What I Mean By “Disordered Eating”

By Katie, 5:51 am

I spent the majority of my two years in graduate school writing research papers – short ones, long ones, awesome ones, not-so-awesome ones. And each and every time I was given a research paper assignment, it was accompanied by this simple instruction: be sure to clearly define your terms.

Oops… :oops:

Defining your terms is important because it ensures that you and your readers are on the same page – in other words, it helps your readers know what the heck you’re talking about.

Recently it occurred to me that I haven’t been as clear here on HWS as I’d like to be when it comes to defining my terms. Specifically, though I use the phrase quite often, I’ve never clearly outlined what I mean when I say disordered eating.

And how can we have a dialogue about disordered eating if we don’t even know what it is? What if we’re all defining it differently and we don’t even know it? :-?


So I’d like to take a moment to explain what I mean when I use that phrase. Note that this is not an official definition by any means; indeed, I don’t even know if there is an official definition! (If you’re aware of one, please share in comments!)  But when you read the phrase “disordered eating” here on HWS, here’s what I have in mind.

Katie’s Definition of Disordered Eating

To me, disordered eating means having an unhealthy relationship with food and/or your body, one that diminishes the quality of your life and affects your overall health – physical, mental, and/or emotional. Sufferers of disordered eating may not fit the full diagnostic criteria of a traditional eating disorder like anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder; they are often within a healthy weight range and don’t exhibit behaviors daily or even weekly.

But they are still suffering.

When I say “exhibit behaviors,” I mean one or more of the following:

  • constantly thinking about food/meal plans
  • obsessively stepping on the scale
  • feeling upset over minor fluctuations in weight (to the point where it affects your happiness)
  • feeling upset/guilty over a missed workout (to the point where it affects your ability to have a good day)
  • occasionally eating large amounts food, to the point of feeling sick
  • restricting food intake below a healthy amount, sometimes by skipping meals, cutting out an entire food group, fasting, or eating lots of low-calorie foods
  • feeling out of control around food and/or purposefully eating in secret
  • occasionally attempting to purge the body of food in any way (such as self-induced vomiting, excessive exercise, or the use of diet pills or laxatives)
  • eating for emotional reasons, including but not limited to: distraction, sadness, anxiety, loneliness, stress, or boredom.

If you’re thinking, “but everyone does at least one of those every now and then,” unfortunately you’re correct. A 2008 survey conducted by Self magazine found that 75% of American women between the ages of 25 and 45 - that’s 3 out of 4 women! – endorse some unhealthy thoughts, feelings or behaviors related to food or their bodies. 8-O And that’s not even counting women and girls outside of that age range, or men of any age.


I’m throwing out all of this information for the purpose of making four points about disordered eating that I think are extremely important:

1. Disordered eating is extremely common. The chances of suffering from it at some point, and/or knowing others who do/have, is very high.

2. People exhibiting disordered eating tendencies are suffering. While the behaviors may not be as life-threatening as those associated with full-blown eating disorders, they still greatly affect the quality of one’s life and should not be brushed aside or downplayed in any way.

3. If you or someone you know is struggling with disordered eating thoughts/behaviors, it is worth taking action. There is a better life waiting beyond these particular issues. Many people think that things like professional help or support groups are reserved for those with official eating disorders, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth (a point I will discuss more in a future post).

4. There is no shame in struggling with disordered eating. This is a big one for me, as feeling ashamed and embarrassed is what kept me from getting help and opening up for far too long. Actually, realizing how many others were suffering too was what pushed me to face these issues head on; I came to understand that even though I felt alone, I wasn’t.

But we can’t support, motivate, or encourage one another until we stop pretending disordered eating doesn’t exist, until we start talking about it honestly and openly.

That’s what I’m trying to do here on Health for the Whole Self: do my part to take away the stigma, to confront the issues head-on, to open up a space for discussion, debate, and healing. I think I will be able to do a better job of that now that I’ve defined my terms, so that you and I both know what the heck I’m talking about when I use the phrase “disordered eating.”

Lots of questions today!

Were you aware that disordered eating is such a common phenomenon?

