I often get asked “What’s the difference between diets and eating disorders?” This post aims to answer that question. If you want the summary: sometimes it’s hard to tell.
Remember that game “Spot The Difference” from childhood? You know, the one with two panels of the same illustration and you spot the differences between the two. Spotting the difference between dieting and eating disorders is like that game. The differences can be subtle, easy to see or sometimes easy to miss.
So what’s a diet?
A diet is a plan or program of eating and/or exercise wherein one attempts to lose weight by reducing the amount of calories consumed. Basically, diets work by restricting the amount of energy available to one’s body with the hopes of creating a deficit so the body relies on its own cannibalization (i.e. burning muscle and/or fat cells) to survive. The result (sometimes) is weight loss, but it’s not usually long-lasting.
What’s an eating disorder?
An eating disorder is a clinically diagnosable psychological (and research also suggests physical) disorder characterized by severe disturbances in eating habits that affect folks physically. People with eating disorders experience distressing thoughts and emotions often centered on food and body. Find out more specifics via the National Eating Disorders Association.
What’s disordered eating?
Disordered eating is when abnormal eating and/or exercise behaviors exist but may not fit all the criteria for an eating disorder diagnosis. Just because they don’t meet the criteria, they’re still irregular behaviors that impact a person’s relationship with food and their body. This term is often a catch-all for diet-y and subclinical eating disorder behaviors.
Here’s where things get murky. Not all people who diet will develop an eating disorder. Many people who diet develop a disordered relationship with food. Nearly all people who have eating disorders began with a diet.
That said, many people who experience disordered eating, chronic dieting, over exercising, purging, bingeing, obsession/compulsion, and general self-loathing about food and/or their body may not completely meet DSM (the diagnostic manual for mental health issues) eating disorder criteria.
Just because there’s no diagnosis, doesn’t mean the distress isn’t an issue or impacting their daily functioning or relationships. Subclinical eating disorders and general disordered eating are still serious concerns that cause harm both to the person dealing with them and the activities and people they value.
The biggest ways of telling whether or not someone has a problem is looking at the level of distress, time, money, energy, thought, and feeling that food/body stuff takes up in one’s life. High preoccupation often means high probability of disordered eating or an eating disorder.
Here are some questions to ask/things to look for:
- Are they missing out socializing because of fear foods or activities not fitting into their diet?
- Do they always bring their own food to gatherings because what’s available isn’t compliant with their newest meal plan?
- Is dieting, food, exercise or their body something they can’t stop talking or thinking about?
- Does it cause worry or stress or guilt to think about missing workouts or not complying with a program/lifestyle?
- Are there food prep or exercise things that have to be done a certain way or else there’s worry, shame, or guilt?
- Do they get defensive when people don’t engage in talking about or disagree with the latest diet or exercise plan?
- Are they always on the hunt for the next “biohack,” supplement, exercise routine, superfood, or food to eliminate due to assumed intolerance?
- Do they worry about weight, fat or muscle composition and does that affect their mood?
- Is their day deemed “good” or “bad” based on what they’ve eaten or if they exercised?
- Are foods labeled “good,” “bad,” “clean,” “dirty,” “healthy,” “unhealthy,” “processed,” “cheat meals,” etc.—basically, do foods have moral value?
- Are they spending a lot of time exercising and how do they feel if they miss a workout or don’t work out “hard enough”?
- Is exercise primarily about weight/body change?
- Do they body check often in reflective surfaces or by pinching/squeezing/feeling their body?
- Do they weigh themselves often and does the number on the scale (or body measurement) affect their mood?
- Sometimes any of these things may be happening but the person looks like a functioning, happy person on the outside—there’s no “look” to disordered eating.
The more “yes” answers to these questions, the higher likelihood you or someone you know has disordered eating and possibly an eating disorder.
If you look at this list and think, “What’s wrong with that? I do some of those things.” you’re not alone. Diet culture has pervaded our vernacular so much that we don’t bat an eye when people do some of these behaviors.
But let’s get real. These thoughts, feelings, and high level of distress diets and eating disorders can create are NOT NORMAL. As a culture we have to find our way back to neutral. Just because there’s no diagnosis and diet behaviors become a social norm doesn’t mean it’s normal.
Diets, disordered eating, and full-blown eating disorders create body distrust, damage interpersonal relationships, and keep folks from living full lives. If you notice that you or someone you love fits the much of the criteria in this post, I encourage you to reach out for support.
Here are a few national eating disorder resources:
National Eating Disorders Association helpline and screening tools
Eating Recovery Center resources for families, patients, and treatment center info
Eating Disorder Hope list of treatment centers and resources
You’re also welcome to contact me if you’re ready to find more peace with your body and food.