There can be a very fine line between what may be considered an eating disorder and what may be disordered eating.

Disordered eating, as defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-Text Revision), is “a wide range of irregular eating behaviors that do not warrant a diagnosis of a specific eating disorder.” Behaviors are irregular, there may be a wide range of signs/symptoms that could be considered “disordered” (undoubtedly more than my examples below), and the symptoms aren’t “extreme” enough to be diagnosed as one specific eating disorder. This doesn’t necessarily make disordered eating less serious than an eating disorder, but like I said, there can be a fine line between the two.

An eating disorder is diagnosed under very narrow criteria. Disordered eating just manifests as different thoughts, patterns or actions regarding one’s diet and attitude toward diet/exercise. Disordered eating can be a multitude of different actions or thoughts (as you’ll see below), whereas an eating disorder may be diagnosed by a doctor after a patient exhibits just one or two symptoms to a serious and health-threatening degree.

Disordered eating might look like this (not all-inclusive):

  • A fixation for no apparent reason on counting calories consumed and adding calories burned every day; allowing the extra time spent doing such things to conflict with work, family, and relationships
  • The feeling or “need” to exercise after consuming food of any sort
  • Feeling guilty after eating anything you consider “unhealthy” or “bad”
  • The constant thought of eating and exercising reduces your quality of life
  • Being anxious around eating situations when you have no control over what is served
  • Exercising to the point of exhaustion, while still feeling like you “need to” in order to maintain your current weight/physique
  • Chewing a food and then spitting it out – to avoid consuming the calories in the food

After knowing what disordered eating might look like, it’s important to think about what it might not look like (especially if I’ve got you worried after reading those bullet points). This is another fine line that can be difficult to navigate.

It’s only natural to want to exercise more if you know you’re going to eat more. Sometimes this may be “disordered” thinking, and sometimes it might just be smart.

I do a version of this frequently, for example:

Let’s say I know I’m going to a party on a Friday night where I’m going to enjoy plenty of unhealthy foods (and not stuff myself to 100% full, either), so I workout as normal throughout the week and plan my long Tough Mudder training day for the day after or the day of the party. To me, this isn’t disordered eating for three main reasons.

  1. I’m not leaving the party feeling guilty like I need to go exercise right now because I’m afraid I’m going to gain weight from the unhealthy foods I knowingly ate.
  2. My long training day is already a part of my schedule and plan; it’s not added in because I’m compensating for eating more than usual (like doing another unplanned long training day the day after the party to make up for it). I just happened to plan that training day – when I need a lot of energy in the form of food – around a day when I know I’m going to eat more than my usual number of calories (because I’m burning more than my usual number of calories). When you have a long training day (and by long, I mean over two hours of running and resistance training), you need to plan on eating more than usual to accommodate the training session and to recover from it. It has nothing to do with feelings of guilt from indulging.
  3. While indulging at the party, I’m not anxious about what I’m eating. I’m not worried about the possibility of getting “fat” from it. I’m not worried about what people will think of me. And lastly, I’m not planning on eating like a bird the next day to make up for the food I ate that night.

If you think you may exhibit some of the signs of disordered eating, it’s not the end of the world. Many people may show one or two signs for a majority of their lives and be in completely fine health.

If you notice some of these signs and symptoms having a very negative impact on your quality of life, work productivity, relationships, and/or stress level, then meeting with a Registered Dietician may be right for you.

P.S. If you liked this subject or found it helpful in any way, check out this article on Cognitive Dietary Restraint.