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Eating is one of life’s basic functions. What we eat and drink helps our body to grow and thrive. Some people, however, develop an unhealthy relationship and preoccupation with food, eating, calories, weight, or body shape.

Not all people with disordered eating recognize that their habits and behavior around food can cause problems. They can think that what they’re doing is perfectly normal and even healthy. Here’s what you need to know to recognize disordered eating, and its consequences, in you or someone you love.

What Is Disordered Eating?

Disordered eating is the umbrella term for a range of unhealthy behaviors around eating and food, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Disordered eating falls under the APA diagnostic criteria for Other Specified Feeding and Eating Disorder and is defined as “eating disorders or disturbances of eating behavior that cause distress and impair family, social, or work function but do not fit the other categories.”

Disordered eating warning signs and symptoms

Common signs of disordered eating include:

  • Going on extreme diets.
  • Yo-yo dieting.
  • Experiencing anxiety associated with specific foods.
  • Skipping meals.
  • Experiencing chronic weight fluctuations.
  • Engaging in strict routines and rituals regarding food and exercise.
  • Feeling shame and guilt after eating.
  • Having a preoccupation with food, weight, calorie intake, or body image that negatively impacts quality of life — and potentially even your health.
  • Feeling a loss of control when eating food, including having compulsive eating habits or binge eating.
  • Using exercise, food restriction, fasting, or purging to make up for eating large amounts of foods or
    less nutritious foods.
  • Using weight loss pills, laxatives, or diuretics (water pills).

Dangers of disordered eating

Left untreated, disordered eating can put you at an increased risk for physical and mental health issues, including:

  • Eating disorders.
  • Significant weight loss or gain.
  • Bone loss.
  • Gastrointestinal problems.
  • Electrolyte and fluid imbalances.
  • Low blood pressure and heart rate.
  • Anxiety.
  • Depression.
  • Social isolation.

Differences between disordered eating and eating disorders

Unlike eating disorders, which must meet criteria set by the American Psychiatric Association (APA), disordered eating itself is not a diagnosis.

For some, disordered eating may lead to a diagnosis of a specific eating disorder. Common eating disorders include:

Anorexia nervosa (AN)

The diagnostic criterion for AN is the refusal or inability to maintain a normal body weight. Extreme weight loss or staying below normal body weight is often done through one or more of these:

  • Restricted eating.
  • Excessive exercise.
  • Use of diet pills and/or laxatives.
  • Bingeing and purging.

Bulimia nervosa (BN)

The diagnostic criteria for BN include frequent binge eating with a sense of loss of control over eating during the episode. In addition, people with BN will engage in behaviors to prevent or reverse weight gain. These include:

  • Self-induced vomiting or purging.
  • Using laxatives, diet pills, or diuretics.
  • Fasting.
  • Excessive exercise.

Other criteria for a diagnosis of BN include:

  • Engaging in both binge eating and unhealthy weight loss behaviors at least two times per week for at least three months.
  • Tying self-esteem to weight or shape.
  • Not meeting the criteria for anorexia nervosa.

Binge Eating Disorder (BED)

The diagnostic criteria for BED include repeated episodes of binge eating, with a sense of loss of control over eating. This includes:

  • Eating much faster than normal.
  • Eating until uncomfortably full.
  • Eating large amounts of food when not feeling physically hungry.
  • Eating alone because of embarrassment about overeating.
  • Feeling disgusted, depressed, or very guilty after overeating.
  • Episodes at least 2 days per week for at least 6 months.

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What Causes Disordered Eating?

There’s no one specific cause of disordered eating. But some people are more at risk for engaging in disordered eating and eating disorders.

Eating disorders affect up to 5% of the population, according to the APA. Risk factors for the onset and maintenance of disordered eating and eating disorders include biological, psychological, and sociocultural factors, such as:

  • Age. Though they can happen at any age, eating disorders most often develop in adolescence and young adulthood.
  • Sex and Gender. Eating disorders are most common for females between the ages of 12 and 35. However, eating disorders also occur among males and gender expansive individuals. Research is ongoing on the rates and presentations of eating disorders across sexes and genders.
  • Mental health disorders. Mental health disorders often co-occur with eating disorders, especially mood and anxiety disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder, and alcohol and drug use disorders.
  • Genes and family history. Genes and family history may put you at a higher risk for disordered eating or eating disorders, according to the APA.
  • Social pressure. Teasing, bullying, and negative comments by others such as coaches, peers, and family members can all contribute to eating disorder risks. Sports and activities that involve weight-, shape-, or eating-related criteria can also cause an increased risk.
  • Weight and body shape stigma. Being treated differently by family members, peers, or health care providers because of your size or body shape can contribute to poor self-esteem, body dissatisfaction, and depression, leading to an increased risk for eating disorders.

When Should You Get Help?

If you or someone in your life is experiencing an eating disorder or disordered eating patterns, it is important to seek professional help. Evidence-based interventions for unhealthy eating behaviors can help improve health, relationships with food and weight, and quality of life.

Eating disorders can resemble an addiction, according to the APA. They can have negative impacts on your physical and psychological health. They can also impair your relationships and social life.

It also is important to seek help for disordered eating patterns. Even without an official mental health diagnosis, disordered eating can be a warning sign that a person is struggling. Disordered eating can be a precursor to an eventual eating disorder diagnosis.

If you’re concerned that your eating- or weight-related behaviors have become unhealthy, see a health care provider. Because of the nature of disordered eating, you may not recognize or want to admit you need professional guidance. Use the warning signs and symptoms above as a guideline to get help.

UPMC Center for Eating Disorders

The UPMC Center for Eating Disorders helps people overcome disordered eating and a range of eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder. It’s one of the nation’s few eating disorders treatment programs affiliated with an academic medical center and provides several levels of care for eating disorders.

After you or someone on your behalf contacts the UPMC Center for Eating Disorders, our team will reach out to set up an evaluation. Referral forms from health care providers and family members are also available. You will undergo a comprehensive eating disorders screening process to evaluate your disordered eating. Working collaboratively with psychiatric and behavioral specialists, UPMC provides treatment for children and adolescents (ages 14 and above) and adults.

For more information or to make a referral, visit the UPMC Center for Eating Disorders website or call:

  • Intake referrals: 412-624-1000
  • General questions and outpatient services: 412-246-6390

About UPMC Western Behavioral Health

UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital is a nationally recognized leader in mental health clinical care, research, and education. It is one of the nation’s foremost university-based psychiatric care facilities through its integration with the Department of Psychiatry of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. UPMC Western Psychiatric is the hub of UPMC Western Behavioral Health, a network of nearly 60 community-based programs providing specialized mental health and addiction care for children, adolescents, adults, and seniors throughout western Pennsylvania.