Disordered Eating & Eating Disorders

Written on 06/05/2023
Sophie Kirk

Food is essential to life. It’s our fuel, the thing that keeps us going and ensures our body can still function perfectly. But what happens when our relationship with food starts to break down, and we restrict our access to the fuel we need to keep going?  

What Is Disordered Eating?

Disordered eating is a blanket term used to describe a wide range of irregular eating behaviours that have an impact on your life, but are not severe enough to warrant a diagnosis of an eating disorder. You may even display some of the same symptoms as people with an eating disorder, but not fit the strict diagnostic criteria. Typically disordered eating fits into 2 categories:

  • Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder (OSFED): When you have some or most of the symptoms of the main 3 eating disorders, but you don’t quite fit into the diagnostic criteria. OSFED accounts for the highest percentage of eating disorders.
  • Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID): When you avoid certain foods, limit how much you eat, or do both. This tends to be about smell, texture, taste and negative emotional experiences with food in the past.

Essentially, disordered eating is when you eat for reasons other than hunger or nourishment and engage in unusual or damaging behaviours around food. This can include eating due to boredom, stress or to suppress their emotions. Some of the behaviours of disordered eating might be subtle – it can look like skipping meals, binging and then purging or starving on an irregular basis, avoiding major food groups in their diet, or eating the same thing every day. Yo-yo dieting is a very common sign of disordered eating, as is sing medication to control your weight and what you eat. 

What Is An Eating Disorder?

An eating disorder is a mental health condition where you use your control over food to cope with your emotions and other situations. Broadly speaking, it’s a way of controlling something when your life feels out of control, and can include eating too much, too little, or taking other drastic measures to control the size and shape of your body. Absolutely anyone can develop an eating disorder, but they are most common in teenagers between 13 and 17.

There are typically 3 types of eating disorders:

  • Anorexia Nervosa: Trying to control your weight by severely restricting food intake, exercising too much or doing both.
  • Bulimia: Losing control over how much you eat, and then taking drastic measures (like vomiting or taking laxatives) to not put on weight.
  •  Binge Eating Disorder: Eating large portions of food until you feel uncomfortably full.

While it might seem on the surface to be less severe than other mental health conditions, eating disorders are actually considered the most deadly mental health issue. The latest data shows that 5-10% of anorexics die within 10 years of developing the illness, and 18-20% die within 20 years. The overall mortality rate of eating disorders is the highest of any psychiatric illness, and for girls death rates are 12 times higher than ALL other causes of death for women ages 15-24. Without treatment, up to 20% of people with an eating disorder will die. But with treatment, that falls dramatically to just 2-3%.

Are There Any Warning Signs?

A lot of the symptoms of disordered eating and eating disorders are very similar, but the difference is the severity to which you experience them. A few of the symptoms include:

  • Spending a lot of time worrying about your weight and body shape.
  • Avoiding social events if food will be involved.
  • Eating very little food.
  • Lying about how much you eat.
  • Making yourself sick or taking laxatives after you eat.
  • Exercising too much.
  • Having very strict rituals around food, like calorie counting, portion control of number of chews.
  • Changes in your mood, like becoming depressed, anxious or withdrawn.

While eating disorders are classified as a mental health issue, they also manifest many different physical signs, including:

  • Dramatic weight loss.
  • Feeling cold, tired or dizzy.
  • Pain, tingling or numbness in your arms and legs (poor circulation).
  • Feeling your heart racing.
  • Feeling faint, or fainting.
  • Problems with your digestion, like bloating, constipation or diarrhoea.
  • Your weight being very high or very low for your height and age.
  • Not getting your period, and other signs of delayed puberty.
  • Brittle hair and nails.

Because eating disorders are some of the most deadly of all mental health conditions, it’s important to seek help as soon as you can if you think you, or someone else, is showing the signs. 

Why Do They Happen?

This is another area that eating disorders differ from disordered eating. Disordered eating can usually find its roots in nurture and societal pressure. Negative experiences with food in the past, feeling pressure to look a certain way to fit into wider society, negative self-image or not being able to express and manage your emotions as a child can all lead to disordered eating behaviours as an adult, and these can be tricky to break free from. 

Eating disorders can be a bit trickier, as we still aren’t sure exactly what causes individuals to develop them. However, research has allowed us to identify some risk points, which can make you much more susceptible to developing an eating disorder. They are:

  • You or a member of your family has a history of eating disorders, depression, alcoholism or drug misuse.
  • You have been criticised for your eating habits, body shape or weight on a regular basis throughout your life.
  • You’re really worried about being slim, particularly if you also feel pressure from society or your job. For example, ballet dancers, models and athletes are all more likely to develop an eating disorder.
  • you have anxiety, low self-esteem, an obsessive personality or are a perfectionist.
  • You’ve been sexually abused.

How Can We Help?

One of the biggest struggles of those living with disordered eating of any kind is asking for help. Acknowledging the issue, understanding the root of it and seeking support in dealing with it can be challenging, but it’s also the best way to regain control over your eating habits. People struggling with disordered eating often feel a sense of shame around it, which makes it incredibly hard to reach out and take that first big step. If you’re in this position, then starting off with smaller steps you can take by yourself in private may be helpful.

Disordered eating habits of any kind, whether it’s undereating, overeating or something in between, can feel all-consuming, and it can be tough to break free from the spiral. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. This blog is designed to help you understand what disordered eating is, what it looks like and to recognise what some of the symptoms and triggers might be for you. When combined with support from a professional, this advice can bring your disordered eating under control and help you take steps towards recovery.


Eating Disorder