Do you agree that there is a huge stigma surrounding it? If so, what can we do to challenge that stigma?

How do YOU define “disordered eating”?

Are you aware of any other phrases to describe the same kinds of issues? Or can you think of any new ones? I personally don’t like the sound of “disordered eating” very much…

*If you think you might be struggling with disordered eating tendencies but you’re not quite sure, I encourage you to take this quiz that goes along with the Self magazine article.

**Also, I welcome any professional insights into this topic; feel free to include any links or other helpful information!

51 Responses to “What I Mean By “Disordered Eating””

  1. I pretty much agree with your description and in my own recovery, I have wavered back and forth on what I say about myself. When I was in my heavy duty therapy, I was told it was binge eating disorder, I was told it was compulsive overeating and I was told it was disordered eating. Which is obviously very confusing. What I do know is that it is very common and many women struggle with it and are either afraid to admit it or they don’t even realize their behaviors are disordered.

  2. Lauren says:

    I feel like 95% of the world has “disordered” eating. I always tell people this but it’s only the people who are judged by looks that actually have a problem.

  3. amanda says:

    I have an eating disorder and according to that chart I am on the right side with a combination of a few things. I am very open about my problem with food, especially with women who talk about dieting. I like to tell them what dieting caused me to become and ways for them to avoid it. I can’t blame it all on dieting but I know for sure that it serverly intensived my compulsions. I will say before I even realized that I had an eating disorder, I threw out the scale for weighing myself. It would determine my mood everyday (sometimes more than once). Great post!

  4. Sarah says:

    I love what you’re doing to take the stigma out of disordered eating. I dealt with disordered eating for a long time before I got really bold, made it public, and realized that there are a lot of people who struggle with very similar things. I feel like one of the biggest lies we can believe is that we are alone- it’s never really true, is it?

    • Katie says:

      AMEN! When we hear that little voice that tells us we’re all alone, it’s always lying.

      • Teagan says:

        She is entirely correct, I struggle with this every day too

        • Katie says:

          Thank you for sharing, Teagan! It’s amazing how many of us are in the same boat.

  5. I completley agree with this definition. Good job explaining!

    One of the reasons why I love some of these blogs including HWS is that it gives an outlet for people that suffer with this to find support and help heal. I feel so much better and less alone :)

  6. Lori Lynn says:

    I struggle with disordered eating, and have so for almost all my life. Everyone has their own little issues, and food and my weight is mine. It goes kind of in extremes with either overindulgence/binging to restriction/denial of food, and I have struggled with having balance over everything in my life. Society is obsessed with skin and bodies, so it actually doesn’t surprise me that there are so many people that struggle with it. The messages out there are not realistic and healthy, but we fall prey to them, believing them. I hate to admit that seeing an actress in a magazine or on tv makes me cringe sometimes, b/c I would like to look like them. But somehow I have to be happy with who I am. It’s a work in progress.

  7. I think many women struggle. I am not sure how much I agree with the arrow/scale thing though. I became anorexic before I ever had food issues. It really had nothing to do with food, and everything about trying to bring some kind of order to my life. I only started to develop the other symptoms of being disordered (compulsive overeating, poor body image, etc…) in my so-called “recovery”.

    • Katie says:

      Very interesting point! I agree that the diagram makes the focus entirely on food, when in reality eating disorders are about so much more.

  8. Katie, this is such an important post. I’m glad you defined what disordered eating means to you. I’ve also heard many different definitions. Some people will use disordered eating when speaking about eating disorders, while others will use it to describe unhealthy thoughts and behaviors (like you stated, that don’t fall into the clinical definition of eating disorders).

    I love your mission about eliminating the shame and stigma, because I do think there’s a lot of that. Fortunately, there’s been more awareness about disordered eating. At the same time, though, I think the popular media tends to normalize some behaviors (like restricting and dieting) and promote others (like the drive for thinness, body dissatisfaction).

    So I think sometimes people don’t think anything is wrong because “every woman” hates her body, or everybody diets or eating dessert is a sin, everyone should be thin. And so on. (I’m not saying the media causes disordered eating, but it normalizes it in some ways.)

