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What’s the Difference Between an Eating Disorder and Disordered Eating?

5 min read

FOOD. We need it, we love it, we identify with it (#foodie), and there are even entire television networks dedicated to it. But, we have a complicated relationship with it.

Women in particular are socialized to have a contentious relationship with food, and with our bodies. We are taught that our bodies are an indicator of our value and worth, and therefore we need to look a certain way in order to maintain or acquire said “value” or “worth.”

So, we strive to only eat “good” food and avoid “bad” food, out of fear of gaining weight and diminishing our worth. We count calories, we look for hidden sugar, we meal plan to avoid mistakes and temptation, and overall, we obsess about food.

Many times this obsession is seen as normative. I mean, how often have you heard “I’m not eating sugar right now” or “this is a cheat day”? The problem is that this obsession with our relationship with food can sometimes escalate to that of an eating disorder or disordered eating.

What’s An Eating Disorder?

Let’s start with the basics. Eating disorders aren’t just about starvation. Eating disorders (or our eating behaviors in general) are about our relationship with ourselves and how that relationship is exercised through our relationship with food and our bodies. More specifically, an eating disorder is a serious and sometimes life-threatening mental illness that causes severe disturbances in a person’s eating behaviors and in his or her perceptions of his or her body.

The most common eating disorders are Binge Eating Disorder (BED), Bulimia Nervosa, and Anorexia Nervosa. Binge Eating Disorder (BED) is characterized by a lack of control during repeated episodes of overeating/binging on food (even after being full or not being hungry) followed by feelings of shame and distress. Generally, these episodes are not followed by any purging behaviors.

Bulimia Nervosa is characterized by recurrent binge-eating episodes with a lack of control over one’s behavior, followed by purging behaviors such as vomiting, over-exercise or abusing laxatives or diet pills. Individuals may also engage in restrictive eating for an extended period of time that then results in a binge-purging episode.

Anorexia Nervosa is characterized by an intense fear of gaining weight, a distorted perception of one’s weight or shape and the use of extreme measures to manage weight and caloric intake, all of which result in very low body weight. Individuals may also engage in over-exercising, abuse of laxatives and/or abuse of diet-aids to help manage their weight.

While these eating disorders are more extreme, they don’t always begin at the far end of the spectrum. They first appear as a contentious relationship with our bodies and food. From as young as nine and 10 years old, 51 percent of girls report feeling better about themselves when they are dieting. In a survey of ninth and 12th grade girls, 43 percent reported fasting or skipping meals to lose weight. And in a separate study of more than 2,500 women, 75 percent of them reported a lifetime prevalence of dieting to lose weight. These studies help demonstrate that eating disorders don’t suddenly appear—they’re born out of desperation and distress with how we see ourselves, which often initially manifest as disordered eating.

What’s Disordered Eating?

Disordered eating can look like a multitude of different behaviors that fall on the spectrum, but aren’t quite as extreme as an eating disorder. It can include:

  • Constant dieting or an unhealthy commitment to “clean/ healthy eating” (this is one to watch out for the in the wellness world, especially, when an emphasis is placed on eating a certain way)
  • Obsessing about what you have eaten and are going to eat (and not in a fun way)
  • Experiencing shame or guilt when you eat certain foods
  • Avoiding social gatherings that involve food
  • Relying on food for emotional comfort
  • Stringent restrictions on the types of foods you are willing to eat (creating “rules” for yourself)
  • Experiencing a lack of control around your food intake (doesn’t have to be a binge)

If any of these ring true for you, don’t panic. It just means that it might be time to reevaluate your relationship with food. Is this how you want to feel when you eat? Is this how you want to feel about your body? Is this what you want to be thinking about all the time? If your answer to any of those is “no,” then you can do something about it.

You can seek help from a mental health professional and nutritionist to talk about what you’re experiencing and what your goals are. It’s okay to want to lose weight; it’s appropriate to care about what you put in your body. But when you stop feeling empowered and you start feeling distressed or ashamed, something is wrong. Remember that you’re not alone: According to the National Eating Disorder Association, 30 million Americans and 70 million people worldwide suffer from an eating disorder. And of those seeking weight loss treatment, 33 percent of them endorse severe binge eating behaviors. So, a lot of people are struggling.

Diet culture is everywhere and being obsessed about your body is considered “normal.” This socialization impacts everyone: women, men, people of color, trans folks and those who are gender non-conforming. But that doesn’t have to be your experience. You can have a more positive relationship with your body and food. It starts with acknowledging where you are on your journey to wellness and where you want to be. You have the power to seek help and guidance to repair your relationship with yourself and your relationship with food.

If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, resources at the National Eating Disorder Association can help you find the best support in your area.

About The Author

Christina Marie Douyon

Christina Marie Douyon

Chistina Marie Douyon is a Haitian-American fifth-year doctoral student and Diversity Fellow, pursuing a degree in counseling psychology at Boston College. She earned her BS in psychology at the University of Florida and an MA in clinical psychology from Teachers College, Columbia University. Prior to obtaining her MA, Christina taught with Teach for America in New Orleans, Louisiana. Christina is also a member of the Institute for the Study and Promotion of Race and Culture, and co-leads a student group, The Race Culture Challengers, that informs and encourages conversations on issues of race and culture. She is currently working her dissertation titled, “Black in America, but not Black American,” while building out her social media platform on Instagram (@christina.marie.douyon) that discusses issues of mental health, relationships and race.

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