Examples of disordered eating habits include binge eating, fasting, and avoiding a whole food group. Doctors do not clinically define disordered eating as an eating disorder, but it does increase the risk of developing one.

This article looks at what disordered eating is, examples of it, and the signs and symptoms. It also compares disordered eating with an eating disorder and provides an overview of causes, risk factors, treatment, and recovery, as well as support for people with disordered eating.

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Doctors describe disordered eating as the presence of one or more irregular eating patterns. However, these patterns may not constitute a diagnosis of an eating disorder, as they may be infrequent and less severe.

When atypical eating behaviors do not fulfill the criteria for an eating disorder, healthcare professionals use the term “disordered eating behavior.”

This condition may involve eating that is:

  • restrictive
  • compulsive
  • irregular
  • inflexible

A person with disordered eating may engage in behaviors such as:

  • fasting
  • binge eating
  • skipping meals
  • avoiding a type of food or food group
  • inducing vomiting
  • using laxatives, diuretics, or enemas to digest and deposit food more quickly
  • frequently using steroids and creatine as a supplement
  • using diet pills

Disordered eating may also involve:

  • following a strict food and exercise regimen
  • engaging in behaviors to “make up” for food one has eaten, such as:
    • excessive exercise
    • food restriction
    • fasting
    • purging
    • supplement misuse

Learn more about eating disorders.

Signs and symptoms of disordered eating may include:

  • frequent and obsessive dieting
  • anxiety about specific foods or meals
  • weight fluctuations
  • feelings of guilt or shame when unable to maintain a strict regimen
  • feelings of preoccupation about food, body, and exercise that affect quality of life
  • a feeling of loss of control around food, including compulsive eating habits

Additional signs that may indicate disordered eating include:

  • picky eating that progressively worsens
  • removal of various food groups from one’s diet
  • concern and obsession over ingredients and calories
  • preoccupation with body image, size, and shape
  • a desire to burn off calories
  • maintenance of rigid exercise or dieting despite illness or fatigue
  • depression when unable to exercise or eat certain food
  • dry skin
  • brittle nails
  • muscle weakness
  • slow wound healing
  • difficulty concentrating
  • lower body temperature
  • cuts across the tops of the finger joints
  • dental issues such as enamel erosion due to vomiting
  • swelling around the salivary glands
  • social and emotional withdrawal

Doctors may diagnose “eating disorder not otherwise specified” (EDNOS) in people with disordered eating symptoms. While a person’s symptoms may fit the criteria for EDNOS, it is also possible to have disordered eating patterns that do not fit the current criteria for an eating disorder diagnosis.

Eating disorders are a range of behavioral conditions characterized by severe and persistent disruption to eating patterns that causes significant distress.

While disordered eating also affects a person’s behavior and thoughts around food, eating disorders can be psychiatric conditions with genetic predispositions.

Eating disorders may occur alongside other mental health conditions, such as:

Types of eating disorders include:

If a person does not receive treatment or support for their disordered eating, it may become an eating disorder over time.

Learn more about the signs of an eating disorder.

Anecdotal evidence suggests disordered eating may develop as a result of many factors, including:

  • Social and cultural factors: A person may undertake unhealthy eating habits and patterns based on social media trends and fads. The food, beauty, and fitness industries may also play a part in shaping how people see themselves physically.
  • Emotional factors: Emotional experiences such as stress, life changes, and relationship difficulties may lead to issues with eating because a person may find comfort in eating more or restricting their diet.
  • Psychological factors: People who have experienced psychological trauma or other traumatic events may find that disordered eating patterns change the way they think and feel.
  • Physical factors: Natural physical changes to a person’s body, such as those that can result from hormones or medications, may affect a person’s eating.

A 2021 study also found that young adults who had a history of disordered eating, self-harm, or both had an increase in risk for negative mental health and well-being during the COVID-19 pandemic. This suggests that disordered eating may have both mental and situational causes.

A note about sex and gender

Sex and gender exist on spectrums. This article will use the terms “male,” “female,” or both to refer to sex assigned at birth. Click here to learn more.

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Disordered eating behaviors are common among both young people and adults. In various studies, disordered eating appears to be more prevalent in females than males. However, this does not necessarily mean it does not occur as often in males.

Risk factors for disordered eating may include:

  • Social factors: Research strongly associates disordered eating with peer groups, especially among adolescent females. Frequent use of social media may also increase the risk.
  • Gender: Girls are more likely than boys to engage in disordered eating behaviors.
  • Biological factors: Higher body mass index may lead to an increase in drive for thinness, which can lead to changes in eating patterns.
  • Familial factors: Another risk factor for the development of disordered eating relates to family meal structure, such as infrequent family meals and family attention and commentary on weight.
  • Psychological factors: Low self-esteem, dissatisfaction with one’s body, and drive for weight loss are known risk factors for disordered eating.
  • Genetic factors: People with type 1 diabetes may be more susceptible to the development of disordered eating behaviors than people without diabetes.

Treatment options for eating disorders and disordered eating are generally the same, depending on the severity of a person’s condition. Because disordered eating may be a precursor for an eating disorder, it is important that people receive prompt treatment.

Treatment may involve:


Disordered eating behaviors are a common risk factor for the development of an eating disorder. These diet restrictions may result in serious mental and physical changes, but with the right treatment and support, a person can overcome the effects of disordered eating.

Recovery from disordered eating may be different for each individual, as people have varying needs. The process may take longer for some than for others.

Recovery may mean that a person overcomes their difficult thoughts about eating, finds ways to address those thoughts, or develops various methods to deal with the challenges.

Psychologists have identified three broad areas of recovery for people with eating disorders:

  • Physical: This part of the process involves addressing physical effects, including:
    • restoring weight to a specified level, if necessary
    • normalizing electrolyte and hormone levels
    • resuming menstruation, if applicable
    • treating related health conditions
  • Behavioral: This aspect of recovery involves reducing or stopping behaviors such as:
    • restricting food intake
    • overexercising
    • purging
    • binge eating
  • Psychological: This part of recovery involves addressing psychological aspects such as:
    • body image distress
    • fixation on perfectionism
    • rigid rules around food, eating, and weight
    • management of mood and anxiety disorders to avoid relapse

Recovery challenges

Although it is possible for people to make a full recovery, that may not be the case for all people for reasons such as:

  • lack of access to treatment
  • unsuitable duration of treatment
  • possible sociocultural barriers

If someone is experiencing disordered eating, they should seek help from a medical professional or specialist. People may also speak with family or friends for support as a first step. Psychotherapy will play a big part in a person’s recovery, so ensuring that people have the right support in place is vital.

A support system can play a key role in recovery. Parents and caregivers may help encourage children and adolescents to continue with therapy, support their consumption of regular meals, and help them adopt new coping strategies. Partners and friends may provide support during eating challenges and help a person rebuild a life outside of disordered eating.

The National Alliance for Eating Disorders also has resources available for people who are experiencing disordered eating behaviors to aid their recovery.

Doctors define disordered eating as irregular or restrictive patterns of eating such as dieting, binge eating, or purging. The signs and symptoms may involve physical and mental effects such as changes to body weight, skin, and hair, as well as mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression.

Disordered eating behaviors do not always fit the current criteria for an eating disorder diagnosis. While eating disorders and disordered eating affect a person’s behavior and thoughts around food, eating disorders can be psychiatric conditions, and people may have a genetic predisposition to them.

Disordered eating may develop as a result of many factors, including social, psychological, genetic, and familial factors.

With the right treatment and support in place, a person may be able to make a full recovery. Treatment may include psychotherapy, medications, and nutritional and emotional support from professionals or family and friends.