Updated: Jun 15
Disordered eating is used to describe a range of irregular eating behaviours that may or may not warrant a diagnosis of a specific eating disorder. Typically, though not always, disordered eating is a symptom of wanting to lose weight; it can lead to anxiety about food and ultimately affect your quality of life.
The difference between eating disorders and disordered eating is that eating disorders can impair physical health, nutrition and psychosocial function, and they’re medically diagnosed using strict criteria. Examples of eating disorders are Anorexia nervosa, Bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder and Orthorexia nervosa.
People with disordered eating may be a healthy weight but are often overweight and may have tried many different diets and know a lot about healthy eating but still struggle to maintain a balanced diet.
Disordered eating may include the following:
laxative abuse (including ‘skinny teas’)
skipping meals/ restricting intake
having strict rules about food
feeling anxious about food and social eating
feeling out of control around food
body image problems
Unfortunately, these unhealthy eating behaviours have become more common due to recent societal norms. We live in a society where being ‘thin’ is idealised and has positive connotations of being healthy and beautiful. As a result, weight loss is looked at as a means to becoming ‘thin’ and is often celebrated, no matter the method.
On the other hand, the word “fat” went from being associated with being ‘wealthy’ and ‘healthy’ in the 1600s to having negative connotations. Being called ‘fat’ has become an insult while being told that you are ‘thin’ or that ‘you have lost weight’ is viewed as a compliment. This ideology reinforces unhealthy eating behaviours and serves to encourage them, thus increasing the prevalence of it.
Types of Disordered Eating
Dieting Dieting is propelled by the desire to be thinner. The word ‘diet’ implies restriction, with the aim being to cut out foods to lose weight and change body shape. Dieting is something that everyone has heard of or may have even done themselves. The problem with diets is that they are so tempting and know how to seduce you. They tell you they can help you drop down two clothes sizes in a week, which seems too good to be true. The old adage, “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is,” is right in the context of dieting.
Diets that are really restrictive or tell you to have unusual combinations of food to help you lose weight very quickly are called FAD diets. Whilst you may achieve weight loss, it’s rarely permanent and it’s not long until you pile the pounds back on. This is because dieters are likely to undergo an episode of overeating or binge eating shortly after restricting foods. This is due to human nature and the fact that, when you are forbidden to have something, you want it more and more until the desire becomes so strong, and you give in. This pattern of dieting followed by overeating and then dieting again is known as yo-yo dieting and is a cycle that many people get stuck in. To learn about the many more interesting reasons why dieting causes overeating, I recommend reading The Psychology of Eating by Jane Ogden.
FAD diets can lead to unhealthy eating behaviours, cause obsessions over food, and result in shame and guilt if the diet is broken. Research has also found that dieting is associated with reduced concentration levels and depression. Physical consequences also include fatigue, reduced muscle and/or bone density. Finally, extreme dieting can lead to eating disorders such as anorexia or binge eating disorders.
Skipping meals This works the same way as dieting does because it is another form of restricting food intake. However, it is important to mention that it is okay to eat more some days and less on others – this is 100% normal. Skipping meals only becomes a concern or a sign of disordered eating when it is done frequently with the intent to control weight.
Purging and laxative abuse This type of disordered eating is where individuals try to remove food consumed to prevent weight gain. This may be done in the form of self-induced vomiting or misusing laxatives to ‘flush out’ the food from your system quicker. It may also be the misuse of an over-the-counter laxative or skinny/slim teas. People who struggle with this often isolate themselves during and after mealtimes so that they can do their purging in secret.
The danger of this eating behaviour is that it can become addictive. It can be difficult to stop using laxatives as your body becomes reliant on them to help relieve yourself and go to the toilet. With self-induced vomiting, it has been found to affect brain chemistry. When it is done, it can result in a ‘high’ that leaves the person wanting to do it after every meal.
Purging and laxative abuse is very serious and dangerous. Skinny teas are heavily promoted across social media sites promising weight loss from simply drinking a cuppa. It’s natural to be tempted, but in reality, nothing in life comes that easy without hard work. These types of weight loss brands often rely on social media influencers to help build credibility of their product, and will even sweeten the deal by giving you a discount code to buy their product. But what you don’t know is that the persistent misuse of laxatives/ skinny teas can have severe complications like dehydration, kidney damage, chronic diarrhoea and disturb electrolyte balances. It is always important to do your own research and to not follow influencers blindly. There is a lot of misinformation on social media, so you must be diligent.
