Eating disorder or disordered eating?

Whats the difference?

While we all eat a bit differently from each other, there are some eating behaviours that tip us into eating disorders, rather than disordered eating.

It is a spectrum though – many of us have disordered eating at times. But it’s when we feel that our lives have been taken over by food, that it could be time to get some help.

Normal eating

Recognising real hunger

Not eating when we are not hungry

3 meals a day


Sometimes eating a lot

Sometimes eating a little

Knowing when we are feeling full

All of the above with no worry or guilt attached

Disordered eating

Yo-yo dieting

Sometimes eating too much but not feeling particularly guilty

Food in the back of mind

Image issues in the back of mind

None of the above becoming obsessive or physically affecting the person or other people close to them

Health is not seriously compromised

Eating disorder

Food becomes the main focus of life

Social life very curtailed

Friends and family are affected as well

Obsessive about body image issues

Physical and emotional health are compromised

Life is threatened

How do I tell if I have a full-blown eating disorder?

The following three scenarios may help you to understand the difference between normal, disordered, or an eating disorder.

Sarah eats healthily most of the time but doesn’t worry if she decides to enjoy a large curry or a burger and chips. She knows when she is full and often leaves a bit on the side of her plate. She usually, although not always if she is really busy, eats three meals a day and only eats a snack in between if she is really hungry. She eats a lot over Christmas and more than usual when she is on holiday but feels no guilt about this and her eating habits return to their usual pattern afterwards.

Harry is concerned about fitness and goes to the gym quite frequently. He doesn’t like it if he puts on any weight and diets, and watches what he drinks, before going on holiday, to get rid of any flab around his waist. He usually makes a New Year resolution to get fitter and lose weight and may even join a slimming club but gives up after a few weeks. Although he has food in the back of his mind quite a lot of the time, he doesn’t feel particularly guilty about his eating habits and certainly doesn’t become obsessive about them. His health and social life are not generally compromised although he may gain quite a lot of weight over time.

Jessica is a university student and is feeling quite vulnerable and lonely in strange surroundings. She is worried people won’t like her and believes what she looks like is very important. She started a diet because she wanted to lose some weight but now she thinks of food so much of the time it is hard to concentrate on anything else. She has started to lie to people about when and how much she has eaten and may have taken to other behaviours such as being sick or taking laxatives to try and help her lose weight. She chooses to eat alone most of the time so that no one can criticize anything to do with her eating habits which may seem quite bizarre to other people. Going out anywhere, if it might involve food, becomes more and more frightening until her social life is seriously curtailed. Her family and friends are affected by her behaviour and her emotional and physical health are seriously compromised.

Which of these scenarios is closest to your own, or to the person you know who might have an eating disorder?

Sarah has no problems with eating, Harry’s eating would be described as disordered eating and Jessica would be diagnosed with an eating disorder.

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