Disordered eating describes a variety of abnormal eating behaviors that do not yet fit the criteria for an eating disorder. The main difference between disordered eating and an eating disorder is the frequency and severity of the abnormal eating pattern. Studies have shown that up to 50% of individuals demonstrate problematic or disordered relationships with food, body, and exercise. Disordered eating occurs when individuals eat for other reasons than hunger. Individuals with disordered eating eat when they are bored, eat out of stress, eat to cover up their emotions, may skip out on major food groups, eat the same thing every day, may skip meals altogether, or may even engage in binging and purging behaviors on a limited basis.  Strict diets can be examples of disordered eating and many studies have shown that dieting can lead to disordered eating and eventually full-fledged eating disorders. How do I know if I should be worried? What if this gets worse? These are the thoughts and questions, not only for those concerned for their loved ones but also for individuals who are unsure about what type of help they might need. There are three key factors: behaviors, obsession, and functionality. The following as are signs and symptoms associated with disordered eating:

Behavioral symptoms: Individuals whom engage in disordered eating will practice food restriction, binge eating, and purging can be a part of disordered eating patterns. Mental distress including low self-esteem and self-worth are key underlying triggers that lead to these behavioral symptoms associated with disordered eating.

Cognitive symptoms:  Individuals will often develop negative thinking about types of food, quality of food, and fear that food eaten outside of the person’s control could be “contaminated” or unclean. There is often a significant fear of food having toxins, be a cause for disease development and other contamination fears. Other symptoms typically include thoughts that focus on body weight, shape, and size. More than often, an individual will body check, shame, and critique themself and compare themselves to others.

Self-perception: Individuals may have a different perception of the way they experience their bodies and may feel they are overweight even when they are not. Some individuals often follow an excessive or rigid exercise routine and may engage in calorie counting just to maintain their current body weight.

Mental health symptoms: Those with disordered eating tend to struggle with anxiety around food, may only eat specific foods, or be inflexible with eating resulting in an anxiety disorder such as generalized anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder. Depression and personality disorders are strongly linked to disordered eating.

Seeking help

Disordered eating can quickly turn into a full-fledged eating disorder. Recognizing the signs and symptoms of disordered eating and seeking treatment can help prevent the development of an eating disorder, which can be life-threatening. Treatment aims at developing healthy coping skills to combat negative thoughts and subsequent actions. Additionally, treatment will enable you to recognize the underlying triggers that have caused these unhealthy behaviors and develop better communication skills, self-love, and tools to strengthen your personal relationships with others all while simultaneously learning how to have a healthy relationship with food.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, reach out to Center for Discovery. We’re here for you—even during the busy holiday season—when you need a place to turn.