Eating Disorder vs. Disordered Eating: What’s the Critical Difference?

Written by: Kristy Maskell, BSc
Reviewed by: Sophie Claessens, BSc RD

Ever wondered that the difference is between an eating disorder and disordered eating? Although these terms are often used interchangeably, there are some key differences between the two. Read on to understand the differences and know what help is available for both. 

The spectrum of eating

You may think of eating as a spectrum and just like any spectrum, it is different for everyone. From displaying ‘normal’ eating behaviours to experiencing abnormal eating patterns, the spectrum can vary greatly. It is important to note that not everyone will fit neatly into specific diagnostic categories, but individuals can still experience a degree of disordered eating. 

What is disordered eating?

Disordered eating refers to a relationship with food that is difficult, it can affect the way you think, feel, and behave with food. These behaviours and attitudes towards food do not fall under any set diagnostic criteria. However, there may be overlapping symptoms with some types of diagnosed eating disorders, for example:

  • Restrictive eating 
  • Compensatory behaviours (e.g. the use of laxatives) 
  • Bingeing behaviours
  • Sensory-based eating difficulties
  • Seeking the ‘perfect’ diet

Disordered eating can vary in severity. Regardless, research suggests that disordered eating can significantly impact your physical and mental health. It may cause a variety of long-term health-related consequences, with the most common  being psychological stress.1

What is an eating disorder?

An eating disorder (ED) is a clinical diagnosis defined by a specific criterion.2 There are lots of different types of ED including:

  • Anorexia Nervosa
  • Bulimia Nervosa
  • Binge Eating Disorder
  • Avoidant Restrictive Intake Disorder (ARFID)
  • Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder (OSFED)

EDs can differ from disordered eating by the frequency, severity, and duration of symptoms. They commonly present with other comorbidities, such as anxiety and mood disorders, and can lead to health-related consequences like cardiovascular complications.3

Can disordered eating progress into an eating disorder?

Not all disordered eating will progress into a diagnosed eating disorder. However, disordered eating can be a risk factor for developing an eating disorder.4 Being aware of your problem and seeking help from qualified health professionals, for example, a registered dietitian, could prevent you from becoming ill. 

Getting support

Realising that you or someone you know may have an eating disorder, or disordered eating, may be daunting. Research suggests that treatment within the first three years of illness shows greater outcomes for eating disorder recovery.5 Those with disordered eating also benefit from early intervention to reduce risk factors for developing an eating disorder, and aid with symptom recognition and treatment.6

Nevertheless, on average, those with emerging symptoms of an eating disorder must wait three-and-a-half years before receiving treatment on the NHS. We know that delays are seen at each stage of the help process, which can hinder your treatment. 

At Fresh Approach Nutrition, a specialist eating disorder and disordered eating dietitian can help you avoid becoming unwell. Although we may work alongside your GP or other health professionals, we can provide strategies to help you right away, eliminating waiting times and delays with treatment. We can also work with you, regardless of whether you have a diagnosis of an eating disorder or not. 

Disclaimer: This content is purely informational and should not replace professional medical advice. Please seek advice from a qualified health professional, like us or your GP, if you are wanting evidence-based advice for the treatment of disordered eating or eating disorders. 

References

 1.   Kärkkäinen U, Mustelin L, Raevuori A, Kaprio J, Keski-Rahkonen A. (2017) Do disordered eating behaviours have long-term health-related consequences? Eur Eat Disord Rev. 2017 Nov;26(1):22-28. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29160017/

2.  National Institute for Care Excellence. Eating disorders: Recognition and treatment [Internet]. 2017 [cited Apr 2]. Available from: https://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/ng69

3. Keski-Rahkonen A, Mustelin, L. Epidemiology of eating disorders in Europe: prevalence, incidence, comorbidity, course, consequences, and risk factors. Curr Opin Psychiatry. 2016 Nov;29(6):340-345. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27662598/

4. Shisslak CM, Crago M, Estes LS. The spectrum of eating disturbances. Int J Eat Disord. 1995 Nov;18(3):209-19. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/8556017/

5. Currin L, Schmidt U. A critical analysis of the utility of an early intervention approach in eating disorders. J Ment Health. 2009 Jul;14:611‐624. Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/232080205_A_critical_analysis_of_the_utility_of_an_early_intervention_approach_in_eating_disorders

6. Koresh  E, Paxton S, Miskovic-Wheatley J, Bryant E, Le A, Maloney D, Touyz S, Maguire S. Prevention and early intervention in eating disorders: findings from a rapid review. J Eat Disord. 2023 Mar;11:38. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9999654/ 

Fresh Approach Nutrition

Our team of registered dietitians help people in Bristol and across the UK to overcome their struggles with food and to achieve their dietary goals.

We aim to cut through the confusion of dietary advice on the internet and in the media, and to give our clients the fresh approach they need to see real results.