Disordered Eating vs. Eating Disorder – What’s the difference?

‘Disordered Eating’ is a phenomenon entirely different to ‘Eating Disorder’. They may sound similar, but both have two very different meanings. Disordered eating is an epidemic in our culture. We are constantly faced with new diets, it becomes easy to develop a negative relationship with food. Disordered eating can be precursor to an eating disorder if not managed correctly. Let’s highlight the key differences between both disorders and offer some practical advice on normalising eating patterns in order to avoid disordered eating behaviours 

To determine if an individual has disordered eating habits, there are three factors to consider: Behaviours, obsession and functionality. The combination and the extent of each of these factors is what determines if a patient is suffering from an eating disorder, or disordered eating.  

When an individual is struggling with an eating disorder, they generally demonstrate multiple behaviours, involving food, body image or mood. We are not able to judge solely by these behaviours alone: many of us eat healthy foods or overeat and we are not diagnosed with an eating disorder. A healthcare provider will check to see just how many behaviours an individual may engage in along with the frequency of these behaviours.  

There are four diagnoses of eating disorders

  • Anorexia Nervosa
  • Bulimia Nervosa
  • Binge Eating Disorder
  • Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified.


Specific diagnostic criteria are listed for each of the four diagnoses. However, falling short of meeting these criteria does not mean a person is maintaining a healthy relationship with food and weight. Individuals who demonstrate disordered eating may still be at risk both physically and emotionally. 

With eating disorders, there is an obvious obsession whereby all of their eating related thoughts become all-consuming. When it comes time to eat, they will think about avoiding food, the calories, the taste, or where to buy the food. All this can lead to an impaired focus, loss of sleep, and high levels of stress. A person with disordered eating will not obsess over their food entirely, but may feel often feel extreme anxiety around food. They might track their daily food intake down to the calorie, exercise obsessively at the gym, or avoid social situations in which food will be present. 

We also need to consider if an individual’s eating patterns affect their normal day to day life. If someone’s eating patterns take them away from normal functioning, this can be a strong indication of an eating disorder. Examples include avoiding social events that involve eating, or missing out on school or work just to exercise more than required. While these examples may sound extreme, those struggling often cite impairments of their social functioning as well as other obligations, due to their eating disorders. 

Breaking the habit

Breaking disordered eating habits before they lead to an eating disorder can be done. Depending on the severity of an individual’s behaviours, professional help might be recommended. A registered dietician (R.D.) can help you face fear foods and practice more intuitive eating. If other psychological issues are the underlying cause of disordered food behaviours, a psychotherapist can help you develop alternative coping mechanisms. 

Food is a necessity of life, and consuming food mindfully and sustainably is key to healthy eating habits. When we change our eating patterns, food then turns into something to be feared or develops the allure of the forbidden fruit, paving the way for disordered food behaviours. Practicing intuitive eating and having awareness of these disordered views on food and body image can help individuals maintain truly healthful eating habits. 

Dr Ruhil Badiani

Family Medicine Consultant

If you have any questions about disordered eating, get in touch with a Health at Hand doctor for advice through our app that can be easily downloaded from the App Store. Click here for more information.