People often use the terms “eating disorders” and “disordered eating” interchangeably, but the two have significant differences. The fad wellness and starvation diets, weight loss programs, and fasting regimes that people participate in today make it difficult to differentiate these disordered eating patterns from eating disorders.

Before we define each, it is essential to mention that both disordered eating and eating disorders are extremely harmful and dangerous for the individual suffering. However, the level of functionality, obsession, and behaviors of the individual typically differs between those with eating disorders and disordered eating patterns. Nevertheless, I want to reiterate the importance of acknowledging BOTH as damaging and detrimental to an individual’s emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual health. This post aims to differentiate the two regarding levels of functionality, obsession, and behaviors.

What is Disordered Eating?

According to The Emily Program, disordered eating includes engaging in unhealthy food and body behaviors to lose weight or promote health. However, these desires put the person at significant risk for harm and may lead to adverse complications later in life or an eating disorder.

What Are Examples of Disordered Eating?

      • Fad diets.

      • Cleanses.

      • Diet pills.

      • Supplement misuse.

      • Skipping meals.

    After reading that list, you may think, “I see this everywhere.” Unfortunately, you are correct. Disordered eating patterns are widespread and glorified in Western culture and social media platforms, but that does not justify their righteousness for “health.”

    What are Eating Disorders?

    The Emily Program defines eating disorders as brain-based illnesses that are life-threatening. I do not necessarily agree with this differentiation because you can (and should) argue that disordered eating patterns may also be brain-based illnesses or life-threatening. However, it explains a tipping point, where disordered eating patterns turn into an eating disorder, which I agree with.

    What Are Some Signs and Symptoms of medical complications related to EDs?

        • Menstrual irregularities

        • Dizziness

        • Fainting

        • Heart disease

        • Organ failure

        • Eating in secret

        • Hiding food,

        • Feeling a loss of control around food,

        • Obsessive thoughts concerning food and body.

      To slightly shift gears, Teminah Zucker, LMSW, wrote a blog post for NEDA regarding the difference between eating disorders and disordered eating, which includes levels of functionality, obsession, and behaviors. This approach less invalidates disordered eating patterns and relates to the tipping point explained by The Emily Program. Individuals with eating disorders typically engage in behaviors multiple times per week or even per day and are usually kept a secret. Disordered eating patterns may entail less engagement in behaviors; however, assessing the difference between eating disorders and disordered eating patterns on behavior alone is not sufficient.

      Zucker contends that the level of obsession around thoughts on food and the body may help differentiate between eating disorders and disordered eating. Individuals struggling with eating disorders experience severe impairments in their ability to focus, stay present, and sleep.

      Furthermore, these individuals may spend a lot of time in grocery stores, isolate themselves more frequently, and experience dramatic shifts in their demeanor or behavior. Thinking about food and the next meal can be normal. Still, the occurrence of these obsessions and all-consuming thoughts helps differentiate eating disorders and disordered eating. It is not typical to always consider the calories, taste, food avoidances, and buying options of what you are consuming.

      Functionality is Important

      Lastly, functionality is another aspect that Zucker brings up to distinguish eating disorders and disordered eating. If someone’s eating patterns prevent them from functioning in their typical daily manner, that may be a good indicator of an eating disorder. For example, suppose an individual does not try out a new restaurant because of the stress of eating with others or because the menu is unfamiliar. In that case, that may indicate an eating disorder. Another instance that may indicate an eating disorder is if an individual skips going to school or work to exercise compulsively or even severely inhibits their sleeping pattern or sleep schedule to do so.

      Eating Disorders and Disordered Eating Deserve Treatment

      Both eating disorders and disordered eating patterns are incredibly harmful to your mind, body, and soul. If you or a loved one are experiencing either, please seek help. You deserve to be able to eat when you are hungry and stop when you are full. You deserve to eat the food you crave and genuinely enjoy. You do not deserve to fear food or a particular body type. It is extraordinarily difficult to heal from eating disorders and disordered eating patterns in a culture that praises each. But you can heal and are worthy of it. You deserve to live according to your aspirations and values, not those cultivated by your eating disorder or culture.

      BALANCE offers a bi-monthly free virtual support group for those struggling with an eating disorder or disordered eating behaviors. These groups provide a supportive forum where members can explore issues, including ambivalence about engaging in treatment, recovery, resources, and treatment options. Know when and how to take the next steps toward making change. RSVP for our next group here.

      Our admissions team would be happy to answer any questions you may have about our programs and services. Book a free consultation call with our admissions team below, or read more about our philosophy here.

      Looking for eating disorder treatment programs or services in the New York City area? Learn more about our options at BALANCE eating disorder treatment center™ here or contact us here.


      Todd. “Disordered Eating vs. Eating Disorders: What’s The Tipping Point?” The Emily Program, 10 Feb. 2022,

      Zucker, Temimah. “Eatings Disorders vs. Disordered Eating: What’s the Difference?” National Eating Disorders Association, 21 Feb. 2018,

      This post was written by BALANCE Blog Contributor, Tori Barkosky (she/her).

      Tori is currently a senior at St. Catherine University, pursuing a B.A. in Psychology and a minor in Nutrition Science. Tori is passionate about all things related to intuitive eating, HAES, mental health, body respect, eating disorders, and disordered eating. She desires to become a holistic therapist or psychologist in the future and work with clients with eating disorders and help them recover and heal their broken relationship with food and body and find liberation from diet culture. Outside of classes and work, Tori enjoys yoga, being in nature, and consuming too much coffee.

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