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Disordered Eating vs. Eating Disorder

Feeling guilt for eating when hungry is like feeling guilty for breathing when your lungs need oxygen. We are swamped by food fads, trendy diets, and the pressure from society to lose weight, sometimes unnecessarily, to be viewed as beautiful.

So, what happens when we become fixated with this culture and where do we draw the line to distinguish disordered eating and eating disorders? To understand the abnormal, we must first understand the normal.

The standard diet in the US is eating three balanced meals a day. Non-disordered eating is when individuals consume food when hungry and can stop eating once they are full. It only becomes a problem when individuals begin to consume food out of boredom or stress.

Eating Disorders

People struggling with an eating disorder will have obsessive thoughts about food every day. The individual thinks about calories, taste, food avoidance, or buying food. They will spend hours meal planning, counting calories, exercising, and engaging in binging or purging activities to the point that it affects their everyday life.

The most common eating disorders are binge eating disorder, anorexia nervosa, and bu

limia nervosa, and each one of these eating disorders can present differently in each individual and carry lifelong consequences.

Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder categorized by an unhealthy body shape and image disturbance. Individuals will go to extreme measures. They will not only starve themselves, but they might try to rid their bodies of any caloric intake they consume through self-purging mechanisms such as self-induced vomiting, laxative, diuretics, and extreme exercise.

Bulimia Nervosa

Bulimia nervosa is a severe eating disorder involving excessive amounts of food in a short period (binging) followed by guilt and shame leading to self-induced vomiting, extreme exercise, or laxative abuse (purging). Many refer to it as a binge and purge eating disorder.

Anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa are not the most common eating disorders (binge eating disorder is the most common), they are often depicted in the media regularly.

Because of this, society has many misconceptions regarding both of these eating disorders.

The main distinction between anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa is behavior. The fear of gaining weight and distorted body image is frequent in both eating disorders.

Most individuals with anorexia are underweight, whereas individuals with bulimia nervosa are average or overweight. However, according to the new DSM 5 standard for anorexia, patients don't need to be below average weight. They can have lost a significant amount of weight through unhealthy means.

So What Distinguishes Disordered Eating from an Eating Disorder?

It is normal to think about or even obsess over food when you are hungry, especially if you have not eaten for a while. It is also normal to think about meal planning, grocery shopping, and dinner cravings.

The obsession around eating disorder thoughts and behaviors can distinguish disordered eating from an eating disorder. This level of obsession with food, calories, and weight changes and the behaviors that reinforce these obsessions differentiates a clinical eating disorder from a disordered eating pattern.

In addition to the obsession, extreme behaviors are prevalent in individuals with an eating disorder. From binging and self-induced vomiting to laxative abuse, food restriction, and excessive exercise, individuals will go to extremes daily or weekly to control their caloric consumption.

This desire for control takes predominance over their lives. As a result, they may avoid family dinners, outings with friends, or stay home from school or work due to fear of eating around other people.

Disordered Eating

Disordered eating is not an "eating disorder" per se. However, it is an atypical behavior that can, in theory, become serious. Some believe that disordered eating, if not treated, can lead to eating disorders. However, not every person with a disordered eating pattern will develop a clinical eating disorder.

Disordered eating occurs when individuals eat for other reasons than hunger and nourishment. Individuals with disordered eating eat when they are bored, eat out of stress, eat to cover up their emotions, skip meals, engage in binging and purging behaviors on an irregular or limited basis, may skip out on major food groups, or eat the same thing every day.

Eating Disorders vs. Disordered Eating

The main delineating factor between disordered eating and an eating disorder is the occurrence and severity of the abnormal eating pattern. Although both disordered eating and eating disorders are abnormal, eating disorders have particular diagnostic criteria outlining frequent and severe behaviors.

Many individuals exhibit problematic or disordered relationships with food, body, and exercise. Individuals may count calories, over-exercise, exercise solely to lose weight and cringe at the sight of skin folds, thigh dimples, and cellulite. These are normal, and it is time to normalize all shapes and sizes of bodies.

Management and Prevention

If you are experiencing disordered eating or an eating disorder, there is hope. There are many ways to treat and manage signs, symptoms, and behaviors. There are also ways to discontinue your disordered eating behavior before it leads to a full-fledged eating disorder:

Avoid fad diets, including crash diets. Many diets are very restrictive in terms of variety and quantity, leading to feelings of deprivation.

  • Set healthy limits on exercise and learn to move your body in ways that bring you joy. Over-exercising is a sign of disordered eating, which can potentially lead to restrictive eating disorders.

  • Stop negative body talk. Instead of negatively critiquing your body every time you look in the mirror or get dressed in the morning; instead take notice of what your body can do for you.

  • Having a scale in your bathroom can be a slippery slope as you may find yourself continuously weighing yourself daily or after every meal. This scale can become an obsession. You may adopt extreme patterns to lose weight, especially if you weigh yourself regularly. Don't allow the scale to become your ONLY gauges; instead, take notice of how your body feels and how your clothes fit without the scale.

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