    • Katie says:

      Absolutely. I think the normalization is a real problem because it keeps many women from getting help.

  9. Abri says:

    I love your definition of disordered eating. I knew several women in college who were recovering from anorexia/bulemia – to the point where they almost died – and so when dealing with my own food issues, I was very touchy about using the term “eating disorder”. I think most women, if not all women, struggle somehow in some way with food – and getting the facts out there is super important. Just because you don’t purge after every meal, doesn’t mean you aren’t suffering! Love this post – keep up the good work!

  10. Sarah says:

    I personally think there’s a slight stigma in searching for help with disordered eating (and the majority of “mental” illnesses). I agree with Margarita that many disordered eating habits are quite popular because of the societal myth that all women (and some men) hate their bodies. It’s so difficult to have a “normal” relationship with eating when we are bombarded by phrases like “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels” and the constant ads for “junk food” immediately followed with ads for diet pills.

    And unfortunately there are misconceptions on how to treat disordered eating. My father constantly telling me just to eat won’t solve any of my problems. Same with him telling my sister she just needs to eat less and exercise more won’t solve any of her problems (I promise my father isn’t a horrible father-he’s just trying to help his children in the way that he knows how). Food and the human connection with food has become more than a food as fuel debate. It’s evolved into a political, ethical, societal matter that effects nearly every aspect of our lives in some manner. And it’s incredibly difficult not to be distracted by the different opinions and ideas regarding individuals and his/her relationship with food.

  11. I’ve been there and it’s sad to see that pretty much every other woman has as well. Thankfully, I’m moving to the good side of the arrow. It’s a process and it still is!

  12. Shawnee says:

    I think your definition of disordered eating is spot on! I read a book this summer called “Runaway Eating.” Their definition of runaway eating is pretty much the same as your disordered eating. It is a great book and touches on many topics including emotional eating, and intuitive eating.

  13. Now THIS is an important post…especially for the healthy-living blogging world (myself included), and especially after the whole Marie Claire “situation” (I know every is sick of hearing about that, but it’s true…)

  14. i think a lot of people are in denial about their habits. i think because our society tends to favor and accept the little habits we have and inundate us with the message that “we all do it” may be a big reason to why we can obsess over food yet not be told that theres something wrong with it. its almost like if we aren’t either obese or underweight, people dont care- even if someone of a normal weight is suffering SO MUCH with food issues, generally no one will take them seriously unless they visibly look incapacitated to take care of themselves and their bodies. its such a shame!!


  15. Lisa Eirene says:

    This is a great–and much needed- post. Thank you for sharing it!

    For me, I started out with disordered eating on the bingeing side of the spectrum. Then when I got healthy and lost the weight, I realized I was developing disordered habits on the OTHER side of the spectrum. I was weighing myself obsessively. Like daily and sometimes twice a day. I decided to only weigh myself once a month and that’s what I’ve done for a year now. It helped a lot!

  16. I just found your blog and am really enjoying it!

  17. Sportsgirl says:

    Honestly, with those kind of statistics it makes me paranoid!

    I enjoy food and recipes and think about it often; mostly what I’m going to make next or what recipe I will try. I will often pick something at a restaurant that I want but it’s not my first choice because my first choice is unhealthy. I do worry about what my body looks like, but what woman doesn’t? I like to look leaner and more muscular than most women do because I used to do bodybuilding and am involved in strength sports.

    I didn’t think I had disordered eating but do I? Arghhh!!

    • Katie says:

      I hope my post didn’t come off as “accusing” anyone of having disordered eating – or as trying to make people paranoid! – but I do think it’s important to realize that even though SO many women struggle with this stuff, to the point where it seems “normal,” that it doesn’t HAVE to be that way.

      Do you find that your concerns about food and your body are inhibiting your ability to live your life to the fullest? If so, then it’s worth challenging some of those thought patterns!

      • Sportsgirl says:

        To the last question: not at all. I do find my laziness frustrating though. I can barely stick to a workout program these days!

