IS IT DISORDERED EATING OR AN EATING DISORDER?
Updated: Jan 27
I meet a lot of people who aren't really sure if their relationship to food is something to be concerned about. They wonder if they're totally normal and they're just overreacting. They wonder if other people feel how they do about food. They feel totally alone and like no one understands what they're going through.
The line between dieting, disordered eating, and eating disorders is so fine - and not ridged. The spectrum of eating means it's not totally clear where dieting to disordered eating to an eating disorder begins.
That's why as a disordered eating and eating disorders nutritionist I believe it's important to look at someone's relationship to food not in absolutes, and to understand how someone's relationship to food impacts them.
What one person might see as "just dieting" might be really impacting someone's life - which would put it in the space of disordered eating or an eating disorder.
In this article I hope to outline the difference between dieting, disordered eating, and eating disorders. I want to make it super clear that all three are worthy and deserving support, so please do reach out if you would like to chat about I might be able to support you.
Dieting then vs now
Being on a diet has been a “normal” part of society for a long time, but recently “dieting” as we often think of it, has become untrendy, unknown - dieting has evolved to become sneakier and more difficult to detect.
Dieting in, say, the 1990s was super transparent, it was pretty hard to miss. It would look like calorie counting, weighing yourself regularly, measuring your body with a tape measure, daily exercise tapes, Slim Fast, and eating as little as possible.
If you mention “diet” in 2021, people often reply:
“I don’t diet, I’m just eating healthy.”
“I’m not dieting, I just never eat junk food.”
“I don’t diet, I am just watching what I eat.”
“I know dieting doesn’t work, I just count calories/macros/points/syns.”
Dieting in our diet culture has shapes hifted to be cooler, newer, and more of a “health” thing than in the past. It’s really common for people in their 20s and 30s to say “my parents/grandparents dieted, I definitely don’t diet!”
Dieting has morphed into a range of alternatives that try to hide the fact that you’re dieting. It’s now more about health/status/taking care of yourself, but really it’s still in the hope of changing or maintaining your current body. Some examples of modern day dieting include:
Overdoing it at the gym, at the sake of your physical, mental, and social wellbeing.
Going on a health kick every so often.
Cleanses or detoxing.
Cutting out carbs and sugar, or limiting them to just a few portions a day.
Being “good” and labelling days as good or bad at the end of the day.
Only allowing yourself to eat one “treat” food a day.
Macro counting (a common diet is if it fits your macros (IIFYM.)
Trying to stick to a certain number of calories a day, and making up for it by over-exercising or eating less the next day.
Saving calories or “treat” foods until night time so you can get the most out of them.
Dieting is disordered eating
There’s a really big misconception that dieting, trying to eat as “good”, or as little as possible is healthy and normal. But actually the behaviours people on diets take part in aren’t showing a healthy relationship to food.
In fact, disordered eating is much more common than people think - 50-70% of UK women are thought to have a disordered relationship to food (1). This doesn’t surprise me, but it often surprises others.
Disordered eating isn’t just one thing, it’s a whole range of thoughts and behaviours that for one person might be distressing and impactful on their life, another it’s not a big deal. This includes:
Restrictive ways of eating like veganism or plant based
Following an exercise routine and committing to a set number of days per week
What is an eating disorder?
While regular dieting focuses on weight change and food intake, an eating disorder goes far further than that.
Eating disorders are complex mental health conditions that anyone can have, they are not a lifestyle choice like a diet is. Your size, ethnicity or gender don’t matter. There is no single cause for an eating disorder, however many factors come together to make people susceptible to development an eating disorder, including:
Cultural aspects e.g. fatphobia and beauty ideals
Food specific beliefs e.g. food rules and healthism beliefs
Past traumatic events
Body image concerns
Genetics - binge eating disorder has an estimated genetic link of 40-80%.
Upbringing and childhood
Disordered eating vs an eating disorder
Your relationship to food is dynamic, it changes based on what’s going on in your life, e.g. extra stress, more pressure to look a certain way, difficult life events. So it’s not like being “just a dieter” or being “a bit disordered with food” isn’t something that’s worthy of support. Dieting is disordered eating, but there are a few things that set this apart from more clinical eating disorders. Including, but not limited to:
Weight loss is seen as progress while dieting. However weight loss represents self-worth in those who have an eating disorder.
Those who diet will be willing to openly talk about their new diet, whereas people with eating disorders may constantly deny they are restricting food consumption or taking part in disordered behaviours like hiding food, purging, or weighing themselves multiple times a day.
Food rules while dieting are in place for the individual to follow a specific diet plan. However, those with eating disorders often impose rules themselves which are based on self-worth. For example “I can’t eat these chips with my dinner because I haven’t exercised enough so I don’t deserve it.”
In many cases it’s difficult to tell the difference between disordered eating or an eating disorder. There three key factors that might be helpful to differentiate:
When somebody is struggling with an eating disorder they will typically engage in several behaviours which can include food, body image or mood. Judging by one of these behaviours would be insufficient to diagnose an eating disorder.
Many people struggle with poor body image but don’t have an eating disorder. However, when people have several of these behaviours this might indicate a more clinical eating disorder.
Obsession around eating and food can help us decide if an eating disorder or disordered eating is at play. It is totally normal to think about food when you’re not hungry e.g. when food is around, or if it’s part of your job.
However, for those struggling with an eating disorder these thoughts around food can totally consume their minds. They will think about everything surrounding food including taste, smell, calories and where to buy food.
This degree of obsession can impair focus, concentration, the amount of sleep you get, how much time you spend with others, school and work performance, hobbies, and other areas of mental health.
This for me is the most helpful distinguishing factor for deciding if you or another individual is struggling with an eating disorder. If the way of eating takes you away from normal life, such as going out with friends or missing a lot of days at work, this can be a strong indication that you may have an eating disorder.
There is an extremely fine line between dieting/disordered eating and an eating disorder.
Dieting may start out as an innocent attempt to lose some weight or become a “bit more healthy.” Eating disorders are not diets gone wrong, but the majority of people with an eating disorder have been on a diet.
How does dieting/disordered eating turn into a eating disorder?
The Loaded Gun Theory - This analogy is helpful to explain that a combination of multiple factors lead to development of eating disorders.
Firstly, we can be genetically predisposed to being vulnerable to developing an eating disorder. This means our genes represent the loaded gun which is ready to be fired.
Then for an eating disorder to occur we need something to pull the trigger. This could happen through environmental, social or cultural risk factors. For example, the pressure of body standards presented by diet culture, social media exposing you to criticism around your body or even parents labelling foods as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ during your childhood.
These risk factors will increase the likelihood of the trigger being pulled, the possibility of you developing an eating disorder.
This theory shows how our relationships with food are dynamic and multifactorial. The smallest behaviour changes can build up over time to become an all-consuming condition.
Eating disorder nutritionist breaks down eating disorder myths
1. Only thin people have an eating disorder
You might be struggling with your relationship with food. You might be displaying signs or symptoms of an eating disorder. But then you will tell yourself “I don’t have a problem with food because I’m not thin enough!”
This is what diet culture and social norms have made us believe. But eating disorders don’t discriminate between body sizes. They can affect anyone no matter their body shape or shape. In fact, only around 6% of people with eating disorders are below a “normal BMI.”