Diet vs. Disordered: The Emotional Differences Between a Diet and an Eating Disorder

Eating Disorders affect 30 million Americans. Without much prior knowledge, it can be hard to know the difference between a diet versus an eating disorder such as Anorexia. Learn more about the emotional difference between an eating disorder and a diet.

by: Kristin Burmeister

Many cases of anorexia start as a simple diet, however the distinguishing factor between a diet and a disorder is often determined by the amount an individual restricts their caloric intake. Operant conditioning, which is the process by which an individual’s behavior is influenced by the consequences of said behavior, often leads caloric restriction in individuals with AN to become more extreme than in a diet [1].

Emotions are the most common form of reinforcement or punishment that maintain anorexic behaviors [2]. Individuals with anorexia tend to use restriction as a way to deal with emotions, rather than simply as an extreme method for losing weight. Generally individuals with AN use restriction to avoid negative emotions and those with AN tend to avoid emotions more than healthy controls [3]. Malnutrition has many effects on emotionality. A fundamental eating disorder study, coined The Starvation Study, demonstrated these effects by reducing a group of males caloric intake in half for six months to study the effects of starvation. The study found that reduction in caloric intake leads to higher depression, apathy, and lethargic mood [4]. Thus, restricting food intake can generally lower emotionality and repress feelings one is attempting to ignore. The one emotion that prevails when an individual is starving is irritability which may be much easier to cope with than deep sadness or fear [4].

Furthermore, anorexic symptoms are used to cope with emotions by using eating rituals, such as weighing and measuring foods or eating at specified times or places, to deal with stress [5]. By having control over their eating individuals with anorexia are able to feel less stressed and emotional about things they are unable to control, such as a trauma or family dispute, because they have control over their eating [5]. Lastly, hyper focusing on eating and food makes it easier for anorexic individuals to avoid thinking about other issues in their lives [5]. Eating normally after anorexia is difficult partially because these emotions must be dealt with rather than avoided [3].

The behavioral symptoms of anorexia, such as fasting, excessive exercising, or avoiding particular foods, are encouraged because they are perceived by an individual to lead to positive outcomes. Whereas, eating for those with anorexia is perceived to lead to negative consequences, which further decreases their eating. While these responses are also common in everyday dieters the responses are much stronger for those with AN which causes the eating behaviors of those with AN to be far more intense than a diet [6]. As a result of strong operant conditioning responses individuals with anorexia become locked in a cycle of eating less and less due to being reinforced for restricting and punished for eating.

Overall, the distinction between a diet and a disorder often lies in the emotional processes that occur when someone avoids food or eats. Research and many personal testimonies demonstrate that anorexia is not simply an extreme diet based solely in a desire to lose weight. For those with anorexia restricting caloric intake is a coping skills used to deal with a variety of issues. Luckily, the conditioning that leads individuals to avoid food can be undone and those with anorexia can learn to enjoy food again with time and help.


[1] Guarda, A. S., Schreyer, C. C., Boersma, G. J., Tamashiro, K. L., & Moran, T. H. (2015). Anorexia nervosa as a motivated behavior: Relevance of anxiety, stress, fear and learning. Physiology & Behavior, 152, 466-472. doi:10.1016/j.physbeh.2015.04.007

[2] Selby, E. A., et al. (2015). A perfect storm: examining the synergistic effects of negative and positive emotional instability on promoting weight loss activities in anorexia nervosa. Frontiers in Psychology, 6. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01260

[3] Wildes, J. E., Ringham, R. M., & Marcus, M. D. (2010). Emotion avoidance in patients with anorexia nervosa: Initial test of a functional model. International Journal of Eating Disorders. doi:10.1002/eat.20730

[4] Keys, A., Brozek, J., Henschel, A., Mickelsen, O. & Taylor, H.L. (1950) The Biology of Human Starvation, Vols. I-II. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN.

[5] Carpenter, V. (2015). Ritualistic Eating. Retrieved November 21, 2017, from https://www.eatingdisorderhope.com/information/eating-disorder/ritualistic-eating

[6] Harrison, A., O’Brien, N., Lopez, C., & Treasure, J. (2010). Sensitivity to reward and punishment in eating disorders. Psychiatry Research, 177(1), 1-11. DOI: 10.1016/j. psychres.2009.06.010



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This post was written by BALANCE blog intern Kristin Burmeister.

Kristin is a graduate student studying social work at Case Western Reserve Universtiy. Her own recovery journey inspired her to want to help others who struggle with eating disorders. In the future, she hopes to work as a clinical social worker with a focus on eating disorder treatment.