Disordered Eating: The What, Who and Why

Nicole Legg

April 27th 2020




What is disordered eating?

The term ‘disordered eating’ captures various different eating behaviours that are considered to be problematic or unhealthy, and may cause distress. Having an unhealthy relationship with food – a relationship that is characterized by stress, preoccupation, and worry – is a key feature of disordered eating. However, scientifically, disordered eating is defined as engagement in specific unhealthy eating behaviours including:

  • Restricted eating: severely limiting caloric intake (often less than 1000 calories/day), going more than 8 waking hours without eating, or skipping 2+ meals in a row with the specific purpose of changing one’s body weight/shape [1]
  • Binge eating: eating a very large portion of food in a manner that feels out of control [1] 
  • Purging: various behaviours that are meant to change body weight/shape and ‘purge’ calories from the body such as vomiting, taking laxatives/diuretics, or excessively exercising [1]

Disordered eating is also related to depression, anxiety, thoughts of suicide, and self-harm, and is a strong predictor for the onset of an Eating Disorder [2, 3, 4].

This does not include religiously sanctioned fasting, forgetting to eat, or special diets that are prescribed by a health professional. 


Is disordered eating different from an Eating Disorder?

Although subtle, there is a difference between disordered eating and an Eating Disorder. An Eating Disorder is diagnosed by a psychologist, psychiatrist, or physician and may be given when someone has engaged in one or more disordered eating behaviours (in addition to other criteria which vary across Eating Disorders) at a level that is severe enough to warrant an official diagnosis. 

Disordered eating on the other hand, is often thought of as a less severe version of an Eating Disorder – it is a term used to describe when an individual has engaged in one or more disordered eating behaviours but not to an extent or severity that meets criteria for an Eating Disorder. 


Who is at risk for disordered eating?

Although less severe, disordered eating is more prevalent than Eating Disorders among adolescents and young adults. One large study found that 57% and 31% of 12th grade females and males, respectively, had engaged in disordered eating, and has become more prevalent over time [5, 6]. Disordered eating is also becoming more common among males and those in a variety of ethnic, age, and socioeconomic groups, suggesting that disordered eating affects a wider range of people beyond the young, White, upper-class females, which has been the traditional perception [6].

There are many different theories trying to explain why people begin, and continue to engage in disordered eating. Research suggests that various factors such as body dissatisfaction, perfectionism, low self-esteem, cultural pressures that idealize ‘thinness’, negative emotions, and difficulties with emotion and behavioral regulation are related to onset and engagement in disordered eating [7, 8, 9]. Other research suggests that people may continue to engage in disordered eating because it is a way to manage or avoid difficult emotions [10, 11]. 


Take Home Message 

Disordered eating is associated with poor psychological wellbeing and is a risk factor for the development of an Eating Disorder. Being aware of our relationship with food, our eating behaviours, and the risks associated with disordered eating is critical to addressing this growing mental health concern.  

Click on the links below to learn more about disordered eating and Eating Disorders: 

National Eating Disorder Information Centre

Eating Disorders Hope

Canadian Mental Health Association – Eating Disorders



[1] Stice, E., Telch, C., & Rizvi, S. (2000). Development and validation of the eating disorder diagnostic scale: A brief self-report measure of anorexia, bulimia, and binge-eating disorder.Psychological Assessment, 12(2), 123-131. doi:10.1037//1040-3590.12.2.123

[2] Lock, J., Reisel, B., & Steiner, H. (2001). Associated health risks of adolescents with disordered eating: How different are they from their peers? results from a high school survey.Child Psychiatry and Human Development, 31(3), 249-265. doi:10.1023/A:1026433506298

[3] Fairburn, C. G., Cooper, Z., Doll, H. A., & Davies, B. A. (2005). Identifying dieters who will develop an eating disorder: A prospective, population-based study. American Journal of Psychiatry, 162(12), 2249-2255. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.162.12.2249

[4] Golden, N., Schneider, M., Wood, C., Comm Nutr, Sect Obesity, Comm Adolescence, . . . COMMITTEE ON ADOLESCENCE. (2016). Preventing obesity and eating disorders in adolescents. Pediatrics, 138(3), e20161649-e20161649. doi:10.1542/peds.2016-1649

[5] Croll, J., Neumark-Sztainer, D., Story, M., & Ireland, M. (2002). Prevalence and risk and protective factors related to disordered eating behaviors among adolescents: Relationship to gender and ethnicity. Journal of Adolescent Health, 31(2), 166-175. doi:10.1016/S1054-139X(02)00368-3

[6] Mitchison, D., Hay, P., Slewa-Younan, S., & Mond, J. (2014). The changing demographic profile of eating disorder behaviors in the community. Bmc Public Health, 14(1), 943-943. doi:10.1186/1471-2458-14-943

[7] Cooley, E., Toray, T., Valdez, N., & Tee, M. (2007). Risk factors for maladaptive eating patterns in college women. Eating and Weight Disorders – Studies on Anorexia, Bulimia and Obesity, 12(3), 132-139. doi:10.1007/BF03327640

[8] Hayaki, J., & Free, S. (2016). Positive and negative eating expectancies in disordered eating among women and men. Eating Behaviors, 22, 22-26. doi:10.1016/j.eatbeh.2016.03.025

[9] Liechty, J. M., & Lee, M. (2013). Longitudinal predictors of dieting and disordered eating among young adults in the U.S. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 46(8), 790-800. doi:10.1002/eat.22174

[10] Heatherton, T., & Baumeister, R. (1991). binge eating as escape from self awareness.Psychological Bulletin, 110(1), 86-108. doi:10.1037//0033-2909.110.1.86

[11] Polivy, J., & Herman, C. P. (1993). Etiology of binge eating: Psychological mechanisms. In C. G. Fairburn & G. T. Wilson (Eds.), Binge eating: Nature, assessment, and treatment (p. 173–205). Guilford Press.

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