Disordered Eating vs. Eating Disorders

Disordered eating. Eating disorders. You’ve probably seen both of these terms used rampantly throughout various eating disorder recovery (and informational) resources. But what’s the actual difference between the two? And does that mean anything to you? Is there even a difference? Let’s dive straight into it.

The technical difference

Okay, let’s get technical definitions out of the way. First and foremost:

Disordered eating qualitatively and informally describes a style of eating, one marked by any number of disruptions to the mindful, “ordered” eating experience. Generally speaking, this term is just used when no formal diagnosis exists.

An eating disorder is a category of medical illnesses identified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5 is the latest edition). Click into one of the eating disorders to learn more about it:

  • Anorexia Nervosa (AN) [Restrict type and Purge type]

    • Chronic food restriction (or purging), disproportionate fear of weight gain, and severely low body weight (as percentage of Ideal Body Weight)

  • Bulimia Nervosa (BN)

    • Binge-and-purge cycles acted out on a frequent per-week basis, excessive preoccupation with one’s body and eating patterns

  • Binge-Eating Disorder (BED)

    • Binge-eating periods occurring frequently on a per-week basis, involving no compensatory mechanisms (no self-induced vomiting, over-exercising, fasting, laxative/diuretic/emetic abuse, etc.)

  • Pica

    • Eating non-food items frequently on a per-week basis for at least a month prior to diagnosis, and this “object-eating” is inappropriate for one’s developmental stage and cultural practices

  • Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID)

    • Persistent inability to meet one’s nutritional needs, due either to weight loss, “pickiness”, inability to wean off tube feeding, or psychosocial limitations (i.e. severe agoraphobia, ASD, etc.)

  • Rumination Disorder

    • Regurgitating food moments after eating (this is acted out frequently on a per-week basis, for at least a month), and this happens exclusively of any period of AN, BN, or BED

And then it includes two umbrella terms, which encompass their own respective types of eating disorders:

  • Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder (OSFED)

    • This includes eating disorder experiences serious enough to merit an official diagnosis but that don’t line up with the criteria for any other standalone eating disorders.

    • For example: Atypical AN / Atypical BN / Purging Disorder / Night Eating Syndrome (NES) / BED w/lower frequency

  • Unspecified Feeding or Eating Disorder (UFED)

    • This is essentially OSFED’s “others” category. It is used when a medical professional cannot link a specific diagnosis to one’s disordered eating.

So that’s the technical difference. Eating disorders are diagnosed. Disordered eating is a less formal marker of disturbed eating patterns and/or body image issues.

But that’s not the full story…

The intensifier distinction

Informally, “disordered eating” has been used to denote ED experiences of less relative intensity than actual “eating disorders”. While that might sound invalidating, it’s actually a fairly useful dichotomy for our purposes.

You see, to give someone only slightly unhappy with their eating habits the label of “eating disorder” would be a disservice to those, for example, who are refusing all foods and liquids and are at a dangerously low body weight. And then, naturally, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of shades of gray in between those two.

RELATED: Do I Have An Eating Disorder? (EASY TEST)

So, for the rest of this article, we will rely on an admittedly cruder distinction, using the scale I created below:

Disordered Eating Intensity 100DOFF.png

On this scale…

Disordered eating is a 4-7 in terms of intensity. It is a prevalent part of your life, and it could range from being hard but manageable to very difficult to manage. In this range, you likely harbor body image issues, are not comfortable with your eating habits, and badly want to change. You might restrict and binge, you might purge, and/or you might over-exercise, but these are not occurring at a frequency (or being done at an intensity) that is noticeably injuring you or making you sick. At 4-5, there is a lower likelihood you are suffering any adverse physical effects from any of the behaviors you engage in (at least, these are not yet apparent). Once we get to 6-7, likelihood proportionally increases and there’s a chance that digestive issues are creeping up.

Importantly, even if you find yourself in this category, your problems are still important and you deserve to get help. Don’t dismiss them just because you’re not on one end of the spectrum.

An eating disorder, on the other hand, is an 8-10 intensity-wise. It is a seriously debilitating issue and paints your life (i.e. every aspect of your life is negatively affected by it), and managing it without a well-devised plan* is next to impossible. There is now a high likelihood you are suffering from adverse physical effects. This might include:

  • Blood pressure disturbances

  • Nausea

  • Fevers

  • Dizziness

  • Persistent constipation or diarrhea

  • Heart problems

  • Lanugo (fine hairs growing all over body; this is a protective mechanism in the later stages of anorexia)

  • Acid reflux

  • Persistent, inexplicable soreness and pains

*This plan may require talks with your treatment team, or it may mean figuring out exactly where you want to go from here, who you can trust to hold you accountable, and how realistic it is to do [X, Y, and Z]. Take this planning phase seriously.

Disordered eating vs. Eating disorder

While the following graphic is reductionist and not at all to be taken as a hard set of distinctions, this might be a helpful way to conceptualize this dichotomy. This could also help you put your own disordered eating experience into perspective.

Disordered vs Disorder 100DOFF.png

Which do I have?

If you have not already, take my in-depth quiz to figure out exactly where you land on a scale of 9 different possible results, all the way from “Intuitive Eater” to “Eating Disorder (Seek Treatment)”.

PLUS, each result comes with a comprehensive summary of what this means for you and where to go from here. I highly recommend taking this.

You can find that here!

Want a 100-day guide to eating disorder recovery?

If you’re tired of the ambiguous, scattered “feel-good” advice and platitudes, and you want a day-by-day guide to recovering from your eating disorder in 100 days, you’ve got quite the opportunity in front of you.

In my book, 100 Days of Food Freedom: A Day-by-Day Journey to Self-Discovery, Freedom from Dieting, and Recovery from your Eating Disorder, you get a simple [yet entirely comprehensive] plan laid out for you. This will take you from whatever stage you’re at (barring those in severe need of immediate medical refeeding) to a place of Food Freedom. Full recovery is 100% possible and all it takes is a solid plan and the determination to do this, for yourself, because you deserve it.


Ari Snaevarsson