from the desire to change body composition or lead by emotions.

Every person struggling with an eating disorder has disordered eating. However, people struggling with disordered eating do NOT necessarily have and eating disorder.

Here are a few examples of disordered eating behaviours

  • Chronic dieting
  • Obsessive calorie counting
  • Obsessive thoughts about food and/or body
  • Obsessive comparison to other people’s body
  • Rigid patterns of eating and/or exercising
  • Feeling out of control around foods
  • Frequent meal skipping in order to change body composition
  • Anxiety or fear associated with certain foods
  • Anxiety or stress associated with social events with food
  • Feeling shame and guilt surround food intake
  • Feeling the need to ”make up” for food intake
  • Avoiding social events based on food intake
  • Frequent weight fluctuation

Although disordered eating is not a mental illness per say, it is very harmful to the individual who is struggling as it can lead to many health issues. Disordered eating can lead to the development of ED, increase risk of depression and/or anxiety, decrease bone density, GI problems, social isolation, decrease quality of life and social isolation.

Is it important to know the difference?

Yes and no! It is important to know that eating disorders are serious mental illnesses that are life threatening and surpass disordered eating. However, disordered eating is very harmful and should also be taken seriously. I tend to see ED and disordered eating on different level of the same spectrum.

Both ED and disordered eating require the support of health professionals to recover and normalized eating habits. This meaning that you DO NOT need to wait to be sicker to get help.

How to know if you may engage in disordered eating behaviours?

The diet culture normalizes, promotes and even celebrates disordered eating (sorry this makes me feel nauseous). This makes it challenging for individuals to know if their behaviour is disordered. Here is a quick self-assessment, ask yourself these questions.

**This is NOT a diagnostic tool – I created this to being more awareness to disordered eating behaviours – if you suspect you may be struggling with an ED or disordered eating, please reach out for help**

  1. Do I body think about food and/or my body constantly? (always on top of mind)
  2. Do my thoughts and feelings about my body impede my ability to participate in social activities?
  3. Do I fear gaining weight?
  4. Do I have obsessive thoughts about losing weight or changing my body composition (increase muscle, lose fat, etc.)?
  5. Do I feel ashamed eating in front of others?
  6. Do I feel guilt depending on what I eat?
  7. Am I afraid to lose control if I allow myself to eat? (Scared I won’t be able to stop)
  8. Do I feel like I need to do more exercise or restrict after a bigger meal?
  9. Do I feel like I need to deserve food?
  10. Do I eat in secret to avoid feeling judge?
  11. Do I eat or restrict to numb feelings?
  12. Do I get upset or anxious on days I cannot exercise?
  13. Do I feel hopeless or unworthy based on my body?
  14. Do I associate my value/self-worth to the food choice I make and/or how my appearance?
  15. Do I avoid social events based on food options available or my appearance?


If you answered yes to one or more of these questions, you are most likely having disordered eating behaviours.


Although there are significant differences between eating disorders and disordered eating, both can be very harmful to your overall health. If you are struggling with your eating behaviours and it is affecting your health, confidence, self-worth and/or quality of life, PLEASE REACH OUT.

As a registered dietitian specialized in psychology, I know the importance and value of getting help during your recovery to finally find food freedom and body confidence. I am here to support you.

I hope this article was helpful.

The Balanced Practice is a team of professionals specialized in eating disorder outpatient treatment. We strive to provide evidence based nutrition counselling to support you, or your loved one, in achieving full recovery. Schedule a connection call now.

Marie-Pier Pitre-D’Iorio, RD, B.Sc.Psychology
Lead Registered Dietitian and Founder at The Balanced Practice


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