Understanding Disordered Eating

Disordered eating (DE) refers to several abnormal eating behaviors that contribute to significant distress. Individuals with DE often have trouble functioning in everyday activities such as working and socializing. DE may not necessarily meet the criteria for frequency, duration, or intensity compared to a specific eating disorder such as Anorexia or Bulimia. However, they still negatively impact one’s physical and mental health. Unhealthy eating patterns can include restrictive dieting, compulsive eating, binge eating, and purging behaviors. However, these disorders may not be present as frequently or intensely, and these behaviors may not always involve extreme weight loss or gain.

Key points

A woman in a black sleeveless top looks down at her plate with a forlorn expression, poking at a single small piece of broccoli with her fork. The setting suggests a mealtime at home, possibly indicating a lack of appetite or interest in eating. This image may represent the challenges faced by those with disordered eating, a condition that Nutegra aims to help individuals overcome.

Look for signs & symptoms of disordered eating:

  • Not stopping eating when satisfied
  • Stopping to eat because you think you should and not because you are satisfied
  • Not making food choices based on foods you enjoy
  • Being physically uncomfortable (weak, dizzy, or headaches) when dieting or undereating
  • Eating in a specific pattern (eating the same number of meals or at a particular time)
  • Preoccupation with body weight, shape, or appearance
  • Spending an excessive amount of time thinking about food rather than other aspects of your life
  • Eating only “healthy” foods and avoiding “pleasurable foods.”
  • Not trusting your hunger to prevent excessive weight gain.
  • Feeling guilty after overeating
  • Gauging how much you should eat by watching others
  • Being unable to leave some treats on a plate to eat later
  • Choosing foods based on calories.

What contributes to disordered eating?

Environmental influences contribute to the development of DE. Social pressure to look a certain way or be a certain weight contributes to disordered eating. The media, including social media, portrays unrealistic bodies that artists have air-brushed in pictures, and peers have filtered can add significant pressure to meet ideals. Psychological factors such as low self-esteem, perfectionism, or trauma perpetuate these eating behaviors. Many of the fad diets in society promise quick fixes for extreme weight loss and result in DE. Finally, family history contributes to disordered eating, which is often due to learned behaviors and a possible genetic component.

Effect of disordered eating on health

  • Nutritional deficiencies and dehydration
  • Digestive problems
  • Heart problems
  • Hormonal imbalances
  • Mental health issues (depression & anxiety)
    osteoporosis
  • Death

Remember

One should seek professional help from a doctor, therapist, or registered dietitian if struggling with disordered eating for mental health therapy, nutritional counseling, and medical monitoring.

Access the Healthy Relationship with Food quiz here: https://renfrewcenter.com/food-quiz/

References

Academy for Eating Disorders. (2021). AED Report 2021: Medical Care Standards Guide. Medical Care Standards Guide – Academy for Eating Disorders (fourth ed). Available at https://www.aedweb.org/publications/medical-care-standards

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.) Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.

Saul J, Rodgers RF, Saul M. 2022. Adolescent eating disorder risk and the social online world: An update. Child Adolesc Psychiatr Clin. 2022. 31(1).167-177.

The Renfrew Center. Do You Have a Healthy Relationship with Food? Accessed April 16, 2024, https://renfrewcenter.com/food-quiz/

Jane Sylvester

MS, RDN, CSOWM