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What is Disordered Eating?

Eating behaviours vary from person to person and occur on a spectrum. At one end is what I would describe as Eating with Ease. Towards the middle we have Disordered Eating and the far right we have Diagnosable Eating Disorders as defined by the DSM.

Eating with Ease is when we have a comfortable relationship with food and can eat according to hunger and fullness. We can experience pleasure in eating and eat a wide variety of foods. We are not driven to deprive ourselves of food in order to alter the way our body appears. We also have neutral or more positive body image.

In contrast, those of us engaging in Disordered Eating are often focused on weight control. We believe our self worth is linked to our body weight and shape, and we can experience fear and anxiety around food. We may view certain foods as ‘good’ and others as ‘bad’. It is common to engage in food restriction that is driven by rigid rules around food and eating and attempt to limit or abstain from eating certain foods or entire food groups in order to control weight and shape.

Let’s look at some examples:

  • I can’t eat after 7pm

  • If I eat lunch, I can’t have dinner too

  • I can only eat a specific number of calories per day

  • I must eat less than everyone else at the table

  • I can only have a treat day if I’ve been ‘good’ all week

  • I can only eat a specific food at the weekend.

We may engage in episodes of binge eating or compulsive overeating and feel out of control around food. Some of us may also feel compelled to engage in compensatory purging behaviours such as self-induced vomiting, compulsive exercise or taking laxatives. These are really an attempt to make up for what we have eaten or as a way of earning our food.

When engaging in Disordered Eating it is also common to struggle with high levels of body distress and feel ashamed of our body. Many of us will also engage in frequent body checking, comparing and weighing.

On the right of the eating spectrum are clinically diagnosable eating disorders. These are essentially more extreme presentations of Disordered Eating:

  • Anorexia Nervosa

  • Bulimia Nervosa

  • Binge Eating Disorder

  • Other Specified Feeding

  • Eating Disorder (OSFED)

  • Avoidance Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID).

I use the term Disordered Eating to be inclusive of everyone from the middle to the far right of the eating behaviour spectrum. It includes those of us who have a diagnosis as well as those who don’t have a formal diagnosis but who may struggle with harmful disordered thoughts and behaviours related to food and their bodies. Many folks go undiagnosed (especially those of us in medium and larger sized bodies) as there remains a significant lack of training in assessing for Disordered Eating.

As a result, many of us including medical and other professionals can often underestimate the impact that Disordered Eating has on both physical and mental health. Whether we have only recently started to engage in Disordered Eating or have been doing this for a number of years, it is likely to be causing harm.

The Development of Disordered Eating

There are many reasons why Disordered Eating might develop and these will be unique to each of us. What we do know is that Disordered Eating has Biological, Psychological and Social components and it’s the combination of these components that creates the context for Disordered Eating. There is a unique relationship between our genetics, personality, mental health and our environment that influences the development and maintenance of Disordered Eating.

Disordered Eating behaviours and in particular dieting, are among the most common risk factors for the development of an Eating Disorder. Restricting the amount of food we eat, can lead to chaotic eating and what is often referred to as being in dietary chaos.

When our body is starved of food it responds by reducing the rate at which it burns energy (the metabolic rate) and this can result in increased food cravings that trigger over eating and binge eating. To compensate, we believe the best approach is to further limit what we eat, and the cycle continues.

Disordered Eating and dieting can have a significant negative impact on our bodies and our physical and mental health which can include low mood, fatigue, gastrointestinal issues, irritability, insomnia, depression, anxiety, a reduced ability to cope with stressful situations, low self-esteem and social withdrawal.

Other behaviours can also show up alongside our Disordered Eating further increasing risk:

  • Self-Harming

  • Substance Abuse

  • Obsessive Compulsive Behaviour

  • Promiscuity

  • Risk Seeking

  • Perfection Seeking.

In the short term these behaviours can provide relief or a sense of self soothing but just like our Disordered Eating, these behaviours can become unhelpful and harmful over time.

Our Disordered Eating tends to show up in small ways at first; missing the odd meal or snack, reducing portion sizes, cutting out certain foods or foods groups, or over eating on occasion but as these patterns develop and become more frequent, we can begin to feel fearful or out of control around food, or feel ashamed after eating.

We begin to depend on food (or the lack of it) as our best coping strategy, even though it can often leave us feeling much worse. Over time we find ourselves caught in these overwhelming and life limiting patterns that have a huge impact on our health, our relationships and our lives.

Negative Body Image

Feeling negative about our body also drives Disordered Eating behaviour reinforcing these unhelpful patterns. It is sadly very common to feel negative about our bodies as we are surrounded my messages from our culture that place a higher value on a very narrow body ideal. In particular on smaller, leaner bodies. There is strong focus on shape and weight as a measure of our self worth and if we can reach and maintain a narrow body ideal, our culture perceives our body to be more worthy than others.

We are essentially encouraged to treat our bodies like show homes, rather than somewhere we live in and from. How we look is prioritised over qualities like wisdom, courage, warmth and grace. Existing in this toxic value system means the focus on our body can become all consuming. It also continues to drive the ever increasing number us affected by Disordered Eating.


If you’d like to get started on regulating your eating and break the cycle of Disordered Eating you can access my FREE 20 page guide here.

If you are a Therapist, Counsellor or Psychologist interested in my 6 week training course on Working with Disordered Eating you can find out more here.

Celia Clark is a Disordered Eating Specialist, Therapist and Consultant working with Disordered Eating through a Parts Work Model.

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