Week 11: Disordered Eating



To identify the causes of disordered eating, recognize the types of eating disorders, understand the difference between eating disorders and disordered eating. Identify the symptoms and consequences of disordered eating. Understand how to prevent and manage disordered eating.


Disordered eating is a range of irregular eating behaviors that may or may not warrant a diagnosis of a specific eating disorder. It sits on a spectrum between normal eating and an eating disorder. It may include symptoms and behaviors of eating disorders, but at a lesser frequency or lower level of severity. Disordered eating may include restrictive eating, compulsive eating or irregular or inflexible eating patterns.

Dieting is one of the most common forms of disordered eating. Eating disorders are diagnosed according to specific and narrow criteria and thus, excludes the majority of people suffering from disordered eating.


The most significant difference between an eating disorder and disordered eating is whether or not a person’s symptoms and experiences align with the criteria defined by the American Psychiatric Association.
The term “disordered eating” is a descriptive phrase, not a diagnosis. Although not a diagnosis, they deserve attention and treatment because it may result in more problematic eating disorders and put individuals at risk of serious health problems.

About 35% of “normal dieters” develop a pattern of pathological dieting. Those with eating disorders exhibit characteristics of disordered eating, but not all disordered eaters can be diagnosed with a full-blown eating disorder. The difference lies in the frequency and severity of behaviors and the distress they cause to the individual.

Disordered eating is present when an individual engages in abnormal eating patterns or food behaviors on a regular basis. Those who become disordered eaters often do so to cope with uncomfortable emotions. For example, they begin focusing on weight and energy (kilojoule) intake to distract themselves from other areas of their lives in which they feel inadequate, or with the idea that reaching their weight goal will finally make them happy.

Once that weight goal is reached, another one will inevitably be set. This is how eating disorders can develop. Emotional eating e.g. when sad, lonely or depressed, can also lead to binges, sometimes resulting in the development of binge eating disorder or bulimia nervosa.

Causes of Disordered Eating

Dieting is one of the strongest predictors for the development of an eating disorder. Weight loss and ‘fad’ diets do not take people’s individual requirements into consideration. The ‘diet cycle’ explains how many of the eating disorders can develop and how they are maintained.

Types of Eating Disorders

Bulimia nervosa (BN): Here, there is uncontrollable binge eating followed by purging, intense exercise or other actions to counterbalance the excessive eating such as laxative abuse.
Binge eating: Excessive food consumption without purging.

Anorexia nervosa (AN) is almost the opposite of binging or bulimia. Individuals with anorexia hardly eat at all. The goal might be to achieve a slender figure but it often leads to malnourishment, dangerously low weight and damage to the organs.

Rumination disorder: Here, food is regurgitated back into the mouth, without pain, and sometimes without intent.
Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder: There is lack of interest in eating for a variety of reasons.
Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS): Similar to AN or BN, EDNOS has specific criteria that must be met in order for the patient to receive this diagnosis, and that criteria also is narrowing.

Symptoms of Disordered Eating

  1. Anxiety about being overweight or obese.
  2. Frequent dieting, anxiety associated with specific foods.
  3. Meal skipping, using diet pills.
  4. Chronic weight fluctuations referred to as yo-yo dieting.
  5. Rigid rituals and routines surrounding food and exercise.
  6. Avoiding a type of food or food group.
  7. Preoccupation with food, weight and body image that negatively impacts on quality of life.
  8. Binge eating, a feeling of loss of control around food, including compulsive eating habits.
  9. Feelings of guilt and shame associated with eating, self-induced vomiting.
  10. Using exercise, food restriction, fasting or purging to “make up for bad foods” consumed.
  11. Laxative, diuretic, enema misuse as well as steroid and creatine use.
  12. Low self-esteem and negative body image.

Consequences of Disordered Eating

The metabolism often slows down to conserve energy, appetite increases and the craving for the restricted foods increases. Feeling of deprivation sets in leading to irritability and fatigue. Another is poor sleep quality after which overeating (bingeing) may follow. Feelings of guilt, shame and failure are also common.

Disordered eating has been linked to a reduced ability to cope with stressful situations. Dieting is also associated with other health concerns including depression and anxiety. Isolation for fear of socializing in situations where people eat. This can contribute to low self-esteem and social withdrawal.

Dieters experience low moods, depression, low energy levels, poor mental and physical health. Osteoporosis or osteopenia: a reduction in bone density leading to bone loss can also develop over time. Gastrointestinal disturbances such as electrolyte and fluid imbalances, low heart rate and blood pressure may be present.

How To Prevent Disordered Eating.

Adopt healthy attitudes and behaviors about body shape and weight. Get rid of the notion that a particular diet, weight or body size will automatically lead to happiness. Learn everything you can about anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder and other types of eating disorders.

Make the choice to challenge the false perception that being thin and weight loss will result in happiness and/or popularity. Go for therapy or counseling to look at the root of those thoughts and why you have them. Cognitive behavioral therapy, “talk therapy” would help to take negative thoughts and reframe them more positively.

Avoid categorizing foods as “good/safe” vs. “bad/dangerous.” You need a balanced diet containing a variety of foods. A healthy diet should focus on whole foods but allow room to enjoy all kinds of food in moderation. Stop judging others and yourself based on body weight or shape. Turn off the voices in your head that tell you that a person’s body weight is an indicator of their character, personality or value as a person. Become a critical reviewer of the media and its messages and images about self-esteem and body image.

You can also put your money where your beliefs are, and support those businesses, television shows, or recording artists among others, that promote body positivity for people of all shapes and sizes. Choose to value yourself based on your goals, accomplishments, talents and character. Celebrate your body’s unique shape and size and embrace the natural diversity of human bodies. When you think about your body, don’t focus on what it looks like, but on what it can do.

How to Manage Disordered Eating

If you are struggling with Disordered Eating, get immediate help.

Finally, if you think someone displays characteristics of disordered eating, express your concerns in a forthright, caring manner. Gently but firmly encourage the person to seek trained professional help from e.g. a dietitian and psychologist. If you have disordered eating, don’t let it control your life any longer.


The major cause of disordered eating is dieting and there are many types of eating disorders yet several who have symptoms of Disordered Eating. Eating disorders are diagnosed based on specific criteria. Symptoms of Disordered Eating may include dieting or eating uncontrollably. Disordered eating may result in poor physical and mental health.
Have a healthy attitude and behavior about body shape and weight. If you consider yourself having a disordered eating, you can contact Dr Folu Olatona via any of the platforms mentioned below.