What’s the Difference Between Eating Disorders and Disordered Eating?

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What’s the Difference Between Eating Disorders and Disordered Eating

What’s the difference between eating disorders and disordered eating? It’s a question that is frequently asked, especially since the two are often confused.

The truth is, there is a lot of overlap between the two, but there are also some key differences.

In this blog post, we will take a closer look at both eating disorders and disordered eating and discuss the similarities and differences between them.

We will also provide examples of both disorders so that you can be sure to recognize them if you or someone you know is suffering from one.

What is an Eating Disorder? 

Eating disorders are severe mental illnesses that involve either a person’s relationship with food or their body image.

The most common types of eating disorders are:

  • Anorexia Nervosa
  • Bulimia Nervosa
  • Binge-Eating Disorder
  • Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID)

All of these conditions involve a distorted view of one’s body, a preoccupation with being thin, or a fear of gaining weight.

People who suffer from an eating disorder typically feel an intense need to control their food intake or body size in order to feel better about themselves. 

What is Disordered Eating? 

Disordered eating is not an official diagnosis but it can still have serious implications on someone’s physical health as well as their emotional well-being. It refers to any type of negative attitude towards food or unhealthy behaviors related to food such as:

  • chronic dieting
  • skipping meals
  • extreme restriction of certain foods or macronutrients (such as carbohydrates)
  • excessive exercise or purging after meals

People who struggle with disordered eating may not necessarily have an intense fear of gaining weight like those with anorexia nervosa do; instead they may simply have a negative attitude towards food in general. 

Severity – The Main Difference Disordered Eating Versus Eating Disorders

The severity of disordered eating or an eating disorder is the main factor that distinguishes them. People with disordered eating tend to be able to function in life and their disordered behavior is easier to go unnoticed.

Individuals with an eating disorder, however, often experience a significant level of impairment in one’s daily functioning and relationships.

For example, somebody with disordered eating might have a small slice of cake for a friend’s birthday and feel guilty about it afterwards – yet this person will still attend the party and eat the cake.

A person with anorexia nervosa, however, would most likely avoid the party out of fear of being judged based on what they consumed, or even make themselves vomit afterwards as a coping-mechanism.

Discrepancy Between Rates of Obesity Versus Eating Disorders

Obesity is a hotly debated topic and there are many valid criticisms of BMI.

Weight stigma is a real issue that contributes to both disordered eating and eating disorders.

With that being said, the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute states:

Nearly 3 in 4 adults aged 20 or older in the United States are either overweight or obese. Nearly 1 in 5 children and teens ages 2 to 19 years have obesity. Overweight and obesity can lead to serious health issues for people of all ages.

On the other hand, according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, “Eating disorders affect at least 9% of the population worldwide, and 9% of the U.S. population, or 28.8 million Americans, will have an eating disorder in their lifetime.

In other words, rates of obesity and overweight, which are signs of a disordered relationship to food and eating, are diagnosed 200-700% more frequently than eating disorders.

But why?

Why Are There More Disordered Eaters Than Eating Disorders?

Again, the main difference between eating disorders and disordered eating is severity.

People who are obese or overweight may have disordered eating patterns but they don’t necessarily meet the criteria for an official diagnosis due to insufficient impairment in social and occupational functioning.

Other Factors Distinguishing Eating Disorders and Disordered Eating

Food Insecurity

Additionally, food insecurity is a major factor that contributes to obesity.

In other words, people with limited resources often cannot access healthy foods and so turn to cheaper, less nutritious options when food shopping – resulting in weight gain over time.

Food insecurity also affects those with eating disorders who need to prioritize basic needs like shelter before seeking treatment for their condition.


Research has shown that there is a strong link between genetics and eating disorders. Around 50 percent of the risk for developing an eating disorder can be attributed to genetic factors.

While genetics may play a strong part in increasing susceptibility to disordered eating, interestingly, the link between weight struggles and disordered eating appears to be less established than previously thought.

This reinforces the importance of addressing racism – for instance fatphobia – in healthcare settings, rather than attributing indicators of disordered eating behaviors solely to weight, lack of willpower or personal decisions.

Past History of Dieting

While many people with eating disorders have a long history of trying to control their food intake and weight, not all disordered eaters are dieting. The reasons why they may disclude dieting from their lifestyle vary and can include an acceptance of their body or nutrition-related issues that arise due to dieting and restricting. With the right tools and understanding, both eating disorder sufferers and those who are overweight can take the steps necessary for healthful living.

Body Image

People with eating disorders may display extreme feelings towards their body, often feeling strong sensations of self-loathing or disgust.

As a result, sufferers of eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia may experience a strong disconnect between how they perceive themselves and reality.

Their inner dialogue around food, weight, and body shape is distorted, leading to an inescapable state of dissatisfaction and hatred toward their own body.

Additionally, many individuals often suffer from severe body dysmorphia whether or not they have been formally diagnosed with an eating disorder; symptomatically condemning their entire physical appearance even in the face of others’ affirmation and objective measures.

On the other hand, people with disordered eating don’t hate their body as much, or even at all.

Instead, they may feel guilty or ashamed after eating certain foods and engage in disordered behaviors to try and counteract this guilt.

Ultimately, disordered eating can manifest in various ways but is distinguished from an eating disorder by the severity of its symptoms. While it is important to recognize both conditions as medical issues and intervene when necessary, understanding the nuances between them is critical for providing effective treatments that work with each individual’s unique needs.

Differences in Treatment

Eating disorders and disordered eating, while sometimes related, can vary greatly in terms of their impact and treating them requires careful consideration.

An effective approach to treating eating disorders often requires more intensive therapy for trauma and a multidisciplinary team that includes psychologists, trauma specialists, nutritionists and family support personnel.

Disordered eaters on the other hand may be better suited to less intensive strategies such as educating them about health and exercise or providing personal training. It is important to recognize the differences between the two conditions so that recognition and treatment can be appropriately tailored towards them.


In conclusion, there are key differences between eating disorders and disordered eating although there is some overlap between the two conditions.

Those suffering from an eating disorder typically have a distorted view of their body size or weight whereas those struggling with disordered eating may simply have an unhealthy attitude towards food in general.

If you think you might be suffering from either condition it is important to speak to a medical professional for help and support.

Knowing the difference between the two can help you recognize the signs early on so that you can get the appropriate help you need before things get worse.

About the Author

Jared Levenson is a former binge eating wrestler turned Zen Buddhist Monk, Internal Family Systems counselor and nutrition wellness coach. He's helped hundreds of people through universal meal principles and internal family systems to make peace with food, stop binge eating, and find true health and wholeness.


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