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

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

By Jeanne Hendricks, RDN, Manager, Virtua Weight Loss and Wellness Center

Women are inundated with magazine and social media images of sleek, slim starlets. For them, staying skinny seems easy, even though we know some resort to Photoshop and clever filters to perfect their appearance in images online and in print. What we don’t see is how many female celebrities barely eat and workout 2 hours a day, or choose to have their extra weight sucked and tucked

Women from all walks of life go to extremes to be thin. And these extreme methods don’t only wreak havoc on young women and adolescent girls – the stereotypical patients. From 2001 to 2010, the rate of eating disorders among middle-aged women increased by 42%. And, while eating disorders are more prevalent in women, millions of men and boys battle them as well. 

To protect yourself and your family from these potentially dangerous behaviors, here’s what you need to know about eating disorders and “disordered eating.” 

Common eating disorders

It’s important to emphasize that eating disorders are complex, chronic mental illnesses. They have physical, psychological and social ramifications all dealing with weight preoccupation, inappropriate eating behavior and body-image distortion. 

The most common eating disorders include:

Symptoms of eating disorders

People with eating disorders often experience depression or anxiety. The impact on a person’s physical health can be severe and include these consequences: 

  • Severe weight loss
  • Dry/brittle nails and hair
  • Sore throats
  • Dental issues
  • Loss of menstrual periods
  • Sensitivity to cold
  • Loss of muscle mass
  • Easy bruising
  • Extreme health problems that can even lead to death 

What is disordered eating?

Disordered eating, on the other hand, relates to changes in eating habits and patterns. These occur less frequently and are less severe. 

Disordered eating includes:

  • Laxative use
  • Diet-pill use
  • Fasting or purging

Women more often engage in disordered eating when they want to lose weight for an event. If not addressed, disordered eating can develop into an eating disorder.  

Other types of disordered eating

Orthorexia nervosa: Symptoms of orthorexia are similar to obsessive-compulsive disorders. Someone with orthorexia nervosa may have an excessive preoccupation with foods they perceive as unhealthy. For example, a woman may avoid certain ingredients such as fat, animal products, additives or preservatives.  

Night-eating syndrome: The main behavior associated with night-eating syndrome is consuming very little food during the day and eating large amounts through the night. Associated with depression and mood disorders, people with this disorder tend to have high levels of cortisol, and use food as a form of self-medication.  

Compulsive exercise: Compulsive exercise is characterized by excessive, obsessive exercise and extreme calorie restriction. It's common in young athletes trying to maintain lean, fit bodies. Compulsive exercise, especially in young people, can lead to dangerous health issues such as malnutrition and endocrine-system problems.

How to tell the difference 

A person who strives to eat a healthy, balanced diet is likely trying to prevent illness, improve physical and mental performance, and maintain a healthy weight and lifestyle. 

A person with an eating disorder often uses food, and the control of food, to compensate for feelings and emotions that may otherwise seem overwhelming.

For some, dieting and binging and purging begin as a way to cope with painful emotions and create a sense of control of one's life. But, ultimately, these behaviors damage a person's physical and emotional health, self-esteem, and sense of competence and control.

What to look for

If you’re concerned that someone you know might have an eating disorder, here’s what you need to look for:

  • Altered behaviors dealing with food consumption
  • Significant weight changes in short periods of time
  • Avoidance of social events where food may be served
  • Extreme consumption of food and then frequent bathroom use, as this person may be binging and then purging.

For help, talk to your family doctor; if you’re concerned about your child, talk to the pediatrician. For successful treatment, it’s important to take a comprehensive approach that includes a psychiatrist or psychologist and a registered dietitian who are trained and experienced in treating eating disorders.  


National Eating Disorders Association
The Renfrew Center

Updated January 14, 2022

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