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.
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.
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:
Obsessive weighing of themselves or their food
Changes in hair or skin
Preoccupation with body shape or size
Changes in bowel habits
Consistently avoiding social events with food
Feeling dizzy or weak
Extremely restrictive eating
Significant weight fluctuations
Intense fear of gaining weight
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.
Although disordered eating may include behaviors such as avoiding food groups (like carbohydrates), skipping meals or fasting, and calorie restricting that are not exactly on par with eating disorders just yet, they may be well on the way.
Those with an eating disorder may engage in the same behaviors discussed above, but often with more intensity or frequency. In fact, this is the basic difference between the two issues--the severity or frequency of the behaviors.
When to seek treatment
While those with disordered eating may display fewer or less severe problematic food behaviors than those with diagnosed eating disorders, all such behaviors warrant attention and treatment. There may be hidden health issues developing, such as fluid imbalances and low blood pressure, and the groundwork for future anorexia, bulimia, or other eating disorders may have already been laid.
Elyse Resch, MS, RDN, FAND, FADA, and nutrition therapist, takes it a bit further, explaining that treatment should be sought quickly as, “Anything that takes you away from your body’s signals of hunger and fullness is disordered eating. Anything that’s externalized where you’re not listening to your body’s wisdom about when you’re hungry, what you really want to eat, how your body feels, your choice of food and when you’re full, is disordered eating.”
Are there means of prevention?
Absolutely! Learning how to take care of your mind and body is something we learn at a young age, positively or negatively. It is important to instill proper eating habits, body awareness and acceptance, and healthy lifestyle choices and self-love during childhood.
As a parent or guardian, it is important to be a role model for your children. You are paving the road for their future relationship with their body and food as they watch and mimic your words and actions.
Don’t ignore the signs and hope things get better on their own.
Early intervention is highly effective in treating both issues, and the best place to start is asking a trusted healthcare professional for a referral. While you can try to intervene on your own, sometimes that can backfire depending upon the dynamics of your relationship. It’s usually best to let the professionals trained specifically in eating disorders and disordered eating guide your first steps to ensure positive action occurs.
Look for family-based treatment whenever possible.
It should also be noted that the best outcomes are associated with positive family support, so those who share the best relationships with the afflicted should be first to offer support. Family-based therapy is highly recommended for teenagers and young adults whenever possible, but this is also a plus for treatment at any age.
Nothing can beat a good family session when one or more of the family members are in need of help. Plus, you may find out more about your family’s dynamics than you knew before you started!
It is important to understand that often times the causes of eating disorders are deep-seated. It can stem from feelings of inadequacy, need for control, low self-esteem, depression, addiction tendencies, trauma, social influence, or childhood events. The process to reframe the mindset of your loved one will take time and is best guided by professionals.