  18. I think I agree with your definition of disordered eating, and that those thoughts are the majority. Like you said, we all encounter those thoughts now and again but its a difference when they consume us.

  19. After seeing your definition on disordered eating, I think that most people suffer at least one of the symptoms/behaviors you mentioned in their lifetime. I didn’t realize it was that common – or maybe vie never taken a big picture approach to looking at it. Thanks for helping to raise awareness.

  20. This is a really interesting discussion you’ve got going here! I totally agree that the majority of the world exhibits disordered eating in one form or another at some point in their lives. It is incredibly easy to develop a complicated relationship with food because it’s something we encounter multiple times a day. It’s unfair to assume that just because someone doesn’t “look like” they have an eating disorder that it doesn’t mean they’re struggling. But I also think we have to be careful not to judge too harshly. If someone is genuinely happy AND healthy – even if their eating habits are a bit different – that is what matters.

  21. This is a really great topic, Katie! There was just some discussion an eating disorder listserv I’m on about the importance of distinguishing between disordered eating and eating disorders, even when we’re talking “casually.” While it may seem trivial, confusing the terms can lead people to minimize symptoms or induce panic in others. It’s helpful to be clear in our writing. I think your breakdown of disordered eating behaviors is a good one. I would add that doing things with food that others would consider abnormal is also disordered. It’s also important to note – as you did – that even if someone doesn’t have a diagnosable ED, treatment can be really helpful and often very important. Thanks for enlightening us all!

    • Katie says:

      Thanks for chiming in, Ashley! I wasn’t sure if there was an actual clinical definition of “disordered eating.”

  22. I’ve met very few women in my life that haven’t exhibited some of those behaviors. And for that reason, I never really realized how disordered my eating was until very recently. But interestingly, the few people I know that I do believe probably don’t have have disordered eating have absolutely no concept of how those who do suffer and how hard it is to just get over it. They’re definitely from the school of just eat less and exercise more and stop whining about it. I find they’re attitude frustrating because it’s almost impossible to make them understand what you’re experiencing.

  23. Becca says:

    I generally agree with you. We are definitely all prone to disordered eating – chocolate PMSing, etc.

    I disagree, however, on the stigma part. There is a lot of sympathy out there for weight loss-inducing disordered eating – occasionally we see these ridiculous articles accusing them of trying to lure healthy people over to “the dark side”, but generally there is an excellent support network. Friends will help friends who undereat, or who purge.

    What is still heavily stigmatised is overeating. People laugh at people who overeat to the detriment of their health – they make sitcoms like Mike and Molly, a vulgar collection of fat jokes, starring two people who will likely die earlier than they should. They point, and stare, and mock. Friends don’t confront a friend who gained an unhealthy amount of weight, or who seemed to be eating more than seemed healthy.

    For well over a decade, magazines have published articles explaining the hidden pain of the anorexic and how to approach a friend who you think may be making herself sick. The help is out there for them, but it is not there for those who aren’t exhibiting what is perceived to be the beautiful people’s disease.

    • Katie says:

      I completely agree! In outlining the behaviors of disordered eating, I definitely tried to include ones that pertain to emotional OVEReating (which is what I struggle with most). I think that many people who struggle with eating too much are often afraid to get help because our society doesn’t recognize the issue was a real mental/emotional one.

      I hope it was clear that I don’t think “disordered eating” only pertains to under-eating or purging…over-eating is included in there, too!

      • Becca says:

        Oh yes, it was definitely clear from your post that all kinds of food-related issues deserve our care and support. :)

        • Katie says:

          Ok good! But you do have me thinking about whether or not it’s good to lump them all together under one “disordered eating” label. Because obviously there are important differences.

    • Sarah says:

      I still believe there is a slight stigma in regards to undereating disorders. There are definitely more resources but I think there is a slight stigma in regards to reaching out for help.

      But I never thought about the stigmatization of emotional overeating. I know that overeating is often overlooked or disregarded in eating disorder treatment but I never thought about magazines sharing info about helping your “anorexic” friend versus helping your “overweight” friend. Do you think it’s because the word “fat” or “overweight” has such a negative association that makes people uncomfortable confronting their loved ones about unhealthy overeating? Whereas being “skinny” (even too skinny) has a more positive association?