Compulsive exercising Exercise is a double-edged sword. On one hand, exercise and being active is really beneficial for you; it can help make you feel happier and can be a form of stress relief. It also helps to prevent and manage conditions like diabetes, heart disease, musculoskeletal conditions and some cancers. However, there is such a thing as being addicted to exercise.
Exercise addiction is often difficult to recognise because excessive exercise is celebrated in society and is not taken as seriously as it should be. Your peers or friends may praise you for the amount of exercise you do, which in a way endorses this behaviour. Compulsive exercising as a form of disordered eating is where you use exercise as a way to give you permission to eat or to compensate for food that you have already eaten. This is a form of purging in eating disorders. As a result, it can cause persistent muscle soreness, chronic bone and joint pain, loss of menstruation in women and persistent fatigue.
Disordered Eating Causes
The cause of disordered eating is multifactorial. Here are some of the main causes.
Body image A negative body image is a major player in triggering and sustaining disordered eating, yet it is unfortunately extremely common. In fact, one third of adults have felt either anxious or depressed about their body image, and 19% have felt disgusted by it, according to the 2019 mental health report.
Having a negative body image can lead to body dysmorphia, a feeling of anxiousness and obsessive worry about your appearance, which may lead to developing unusual routines to help deal with these concerns.
It’s best portrayed in these pictures:
If not addressed, body dysmorphia can ultimately lead to disordered eating and eating disorders. Furthermore, it is also linked to depressive symptoms, psychological distress and poorer well-being.
Social Media Social media platforms like Instagram exposes users to idealised images of bodies and dictates what is desirable and what isn’t. For example, using filters to edit images and alter the way you look can be detrimental to your body image. It teaches you to be unhappy with how you look and to ‘edit’ yourself into feeling pretty, handsome, slim, curvy or muscular. One in five adults have said that images on social media have caused them to worry about their body image. It’s becoming harder and harder to distinguish between what’s real and what’s fake on social media.
Social media also facilitates comparisons to others' appearance, which can fuel insecurities and body dissatisfaction. 22% of men and 41% of women have said they have negatively compared themselves to others because of their body image.
Disordered Eating Symptoms
We know that a negative body image and social media can cause disordered eating. However, stress, anxiety and depression are also risk factors.
Some examples of disordered eating symptoms include:
Feeling tired or drained
Difficulty concentrating on work, studies or hobbies
Having to take time off work or education
Appearance has changed
You want to avoid socialising, eating out in restaurants or eating in public
Feel isolated and alone
Don’t be alarmed if you feel that some of these behaviours or symptoms apply to you or a loved one. It is not unusual to experience disordered eating due to how common it has become.
Disordered eating can appear as many different unhealthy eating behaviours. It is important to be aware of what can cause disordered eating, what it can appear as or the symptoms of it. This is because it allows for quicker recognition and earlier intervention. which can help to better improve your nutrition, mental health and wellbeing.
How to Combat Disordered Eating
What can you do to overcome disordered eating and body dissatisfaction?
Educate yourself. Learning about disordered eating can help you to recognise unhealthy eating behaviours in yourself or others more easily. It will also allow you to seek treatment or support quicker.
Stand up and be vocal. Start conversations on positive body image. Challenge diet talk. Shut down conversations which body shame or comment on other people's weight and size in a negative way. Having these conversations may help someone else recognise disordered eating in themselves or others. Remember education is prevention. Your voice helps to shift society from body shaming and unhealthy eating behaviours to celebrating people of all shapes and sizes and healthier eating behaviours. The change starts with you.
Cleanse your social media. By removing those who make you feel worse about your body, you can begin to love and appreciate your own shape and size. This can help create a positive relationship with food. Unfollow people on social media who promote diets and skinny teas, post before and after pics or post extreme military-style workout routines.
Spread kindness. Be mindful of other people's feelings and struggles especially when talking about diet, weight and body shape, both online and offline.
Seek professional help. A dietitian can help you improve your relationship with food and enjoy freedom from the anxiety and guilt associated with disordered eating. Book a consultation with one of our disordered eating dietitians today.