What Disordered Eating Really Looks Like

Is it even possible to have a healthy relationship with food?

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Disordered eating is so common that it’s hard to identify and define. It’s just accepted as "normal.” Kind of like fish not knowing they’re wet. It’s just how they live.

Everyone is born with all of the knowledge they need in order to eat well. But, over time, the knowledge goes offline, especially with the cultural obsession with thinness as the backdrop and the tendency to categorize food as "good" or "bad," as if food has a moral quality attached.


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In order to define disordered eating, you need to know what "ordered" or "normal" eating is, first.

What is normal eating?

Ellyn Satter, a registered dietitian and family therapist, has an often-cited definition: "Eating until you are satisfied... Normal eating is flexible. It varies in response to your hunger, your schedule, your proximity to food, and your feelings.”

Is it even possible to have a non-disordered relationship with food these days?

Yes, but "normal eating" remains quite the oxymoron. The two words just don’t belong together, side by side, and an understanding of how the phrase could possibly be a real thing is hard to wrap your head around.


A common response from someone with disordered eating patterns is something like, "Non-dieting and normal eating may work for other people, but not for me. I could never do that."

Indeed, non-dieting ("ordered" rather than disordered eating) may seem like a radical act. To actually tune back into your own body’s natural signals is not an easy thing to do for some, because the signals have been derailed.

Diet Culture’s rules of should’s and shouldn'ts have overridden your body’s inherent wisdom and warning signs. But, you can reclaim that wisdom. Actually, to do so is your birthright.


Defining disordered eating is also difficult because there are no specific criteria. In order to address a problem, defining it is helpful in order to know what it even is so you can understand why it's a problem in the first place.

The main reason disordered eating is hard to identify and define is that it's more the norm than not in this body image-obsessed, diet-oriented culture.

Consider the fact that disordered eating, Eating Disorders, and dieting are more common than normal eating. That’s disturbing.

So what are the signs of disordered eating, and how do you distinguish it from dieting or Eating Disorders like bulimia nervosa or anorexia nervosa?


Signs of disordered eating

Disordered eating takes a variety of forms.

For example, limiting intake to a certain number of calories or macros, eating only certain foods and avoiding others for weight gain or weight loss-related reasons, binging, purging, restricting, and/or fasting.

The mindset and behaviors that drive disordered eating can be hard to distinguish from cultural definitions of normal eating.

All of these behaviors are concerning. In time they can easily morph into a full-blown eating disorder.

RELATED: Counting Calories: My Messed Up Relationship With Food

Disordered eating often has additional features, including:

Self-worth based on body weight and size.
Body dissatisfaction.
Exercise to compensate for eating.
Preoccupation with food and weight.
Compulsive use of a scale to check body weight.
Fad dieting.
A rigid approach to eating, such as only eating certain foods, inflexible meal times, and refusal to eat in restaurants or outside of one’s own home.


There are also many side effects of disordered eating such as:

Decreased ability to focus because thoughts about food, body, and exercise get in the way.
Social activities are affected, especially if they involve eating in a restaurant. Or eating foods that aren’t part of the plan.
Using disordered eating rules to cope with stress.
Anxiety due to food, weight, exercise.

Treating disordered eating

Disordered eating impacts physical, psychological  and mental health and puts people at risk for a host of problems. And it takes away from the quality of life. Big time.

The relationship you have with your body is complex and so is how you nourish it.

Fortunately, it's never too late to improve your relationship with food or your body. And there's no better time than right now.


As a psychologist, I’m biased in favor of psychotherapy so that I can offer support to clients as they start on the path of improving their relationship with food and their bodies.

Finding like-minded people also helps. There are communities to join online, for example, that may empower you.

Psychotherapy is helpful because it provides an opportunity to understand complex relationships between food and your body. Also, therapy helps people move toward body acceptance.


In addition, a nutritionist who specializes in eating disorders and adopts a non-diet approach to food and exercise can also be a good resource, particularly with respect to increasing attention to the body’s natural hunger/fullness cues.

Reclaim your natural default of Intuitive Eating. Eat unconditionally. In whatever way pleases your body.

Food is meant to be a source of pleasure. Denying yourself of it does not make you virtuous. Fueling and nourishing yourself well provides a sense of freedom, energy, and limitlessness.

Consider being your own unique fish, and surround yourself with others who share your vision.

RELATED: What They Don't Tell You About Battling An Eating Disorder


Dr. Elayne Daniels is a non-diet, Certified Intuitive Eating specialist and clinical psychologist in MA. If you would like to learn more about the freedom to derive pleasure from food and to be comfortable in your own skin, visit her website or send her an email.