Can Unhealthy Food Habits Create Disordered Eating or Eating Disorders?

While it’s commendable to strive for optimal fitness, there are times when a healthy diet and exercise goals can turn into a harmful preoccupation with weight and food. For various reasons, some otherwise healthy people develop unhealthy relationships with food, struggling with issues like eating disorders and disordered eating.

Can Unhealthy Food Habits Create Disordered Eating or Eating Disorders?

But what is the difference between the two, and how can someone determine whether they need treatment?

Although some people with disordered eating patterns may fit the mold for an eating disorder, others may fall short of the necessary criteria. And while eating disorders match certain diagnostic criteria in the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), disordered eating may or may not be a match. It’s important to understand the basics of each in order to properly differentiate and decide when treatment is needed.

The Similarities

Disordered eating occurs when someone engages in problematic eating patterns regularly for an extended time. To explain a bit further, most people who struggle with disordered eating experience uncomfortable emotions or excessive anxiety in regard to food.

To deal with the discomfort, they create complex routines, rituals, or rigid habits around food or times when it’s expected they will eat. These may include both physical and emotional signs, such as:

  • Calorie tracking

  • Food diaries

  • Obsessive weighing of themselves or their food

  • Changes in hair or skin

  • Preoccupation with body shape or size

  • Excessive exercising

  • Changes in bowel habits

  • Consistently avoiding social events with food

  • Feeling dizzy or weak

  • Extremely restrictive eating

  • Yo-yo dieting

  • Significant weight fluctuations

  • Fainting

  • Intense fear of gaining weight

  • Stomach pain

  • Changes in menstrual regularity

  • Acid-related dental problems

They typically have one, some, or many of these behaviors or symptoms until successfully reaching a goal, such as a certain weight or clothing size, then go on to set a new goal. This pattern can ultimately take them from disordered eating into an actual eating disorder diagnosis quite easily, which is why many clinicians call it a “slippery slope” between the two.

The Differences

Although disordered eating may include behaviors such as avoiding food groups (like carbohydrates), skipping meals or fasting, and