Eating Disorders Vs. Disordered Eating: An Expert Explains The Key Differences

While you may know about different types of eating disorders, a term that's often heard less frequently is "disordered eating." "Disordered eating is more common than one might think," says Jennie Kramer, MSW, LCSW-R, CEDS, Senior Clinical Advisor to the O'Connor Professional Group and an Eating Disorder Specialist, in an exclusive interview with Health Digest.

"It refers to some form of tortured relationship to food which is informed largely by dissatisfaction with one's own body size, [by] some sensory or texture sensitivities, or as a distraction from uncomfortable emotions," she explains. "While the disordered thoughts may be frequent and seemingly automatic, they don't necessarily reach the point where they have severe mental, physical, or social consequences in one's life."

This is what sets disordered eating apart from an eating disorder, Kramer points out. "An eating disorder, on the other hand, has elements of all of this, but the frequency of thoughts and behaviors is so pervasive that they become disruptive to one's life and health in serious ways," she says. "Formal evaluation by an experienced licensed clinical professional will help determine whether specific criteria have been met, and to what degree, as set forth by the American Psychiatric Association Diagnostic Statistical Manual or DSM handbook."

Coping and prevention strategies

"Similar interventions may be utilized for most forms of disordered eating and/or eating disorders. The most important element is the recognition on the part of clients that there is in fact a need for change," Kramer goes on to tell us exclusively. "After all, while deleterious in the long run and ultimately unsustainable, the thoughts and behaviors persist because on some level they have been working; they are seemingly effective yet harmful ways of managing or avoiding a host of feelings, memories, and situations." Over time, however, Kramer explains that the consequences begin to override the benefits, prompting the motivation for change.

"Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), are just some of the available evidence-based treatments for eating disorders," Kramer states. "Each of these modalities addresses specific symptoms and behaviors and are used to minimize maladaptive coping behaviors, help regulate emotions, manage distress, etc.," she says. "But all treatments must be carefully chosen to address individual needs and are based on the ever-important therapeutic relationship that must be established." She adds that supplemental treatment interventions such as family therapy, nutritional counseling, and medication management are also important.

Risk factors and seeking help

"Understanding one's own risk for developing an eating disorder can be helpful in their prevention," Kramer tells Health Digest. "Risk factors are largely epigenetic in nature. [I]n other words, are there inheritable tendencies within one's bloodlines and, as importantly, what in the environment will pull those triggers — such as trauma, exposure to weight stigma and/or diet culture, or co-occurring underlying mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, a personality disorder or a substance addiction, to name a few."

While eating disorders and disordered eating may share some overlap in symptoms, Kramer notes that treatment will look different for everyone. "A careful assessment must be done to determine the level of care needed," she states. "Other considerations include the age of clients as well as what support systems are available to them." Above all else, she emphasizes that the decision to pursue treatment must ultimately be made by the individual. "Perhaps most importantly, unless one's life or health is at risk, treatment cannot be forced on anyone," she says. "The results will not last and there will be frequent cycling of the disorder. Motivational interviewing can be a key factor in helping one determine their readiness and their commitment to change."

If you need help with an eating disorder, or know someone who does, help is available. Visit the National Eating Disorders Association website or contact NEDA's Live Helpline at 1-800-931-2237. You can also receive 24/7 Crisis Support via text (send NEDA to 741-741).