This blog was submitted by Mental Health & Exercise Coach and Personal Trainer Dani Ress, who explains the differences between disordered eating and eating disorders.
Disordered Eating or Eating Disorder?
With it being Eating Disorder Awareness Week, I wanted to provide some information regarding disordered eating and eating disorders – what the difference is and how if left, disordered eating can turn into an eating disorder, and also where to get help. I’m Dani Rees, a Mental Health & Exercise Coach and Personal Trainer, but I would like to clarify I’m not a nutritionist or specialist in eating disorders. However, I have previously experienced disordered eating, so I would also like to share some of my experiences.
Sometimes there can be confusion over disordered eating and eating disorders.
What is the difference?
Eating disorders are mental illnesses. Bulimia nervosa, anorexia nervosa and binge-eating disorders all come into this category. In comparison, disordered eating is more about your negative behaviour towards food, your patterns and how you view food. Compared to eating disorders, where specific criteria must be met to be diagnosed, disordered eating isn’t so much diagnostic. However, it is common enough that the general population are more likely to have experienced it.
If disordered eating isn’t addressed, it can become an eating disorder over time.
Please note personal trainers and coaches aren’t qualified to help someone overcome an eating disorder (unless they have further qualifications, so please seek more specialist help for this)
- 1 in 2 people that experience an eating disorder feel like they don’t deserve help
- 2 in 3 people that binge eat base their self-worth on their body image
- 9 in 10 women will take a risk on their health to reach their goal weight
- Anger, sadness and anxiety account for 95% of the mood states that predict a binge
- 2 in 3 people with an eating disorder report feeling like an attention seeker
How can I spot the difference between eating disorders and disordered eating?
Symptoms of eating disorders include:
- Repeatedly binge-eating – lack of control over eating – a feeling they can’t stop eating or control what or how much they are eating
- Intense fear of gaining weight
- Massive restriction of food and calories
- Excessive influence on body weight and shape due to how they feel and view themselves as a person
- Vomiting, laxative use, over-exercising, or fasting, all of which are self-inflicted
Some symptoms of disordered eating include:
- Skipping meals
- Cutting out certain foods or over-restricting certain foods
- Rigid restraint – all or nothing with your behaviours and attitudes towards food
- Being obsessed with counting calories and macros – weighing out everything you consume constantly
- Constantly weighing yourself
- Experiencing quite a lot of emotional eating episodes
- Grazing behaviour
- Being pre-occupied with food, weight and shape
- Always thinking about food, worrying about what you’re eating
- Overeating – this could be because you’re over restricting
There are more signs of disordered eating. Everyone is different. The symptoms of eating disorders are more limited than disordered eating. However, both are different to the individual.
People with eating disorders will likely experience the symptoms of disordered eating. However, if someone is experiencing some of the symptoms of disordered eating but none under eating disorders, then they won’t be defined as having an eating disorder (as far as the eating disorder definition goes).
The length of time someone goes through these symptoms can determine whether they have an eating disorder or disordered eating. This varies on the eating disorder. If someone is experiencing symptoms for less than the amount of time stated, then they won’t be diagnosed as having an eating disorder and instead would be classified as experiencing disordered eating patterns. (Jake Linardon, 2023)
What can cause disordered eating and eating disorders?
- Family history
- Environment – how you’re bought up and what the environment is like around you
- COVID-19 (I’ll talk more about the impact this had on those with eating disorders below
- Experiences (for example, if you’ve been bullied or past negative relationships, to name a couple)
During COVID-19, some of the population faced struggles with their mental health due to the anxieties and lack of social interaction and restrictions that came with the pandemic. Due to the lack of social interaction, there would have been fewer personal triggers, such as face-to-face triggers and eating out in public, which might have benefited those struggling with an eating disorder and disordered eating. Those struggling with an eating disorder or disordered eating might have benefited from more support from their loved ones. Also, the change in the technology of delivering new and different therapies online might have helped some people who felt too nervous for face-to-face support.
However, COVID-19 massively bought along its disadvantages, especially for those with eating disorders or disordered eating. The public restrictions that came with the pandemic, one of them being the food restrictions, were a massive trigger for those with eating disorders, as it encouraged people to stockpile food, which encouraged binge eating. Due to social restrictions, this meant reducing social support and restricting face-to-face treatments, meaning people weren’t able to get the proper support they needed. Social distancing and being stuck in doors meant people were spending a lot more time on social media, meaning they were able to compare themselves to others more and whilst being exposed to more toxic content involving harmful eating and appearance based. COVID-19 also bought a lot of stress, understandably, and stress can cause more unhelpful disordered eating patterns, including emotional eating. (SiennaMarisa Brown 1, 2021)
I developed disordered eating from an early age. It was very gradual and didn’t start straight away. It started from a bad relationship with food and a wrong perception of food, leading to disordered eating patterns over time. It didn’t lead to an eating disorder, so please don’t take this as me putting my views across from an eating disorder perspective. It’s purely from the disordered eating side of things.
When I was about 11, I developed a bad relationship with food due to another kid’s comment about my weight. This didn’t cause me to develop disordered eating straight away, however, it was the catalyst. Defining myself by my weight, and comparing myself to those around me, especially going into secondary school and entering stages when you go through hormonal changes anyway, led to me over-restricting, cutting out certain foods and food groups. Because I was over-restricting, I was overeating on the foods I cut out because I was massively craving them and because ‘It’s the weekend’ – that unhealthy pattern being a symptom of disordered eating. Over-exercising to control my weight – again, another sign of disordered eating.
I worked on it with the right support network and the right environment around me. I had to do a lot of self-development, and a lot of it was down to the other Mental Health & Exercise Coaches within the community. I didn’t see a therapist that dealt with this, but that doesn’t mean you can’t. I was lucky enough to have the correct support network around me to help.
Depending on what stage you’re at, there might always be that voice telling you not to eat that particular food or to eat less and exercise more, but when you start working on it and you get help, you can override it. So you learn to know that’s all it is, work at it and say the exact opposite of what that voice tells you.
Whether you have an eating disorder or disordered eating, you can get help. If you have an eating disorder, please seek professional help. Some places you can get help include:
There are loads more out there, but these are just a few. If you feel you have disordered eating, or someone you know does, you can work on this, but you don’t have to do it alone. With support from friends, family, a coach, or one of these helplines. For someone experiencing an eating disorder, they should get professional help, so they can get the best support that is best suited to them and get the assistance they deserve. If someone is showing symptoms of disordered eating, it is best to get help as soon as possible before it develops into an eating disorder, which can happen if it doesn’t get addressed.
Reminder, you are not alone in this. Please seek relevant help, reach out and talk to someone.
Most of this information has been with the help of articles from Dr Jake Linardon:
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