Eating disorders vs. disordered eating: what’s the difference?


By Jemima Skelley –

Earlier this year, pop star Taylor Swift released Miss Americana, a Netflix documentary giving a behind-the-scenes look at her life over the past two years. It covered everything from her songwriting process and her political views, to the fact that she puts ice in her wine.

But among the most talked about scenes from the film was one where Swift revealed her problematic relationship with eating.

Swift spoke of how she would punish herself by restricting her eating after seeing photos where she thought she looked fat: “That’ll just trigger me to just starve a little bit — just stop eating.”

Swift’s comments set off a wide discussion about disordered eating and led some people to the realisation that theirs isn’t a healthy way of living. It isn’t often talked about openly and even Swift later admitted in a Variety interview, “I think I’ve never really wanted to talk about that before, and I’m pretty uncomfortable talking about it now.”

But just because it’s not a clinically diagnosed eating disorder, or visible enough that people comment on it, does not mean that disordered eating isn’t harmful.

First of all, what is disordered eating?

According to Deborah Michison, an executive member of Australia and New Zealand Academy for Eating Disorders (ANZAED), disordered eating is a catch-all umbrella term for any type of eating pattern that negatively impacts a person’s life. It can encompass everything on the spectrum from clinically diagnosed eating disorders, to less severe – but still harmful – abnormal eating patterns.

Disordered eating is a catch-all umbrella term for any type of eating pattern that negatively impacts a person’s life.Credit:iStock

Some people might not realise that their eating is, in fact, disordered, because it doesn’t present as extreme as a diagnosed eating disorder.

Michison says that the blurry line between what constitutes a clinical eating disorder and less severe disordered eating can prevent some people from getting help when they need it.

The key word that professionals use when talking about disordered eating is “impairment”. “[When] a person’s behaviour with and relationship to food becomes associated with distress or impairment in some way,” it can be considered disordered, says Michison. In other words, is this person’s relationship to food getting in the way of living and enjoying a normal life?

What does disordered eating look like?

Some of the behaviours that Michison classifies as disordered eating include, but are not limited to: fasting, restrictive dieting, eating excessively “clean”, compulsive binge eating attached to feelings of shame, occasionally vomiting after meals or self-imposing rigid rules around certain food types.

These disordered eating habits can be just as harmful to physical and mental health as a clinically diagnosed eating disorder. “It is often the first indicator of a serious illness like an eating disorder developing,” says Amelia Trinick, a clinician at the Butterfly Foundation.

Disordered eating and body image

It should come as no surprise that disordered eating is often tied to body image and self-esteem. A 2017 study from The Butterfly Foundation revealed that a staggering 73 per cent of people were unhappy with the way they look.

Swift spoke more in-depth about her eating patterns with Variety. “I remember how, when I was 18, that was the first time I was on the cover of a magazine,” she said. “And the headline was like ‘Pregnant at 18?’ And it was because I had worn something that made my lower stomach look not flat. So I just registered that as a punishment.”

She explained that when she fit into sample sized dresses, which usually need alteration, she’d then register that as a pat on the head, a sign that her restrictive eating was working.

“Body dissatisfaction comes from the constant enforcement of that thin or muscular ideal,” Michison says. Just like Swift’s metaphorical pat on the head when she felt thin, Michison says we’re almost constantly surrounded by messaging that celebrates thinness.

“With diet culture and the idea that we need to be changing and thinking about what we’re eating, disordered eating definitely is ubiquitous,” she says. “A lot of people are engaging in some form of diet to change their weight or shape, and a significant number of them are distressed or impaired.”

When does healthy eating become disordered?

Balanced meals and exercise are a normal, healthy part of life. According to all the experts we spoke with, it becomes problematic when the need to eat a certain way starts to interfere with a person’s life.

One example Trinick gives is “someone who might need to change their schedule or eating patterns to accommodate for a social situation, i.e. if someone begins to avoid social outings if the menu isn’t available beforehand”.

Michison gives an example of how clean eating can become extreme.

“They might have a set of really rigid rules that they follow to adhere to their clean eating diet,” she says. “If they break one of those rules, how do they feel about that? Does it cause a lot of guilt, shame, or distress? Does it cause them to enforce even stricter rules upon themselves? Are they saying no to socialising because they’re worried about the types of food that’s going to be at these places?”

What can you do?

It’s important to be able to recognise signs of disordered eating, both in yourself and in your friends and family.

“Some signs to look out for are a change in eating behaviours, withdrawal from social interactions, or mood and behavioural change associated with eating or meal times,” Trinick says.

Patients must register a high critical level of disordered eating in order to receive the Medicare rebate for free psychology sessions through a GP. But the Butterfly National Helpline is a free resource for any questions or concerns and can provide referrals to disordered eating professionals. ANZAED also has a huge database of professionals across Australia for anyone looking to set up an appointment.

If you or anyone you know is experiencing an eating disorder we encourage you to reach out for support. You can call the Butterfly Foundation National Helpline on 1800 33 4673. For 24/7 crisis support, please call 13 11 14.



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