What is disordered eating?

24 Aug 2020

Now before we get into this it’s really important to make the distinction between disordered eating and eating disorders. Disordered eating describes a range of behaviours around eating which are not compatible with normal eating (for a definition of normal eating check out this blog). Displaying signs of disordered eating has been shown to increase risk of developing an eating disorder but it’s also possible to display disordered eating behaviours and never develop an eating disorder. Eating disorders are a range of serious mental illnesses which are extremely dangerous. If you want more information about getting help with an eating disorder or to learn more about them please head to the UK charity BEAT’s website.

The Continuum of Eating


We can say that eating exists on a spectrum, as with the Continuum of Eating (see picture to the left). If you think about normal (or intuitive eating) as being on one extreme and eating disorders at the opposite extreme then disordered eating sits somewhere in the middle. As it’s a spectrum, you can sit pretty much anywhere along it, but the main point I’m making here is that disordered eating is often not compatible with ‘normal eating’.

Where you might sit on the spectrum likely varies across life but disordered eating in teenage years has been shown to predict use of such behaviours later in life, i.e. disordered eating often tracks from adolescence to adulthood. Disordered eating has been shown to be more prevalent in females than males but men still experience disordered eating and are still at risk of developing an eating disorder, despite what's typically thought about eating disorders.


Signs of disordered eating

So let’s talk about some of the behaviours associated with disordered eating…

Frequent dieting                                                                                                     Limiting portion sizes

Limiting particular kinds of foods (unbalanced eating)

Using food substitutes                                                                                           Fasting or meal skipping 

Taking ‘diet pills’ or other supplements to aid weight loss

Smoking to suppress appetite                                                                             Over-exercising

Rigid rituals and routines surrounding food and exercise

Using exercise, food restriction, fasting or purging to "make up for bad foods" consumed

Symptoms of disordered eating

The problem is that to engage in dieting is to engage in disordered eating. Because dieting is normalised (and often promoted) in our society, so too is disordered eating. This is especially scary when you consider the many potential symptoms of disordered eating:

Chronic weight fluctuations                                                                                    Anxiety associated with specific foods

Feelings of guilt and shame associated with eating                                        Withdrawing from social eating

Preoccupation with food, weight and body image that negatively impacts quality of life

A feeling of loss of control around food, including compulsive eating habits

Gut symptoms (constipation and/or diarrhoea)                                                 Headaches

Potential development of an eating disorder                                                     Tiredness/poor sleep

If this is sounding too familiar...

Feelings of guilt, shame and failure in people who experience disordered eating is very common. Please hear me when I say that you’re not alone! As a recovered serial disordered eater myself I know what it feels like and it’s not much of a fun place to be.

But, it’s never too late to make changes and begin working on your relationship with food (which fyi will be so much more beneficial to long term health and well-being than dieting and the endless pursuit of weight loss).

Intuitive eating has been associated with reduced disordered eating (and incidentally lower BMI) whereas restrained eating (aka dieting) is associated with increased rates of disordered eating (and higher BMI).

This is because intuitive eating helps to remove food rules, restrictions and hierarchies while nurturing interoceptive awareness – the ability to listen and respond to internal body cues such as hunger, fullness and satisfaction.

If you feel like you need help with where to start with intuitive eating support from a trained professional can really help. If you want to book in a free 15 minute chat with myself please use the form below or email hello@nondietnutrition.co.uk


Neumark-Sztainer et al. (2011). Dieting and disordered eating behaviors from adolescence to young adulthood: findings from a 10-year longitudinal study. Journal of the American Dietetic Association vol. 111,7: 1004-11. doi:10.1016/j.jada.2011.04.012

Anderson et al. (2015). Contributions of mindful eating, intuitive eating, and restraint to BMI, disordered eating, and meal consumption in college students. Eating and Weight Disorders - Studies on Anorexia, Bulimia and Obesity, 21(1), 83–90. doi:10.1007/s40519-015-0210-3 

"Don't give up, one day you will look back and be glad you didn't"