What is the difference between an Eating Disorder and Disordered Eating?


Eating disorders are complex, chronic illnesses largely misunderstood and misdiagnosed. The most common eating disorders - anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder - are on the rise in the United States and worldwide. No one knows exactly what causes eating disorders. However, all socioeconomic, ethnic and cultural groups are at risk.

More than ninety percent of those with eating disorders are women. Further, the number of American women affected by these illnesses has doubled to at least five million in the past three decades.

Eating disorders are one of the key health issues facing young women. Studies in the last decade show that eating disorders and disordered eating behaviors are related to other health risk behaviors, including tobacco use, alcohol use, marijuana use, delinquency, unprotected sexual activity, and suicide attempts. Currently, 1-4% of all young women in the United States are affected by eating disorders. Anorexia nervosa, for example, ranks as the third most common chronic illness among adolescent females in the United States.

Eating disorders have numerous physical, psychological and social ramifications, from significant weight preoccupation, inappropriate eating behavior, and body image distortion. Many people with eating disorders experience depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and childhood sexual abuse, and may be at risk for osteoporosis and heart problems. Moreover, death rates are among the highest for any mental illness.

Far more common and widespread than defined eating disorders are atypical eating disorders, or disordered eating. Disordered eating refers to troublesome eating behaviors, such as restrictive dieting, bingeing, or purging, which occur less frequently or are less severe than those required to meet the full criteria for the diagnosis of an eating disorder. Disordered eating can be changes in eating patterns that occur in relation to a stressful event, an illness, personal appearance, or in preparation for athletic competition. The 1997 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Study found that over 4% of students nationwide had taken laxatives, diet pills or had vomited either to lose weight or to keep from gaining weight.

While disordered eating can lead to weight loss or weight gain and to certain nutritional problems, it rarely requires in depth professional attention. On the other hand, disordered eating may develop into an eating disorder. If disordered eating becomes sustained, distressing, or begins to interfere with everyday activities, then it may require professional evaluation.

Information from: The U.S. Department of Health and Human Service's Office on Women's Health