      • Katie says:

        Good questions, ones that I definitely need to ponder more. But now I will add that I think there’s a difference between simply overeating and overeating EMOTIONALLY or COMPULSIVELY. Lots of people eat a few too many cookies at a party, but some people (like me) struggle with bingeing and overeating compulsively, and then being plagued by guilt afterward. The latter seems much more disordered, you know?

      • Becca says:

        That’s an interesting point – I’ve always assumed that an element of the undereating/purging disorders was the denial of there even being a problem, and that’s why we’re always taught not to push it if we think a friend has food issues, because they are likely to react badly. I guess that all points on the ED spectrum can be cries for help, or they can be completely unknown to the sufferer.

        I feel you’re absolutely right about the positive and negative associations. In my most blinkered states, I’ve wished that my disordered eating tendencies were the “positive” kind, even though I fully understand that any kind is horrible and harmful.

        Our society has many definitions of what makes a disease, but I definitely feel that anyone who demonstrates behaviour that is contrary to our biological desire to live (including staying healthy) deserves to be helped.

  24. I completely agree with your definition of disordered eating. I think it would be so helpful to see your definition become more public. I know that when I was struggling with disordered eating, I truly didn’t believe I had a problem because I didn’t fit the normal definition of an eating disorder. I think if more people understood what disordered eating is, they would be more likely to seek help!

    I don’t think it’s any shocker that so many people struggle with disordered eating. How can we not when we’re constantly bombarded with things like commercials promoting low fat products and telling us that eating chocolate is “sinful”, etc. It would make someone with even the most normal relationship with food start to obsess!

    • Katie says:

      So true! And I agree; I think more people would be willing to get the help they need and deserve if they realized that even though MANY people struggle with this sort of thing – to the point that it seems “normal” – that it doesn’t HAVE to be that way.

  25. McKella says:

    Great post! I agree with your definition 100% and sadly, those statistics don’t surprise me one bit. Maintaining a healthy body image and relationship with food is hard work in this society. The best we can do is try to help ourselves and anyone else who suffers with disordered eating.

  26. Hayley says:

    I could not agree more with your definition of disordered eating (and I too am not a fan of that word). I don’t think you have to have full-blown anorexia, bullimia, binge/compulsive eating, etc in order to “qualify” as having an eating disorder. I think there are a lot of gray areas when it comes to this and sometimes if you fall into that gray area and don’t do something to get help or change your mindset then you may eventually develop a full-blown ED. I never would’ve considered myself to have a disordered relationship with food in high school – I used to just joke with everyone that I had a big appetite. Looking back now, however, I realize that even then I used food to deal with emotions. Because I got so sick and tired of hating my body and feeling so darn full I decided to cut back on my portions and lost a bit of weight. Instead of stopping there and accepting myself for who I was I eventually became anorexic. I guess from my own personal experience I think you can fall into any area of the spectrum and still struggle with food. I think the main point (in my opinion) is that you’re using food, in some way (starving yourself, overeating, purging, etc) to satisfy a need that can’t be met with food, which can really only satisfy hunger. Granted, sometimes we eat for reasons other than simply hunger (it tastes good, it’s a social occasion, etc) but we should be able to do that sometimes and not obsess about it.

    I don’t think this comment came out as clearly as I would’ve liked – I blame lack of sleep! :) I hope it makes some sense…great post as always!

    • Katie says:

      I think it makes a lot of sense! I appreciate you pointing out that there’s a lot of grey area…it’s not a black-or-white kind of thing. It’s almost like our eating patterns fall along a continuum of healthy to unhealthy, and we need to be aware of when we’ve drifted too far to the unhealthy side and try to intervene at that point, before it gets worse.

  27. Runeatrepeat says:

    I am super swamped and can’t add my own definition right now (it’s long and draws from own personal experiences).

    But I did want to say I agree with your definition.

    And I think you rock :)

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