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What Does Disordered Eating Look Like? Examples of Disordered Eating

Updated: Nov 5, 2023

Common Perception of Disordered Eating

When people think about what disordered eating looks like, there are a few common pictures they consider. Restrictive eating often comes to mind first--many people are familiar with anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. Compulsive eating is also widely recognized, and this condition is called binge eating disorder. Some examples of disordered eating don't fit neatly into any of those diagnoses. That is where we see the spectrum of disordered eating that may not be an eating disorder.

man eating food

Disordered Eating vs Eating Disorder

I think it is also important to understand that disordered eating is a spectrum. A diagnosable eating disorder may be at one end of the spectrum, but there are many behaviors that are considered disordered that might not reach diagnosable level.

As a dietitian, I hear my patients describe disordered eating behaviors every day. Most of these people do not have a diagnosable eating disorder, but some of their behaviors are disordered. Many times they recognize that these behaviors are maladaptive, but sometimes they feel that these behaviors will get them to a desired goal.

I am going to present examples of disordered eating. Notice how all of these examples can be dismissed as normal behavior. Also notice how they can all be disruptive of a person's life. Put simply, disordered eating is any eating-related behavior that interrupts life. It it causes someone to alter their preferred routine or if it causes guilt or anxiety, that might indicate disordered eating.

Examples of Disordered Eating Behavior

  • A middle aged woman stops to grab lunch at a familiar place while out on errands, and the place does not have her usual salad. Nothing else they serve is acceptable to her, and the idea of choosing something else makes her feel anxious, so she cuts her errands short to go home.

  • A teenager has a stash of chocolate in her bedroom to eat, and she hides the wrappers so that her mom won't see how much chocolate she ate.

  • A woman notices that all her friend ever talks about is her diet--which diet she is on now, its rules, and how the food they are eating is or is not part of her diet.

  • A teenager is up late at night and needs to eat something, so he finds a pint of ice cream in the freezer, and finishes it within 10 minutes.

  • A woman tells her friend that she was bad over the weekend for eating dessert at a family reunion.

  • A teenager cancels plans with her friends when she finds out they plan to go out to eat because she has decided she is not allowed to eat certain foods.

  • A young woman has created a list of forbidden food that has been getting longer over time to manage stomach discomfort associated with eating.

  • A teenager states he has a list of food allergies, none that have been diagnosed by healthcare providers.

  • A mom calls ahead when her child is going to a birthday party to let the hosts know not to give her child cake or ice cream.

  • A parent does not allow his preschool-aged child to ever eat any sweets or treats.

  • A second grade boy has started stealing snacks from his peers because he gets none in his own lunch.

  • A young man gets anxious when his specified meal components are not available to him.

  • A teenaged boy is embarrassed to eat in front of other people, so he always takes his dinner to his own room to eat alone.

  • A college student waits until her roommate leaves the dorm room before eating her snacks because she does not want anyone to see her eat.

  • A woman comes home very late after traveling, and she has missed her usual exercise class. It is 1am, but she can't miss her exercise, so she does her workout despite the late hour.

  • A teenager refuses to go on a family trip because it will cause him to miss his workout schedule.

What to Do if You Recognize Disordered Eating Behaviors

Many people will read these examples and see themselves or their loved one in these vignettes. If you see yourself, consider if this is how you want to live. Are these behaviors in line with your values? If not, reach out to a dietitian for help learning more adaptive eating skills. If you see your friend or family member in these examples, and your relationship with them allows, consider bringing your concerns to them.

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