How To Recognise An Eating Disorder And What To Do About It

The Difference between Disordered Eating and an Eating Disorder

Disordered eating and eating disorders share some commonalities, but it is important to recognise that they are not the same.  An eating disorder has a clinical diagnosis, whereas disordered eating refers to abnormal eating patterns that do not yet meet the criteria for an eating disorder diagnosis. This means that some people with an eating disorder may exhibit disordered eating but not all people with disordered eating will be diagnosed with an eating disorder. 

The term disordered eating is often used to identify and describe some of the different eating behaviours that do not necessarily meet the diagnostic criteria for an eating disorder. It has been shown that clinically, not everyone who engages in disordered eating will develop an eating disorder, but it is a widely held belief that abnormal eating patterns can play a major part in the eventual development of a clinical eating disorder.

The 3 Main Types of Problems With Eating

The three most common diagnosed eating problem conditions are bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder and anorexia nervosa. Each has its own set of symptoms and diagnostic criteria.



Bulimia is characterised by uncontrolled episodes of overeating and bingeing and is different from Binge eating disorder as the bingeing is followed by purging by self-induced vomiting or misuse of laxatives. Bulimia typically affects females and starts during their teenage years. It is basically a destructive pattern of eating and purging to control weight. Constant monitoring of food and checking of weight can become an obsession. 

Binge Eating Disorder

Binge eating disorder, or BED, is when people eat large quantities of food. This is called bingeing but with BED people do not usually engage in compensatory behaviours such as vomiting after they have eaten, as they do if they have bulimia.  People will become preoccupied when planning their binges and this could be whilst someone is young and at school or older and in the workplace. This disorder is not about food but the actual act of bingeing will be an attempt to interrupt overwhelming negative emotions and feelings.

There are underlying emotional factors that cause someone to try to deflect from their feelings through a preoccupation with food and eating.  One of the biggest differences between overeating and Binge eating disorder is that the person with BED often feels that they do not have control over their urges to eat.


Anorexia is an problem eating condition where there is the feeling that there is a need to keep as low a weight as possible. It is characterised by an abnormally low body weight and an intense fear of gaining weight and a distorted perception of weight. People with anorexia place a high value on controlling their weight and shape using extreme efforts that tend to significantly interfere with their lives.

To prevent weight gain or to continue losing weight, people with anorexia usually severely restrict the amount of food they eat. They may control calorie intake by vomiting after eating or by misusing laxatives, diet aids, diuretics or enemas. They may also try to lose weight by exercising excessively.  No matter how much weight is lost, even with the danger of organ failure,  the person continues to fear weight gain and looking in a mirror will always see themselves as being overweight. Anorexia is one of the leading causes of death related to problems with eating.

Who is Most Likely to Develop an Eating Disorder?

Teenage girls and young women have the highest risk factors for developing issues with eating. Individuals who have previously shown weight concerns and a preoccupation with weight, have a history of dieting, and display a negative body image all show risk factors for developing eating problems.

Certainly, the rise in the number of certified cases of people classified with a eating disorder has risen in line with the use of social media such as Instagram and Facebook. People tend to compare themselves with well known celebrities and try to emulate them by having a similar look or figure. They will discount the fact that the person they are admiring has probably used a photographic filter or photoshopped the picture to make themselves look ‘better’ and in fact it is not even  a true likeness of the figure they are admiring.  Also, the rise in mental bullying at school has contributed further to teenagers trying to control their use of food in order to cope with feelings. 

As with all eating problems it is a maladaptive coping mechanism, something that developed in order to support someone to cope but to the detriment of their mental and physical health. The eating issue serves a purpose to reduce the levels of anxiety and stress in the short term, by distracting attention and focusing it upon food, body image concerns and other ritualistic behaviours around food.

Problem Eating is a Family Illness

Eating issues, similar to other addictions, are very much a family illness because the eating problem does not impact the one person in isolation but the whole family, friends and loved ones. Whilst the individual will need help their family will also need help around their understanding of the condition.

All eating problems can be treated successfully and the earlier the person asks for and gets help the better. The family can play a critical role at this early stage, as they can encourage the person with eating or body image issues to seek help. They can challenge the person’s perception and thinking rather than being worried that their directness could worsen the issue. 

It is possible that people with eating issues also may have other mental health disorders, such as depression or anxiety, or problems with alcohol or drugs and it is critical to treat these potential other factors as part of the treatment plan.  The most successful treatment approach is by seeking help through a specialised eating disorder clinic or a residential addictions rehab or clinic that has experience with eating problems. 

The individual with the condition needs to be in an environment where adequate nutrition can be restored, weight can be brought to a healthy level and excessive exercise stops. Checking body weight will be prevented and there will be a daily structured therapy programme. The cycle of binge-purge and binge eating will be stopped to maximise the chances of Recovery.  If possible, seeking professional and caring help away from the home environment is the most appropriate approach to Recovery from any eating disorder.