Health Matters: Disordered Eating vs. Eating Disorders: How Do I Know the Difference?

Health Matters: Disordered Eating vs. Eating Disorders: How Do I Know the Difference?
By Dr. Valerie Nemeth

It’s nearly impossible to open a social media app and not see at least one post about diet trends or the latest fad foods. But in a society where eating disorders affect 9% of the United States population and every fifty-two minutes someone dies from an eating disorder, how can we discern the difference between casual trends, disordered eating and eating disorders?

Disordered Eating vs. Eating Disorders
According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the term disordered eating is used to describe a range of irregular eating behaviors that may or may not warrant a diagnosis of a specific eating disorder. Eating disorders, however, are defined by the American Psychiatric Association as illnesses in which people experience severe disturbances in their eating behaviors, related thoughts and emotions. They are also diagnosed according to specific and narrow criteria.

Common eating disorders include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder. Often, eating disorders can also coincide with other mental illness conditions, like depression or anxiety.

Eating disorders can take many forms, which is why it’s important to look out for the signs of disordered eating for friends, family, and for yourself.  Some signs or symptoms of disordered eating include frequent dieting, strict rituals around consumption and exercise, feelings of guilt connected to eating, compulsive habits or using exercise or food restriction to counter caloric intake.

Drastic changes in weight can also indicate an underlying problem. A preoccupation with body image and body weight, as well as a sudden increase in interest in nutritional content can lead to an unhealthy relationship with food and be a sign of a more serious condition. Someone who may be experiencing an eating disorder could also have major mood fluctuations that include signs of irritability, depression, anxiety and socially isolating.

While these common behaviors may seem intentional or self-inflicted, in many cases, the individual may not even recognize the behaviors as disordered. Many fad diets can even promote behaviors of disordered eating.

Do I Have an Eating Disorder?
Goals to incorporate more physical activity and improve your overall nutrition are certainly not a bad thing. It is when dieting and exercising become so excessive that your mental and physical wellbeing become impacted. That you must take action. Asking yourself how much time you think about body image, the food you’re eating, and weight can be valuable questions. If any of these concerns are impacting your happiness or ability to function, you may need to reach out for help.

A common misconception is that eating disorders can be easily controlled. This makes intervention crucial in helping those who are affected by them.

Where Can I Find Help for Myself or Someone I Know?
The best way for you or someone you know to recover from an eating disorder is to seek out help. Reaching out to a therapist if you or a loved one is experiencing a hyper fixation on their body is a great first step.
For those who are starting a new exercise routine or diet, meeting with a dietician can be a healthy way to begin dieting in a way that won’t lead to obsessing over nutrition labels. Anyone can be impacted by an eating disorder, and seemingly minor behaviors or practices can evolve into something more serious. It’s important to watch for warning signs and recognize when more intervention may be necessary, be it for disordered eating or an eating disorder.  

*Valerie Nemeth, DO, is a board-certified family medicine physician for Mercy Health – Vermillion Primary Care. She received her medical degree from the Marian University College of Osteopathic Medicine and completed her residency at Firelands Regional Medical Center in Sandusky, Ohio.

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