Disordered Eating vs. Eating Disorders: What’s the Tipping Point?

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Eating disorders are hard to spot, especially when disordered eating behaviors are extremely common. From the prevalence of dieting to the glorification of excessive exercise, it can be tricky to understand when disordered behaviors spiral into a full-blown eating disorder.

What is Disordered Eating?

Disordered eating includes unhealthy food and body behaviors, usually undertaken for the purpose of weight loss or health promotion, but that may put the person at risk for significant harm.  Disordered eating is serious and can lead to severe complications in one’s life, so it is important to stay vigilant of the warning signs and symptoms. Unfortunately, disordered eating is extremely common due to the normalization of many disordered behaviors in primarily Western cultures. Common examples of disordered eating include:

  • Fad diets
  • Cleanses
  • Heightened focus on appearance
  • Skipping meals
  • Supplement misuse
  • Diet pills
  • Extreme social media focused on appearance or food
  • Undereating or overeating

What is an Eating Disorder?

Eating disorders are severe and life-threatening brain-based illnesses. Those affected experience serious disturbances in their behaviors, thoughts, and emotions which can lead to devastating consequences like medical complications and social isolation. Those affected by anorexia, bulimia, BED, or OSFED often exhibit an extreme fixation on food or body that impairs their daily lives. For those struggling with ARFID, there may be a lack of interest around food or an extreme disdain of certain tastes or textures that results in physical complications. Signs and symptoms of eating disorders include:

  • Dramatic weight gain or weight loss
  • Preoccupation with food or body
  • Changes in food intake
  • Purging, restricting, or binge eating
  • Abuse of diet pills or laxatives
  • Eating in secret, hiding food, or feeling out of control with food
  • Medical complications
    • Dizziness and fainting
    • Menstrual irregularities
    • Dry skin or nails
    • Hair loss
    • Gastrointestinal problems
    • Severe complications like heart disease or organ failure

What’s the Tipping Point?

Understanding when disordered eating turns into an eating disorder can be challenging. If you are unsure of the tipping point, we recommend asking the following questions. Is there a pattern of behaviors? Is there an undue preoccupation with food and body? Is there impairment? If you answer yes to any of these questions, it’s likely an eating disorder. To understand specific instances where a tipping point can be seen, it’s helpful to look at the progression of disordered behaviors. Below are examples of the tipping point, the tipping point being in orange text.

Weight management: health-promoting behaviors > infrequent dieting > frequent dieting > unhealthy weight management

Physical activity: healthy, moderate activity > minimal/excessive exercise > obsessive exercise/no exercise > unhealthy degree of physical activity

Eating: regular eating patterns > erratic eating > binge eating or restricting > unhealthy eating patterns

By understanding where the tipping point in food and body behaviors is, individuals can be better equipped at identifying and addressing eating disorders and eating disorder behaviors. We understand that this concept is complex, so if you are struggling with understanding where the line is, we recommend taking an eating disorder quiz or reaching out for support.

Factors that Spark or Maintain Eating Disorders

In addition to understanding disordered eating and eating disorders, it can be helpful to understand what traits and factors maintain disordered behaviors. Risk factors of eating disorders can include genetics, temperament traits like perfectionism, attention to detail, and/or impulsiveness,  trauma, and social influences like the cultural idolization of leanness

Precipitating factors of eating disorders can include a change in eating such as dieting or overeating, or a significant increase in stress. Factors that are likely to maintain eating disorder behaviors include biological changes that can occur as a result of an eating disorder or psychological factors connected to the repetitive eating disorder behaviors.

What to do if you Think it’s an Eating Disorder

If you think you or someone close to you is suffering from an eating disorder, it’s important to reach out for support as soon as possible. Experts recommend starting by getting an eating disorder assessment from a reputable treatment center like The Emily Program. From there, the eating disorder specialist can recommend a proper course of action to treat the illness. This will likely include a multi-disciplinary team of professionals. From there, individuals can work with their treatment team to address the disorder and work towards recovery.

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