A teenager sits on the edge of her bed with her head resting in her hands. She is visibly upset and struggling with her body image.
Published On: June 2, 2021|Categories: Eating Disorders, Mental Health|

Disordered eating refers to any type of unhealthy eating behavior that could be physically or psychologically harmful. Not to be confused with eating disorders, disordered eating is simply a warning signal that something is wrong in your relationship with food. 

What Is Considered Disordered Eating?

These unhealthy behaviors are more common than you might think. In fact, most adults in America have at one point practiced disordered eating. Here are some common unhealthy food habits:

  • Extreme fad diets
  • Yo-yo dieting and weight fluctuations
  • Skipping meals to compensate for overindulging
  • Overeating to cope with difficult emotions
  • Labeling foods as “good” or “bad”
  • Cutting out certain food groups to lose weight or “be healthy”
  • Feeling guilty about what you ate
  • Believing you must “earn” the calories you consume through exercise

Any behaviors that restrict food intake, limit your choices (excluding cases of food sensitivities and allergies), make you feel guilty, or make you feel uncomfortably full or out of control while you’re eating are considered disordered.

What Causes Disordered Eating?

Disordered eating can have many causes. Some people are predisposed to these types of behaviors due to their background or personality, while others have stressors in their lives that trigger unhealthy habits. Here are just a few of the factors that drive disordered eating.

Society and Culture

A lot of unhealthy eating behaviors are considered normal in our society. This is partly due to the influence of the diet and fast food industries. We are constantly being bombarded with messages about how we should eat and what our bodies should look like. Sometimes those messages directly contradict each other, as the food industry encourages us to indulge while the diet industry tells us to restrict our eating.

Social media is another big culprit. Celebrities, influencers, and even our own friends post messages about eating and exercise. We are often exposed to idealized bodies on social media that may trigger dissatisfaction with our own appearance.

Stressors and Life Changes

Stressful events in life can trigger disordered eating as a way to cope. People who have experienced a job loss, death of a loved one, financial struggles, relationship difficulties, and other stressors may turn to food to comfort themselves. Or they might create a rigid diet. Following a strict diet can give someone a feeling of being in control when other areas of their life are out of their control.

Past Trauma

People who have experienced traumatic events are especially vulnerable to disordered eating. This includes physical abuse or sexual abuse, bullying, rape, assault and domestic violence. For people who have a history of trauma, disordered eating can be a way to numb emotions, have a feeling of control over their bodies, or distract themselves from painful memories.

Mental Health Disorders

Many people who struggle with disordered eating also have a mental health disorder like depression, anxiety, or OCD. Mental health symptoms may drive unhealthy eating habits or worsen existing habits. For example, anxiety can lead to gastrointestinal issues and depression is linked to both appetite loss and overeating.

Get help for your mental health disorder AND your disordered eating. High Focus Centers has a disordered eating track at our New Jersey treatment centers.

Extreme Cases of Disordered Eating

Although dieting and emotional eating are unhealthy, they aren’t necessarily dangerous. Many people go on and off diets or overeat occasionally without any long-term negative consequences. However, there are some people who have such extreme disordered eating habits that they put their health at risk. Some more severe cases of disordered eating include:

  • Restricting food intake to the point of malnourishment
  • Binging often and to the point of discomfort or pain
  • Purging food through vomiting, laxatives, diuretics, excessive exercise, and/or fasting
  • Cycling through restricting and purging behaviors
  • Gaining or losing a large amount of weight

If someone experiences any of the above behaviors, they may be living with an eating disorder and should be evaluated by a mental health professional. Eating disorders are life-threatening mental health conditions that require treatment.

Eating Disorders vs. Disordered Eating

The difference between eating disorders and disordered eating is the severity of the problem. People with eating disorders have lost control over their eating habits and are at risk for severe health complications, while people with disordered eating are experiencing a difficult relationship with food but are still able to function. If your life is being disrupted by your eating, it’s likely you have an eating disorder. You should seek out advice from a qualified mental health professional if you have any concerns about your eating habits.

Getting Help for Disordered Eating

If you’ve identified some of these problematic eating habits in yourself, or if you find your attitude towards food is becoming distorted, there are many things you can do to address it. Some people find self-help tools like workbooks and apps are sufficient to get them back on track, while others need to talk to a nutritionist, doctor, or therapist. 

If you have a history of mental illness and also struggle with your eating, consider the Positive Reflections disordered eating track from High Focus Centers. Our program is specially designed to address food and body image while providing treatment for your mental health disorder. Our team of clinicians teach the skills necessary for a healthy relationship with food. Contact us to inquire about this program for yourself or a loved one.

Call 800-877-3628


A patient sits across from a therapist during a treatment session for depression. The therapist is holding a clipboard and taking notes, while the patient sits across from the therapist, explaining their symptoms.What Types of Therapy Are Helpful For Depression?
Knowing What You Need For Your Recovery Process