Disordered Eating, Eating Disorder…what's the diff?

Call it disordered eating. Call it a diet. Call it balanced lifestyle. It’s all whacked.

This was a topic of conversation over the weekend at a blogger meeting in Chicago. I had the pleasure to meet up with a group of women bloggers including my longtime friend Stephanie from BISJ, and new friends Melissa from Talesofadisorderedeater, PastaQueen the author of "Half-Assed", Linda from FatDontWrinkle (gotta love that name).

I realized I come from a unique perspective because I have never "dieted" (yeah, yeah, I know "skinny bitch," you can say it). I went from normal Midwestern girl, to psycho-workout-starvation-freak, right back to normal Midwestern woman. Trust me, I don’t take it for granted. 

I sat and listened what it takes to maintain a goal weight on a Weight Watchers program. The measuring, the calorie journals, food calculations before every bite. It’s your basic time-consuming, mind-numbing, obsessive behaviors necessary for lifetime diet success. Hmmm….sounds quite familiar doesn’t it?

Here’s the difference, at least from the "Weight Watcher" girl perspective-

1) They aren’t deadly thin.

2) They don’t purge.

Don’t worry, I piped in with my big mouth to say "being thin is not a prerequisite to an ED, nor is purging."

I can’t tell you how many times I have been emailed by frustrated EDNOS sufferers with this very same thought. How many girls have posted here saying they were sent home from the hospital, after finally confiding their eating disorder "mind", only to be sent home because they were not "anorexically thin?"

At the end of the day, the whole thing just made me sad. It’s sad that the most fun I had with a group of women in a long time was around a table relating on eating behaviors.

The worst part, I am afraid, is that all of this, every single, sick part of it – is simply part of being a girl.

-mamaV

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25 Responses to Disordered Eating, Eating Disorder…what's the diff?

  1. Liz says:

    I have been on Weight Watchers. Though I had disordered thinking and a sick preoccupation with food and my weight before then (I either binged or extremely restricted, never a middle ground), I found that Weight Watchers only fueled my need to be controlling of every single morsel that went into my mouth. I also found as I lapsed further into my disorder, that Weight Watchers could be used as a great excuse NOT to eat. No one questions it when you use a socially accepted method. And though Weight Watchers staff will tell you they don’t want you losing more than 1-2 lbs. a week, they never say anything when you lose more than that. If I remember correctly, I was only further congratulated. I’ve dropped below the ‘target/goal weight’ they gave me, but because I started with the program to get there, no one seems to worry.

  2. kyla says:

    Chris Kraatz makes an interesting distinction between eating disordered and disordered eating in his book “Radical Recovery: A Manifesto of Eating Disorder Pride.” Basically disordered eating is a bad thing, but it is not bad to be eating disordered as a person. does that make sense?

  3. kyla says:

    ps I couldn’t decide whether to link to my blog or my org. my blog is kcelaine.blogspot.com. my org is healthymodels.org. cheers!

  4. Michelle says:

    I wish I knew what it was like back in the old days where being bigger was actually a good thing.
    I am so afraid that we are so succumbed in this society that growing up with know that skinny=perfect=wonderful is what we are trying to attain.. and that is normal.
    It shouldn’t be.
    I hate the society I live in.
    I really do.
    I want my daughter (if God blesses me with children) to grow up in a world in which it doesn’t matter how big or small you are.. you are accepted as you are.
    =\

  5. Melissa says:

    You’re so right, MamaV — Weight Watchers and getting healthy actually triggered my ED/DE. I’m looking forward to reading your book club book — it’s on the way through my interlibrary loan!

  6. Gabi says:

    Gosh been a LONG time since i commented on here. I sed weight watchers to try and control my eating disorderbut i was onlyfueled further by the negative commens i recieved when i didnt lose weght. They also gave me all these tips on how to save my points during the week so i as under eating.
    i was convinced even when in treatment i had disorderd eating not an eating disorder… i think someone can have both.
    Like michelle i cannot remember when you were ok just as you were, iv been out of treatment 3 months and im in full blown relapse and ive lost over a stone . I wish life could be so different.

  7. mamaV says:

    Hi Liz: Great point about being on Weight Watchers is an excuse to not eat at social gatherings.
    I have experienced this, and I always respect the person who states this and therefore needs to make appropriate food choices for themselves….but I have to admit I have at times inquired “aren’t you at your goal weight?”
    I have a few friends who are Weight Watcher “life-ers” and joke about it. To me, they appear to be quite healthy and balanced physically….so I get concerned that they are the mindset they have to stay restrictive always in order to maintain.
    Maybe I am just oversensitive to this because this issue is so close to my heart?
    mamaV

  8. mamaV says:

    Hi Michelle: YOU will be the single most influence in your children’s life when it comes to self esteem and body image. This is a proven fact.
    WE then need to be a collective force of positive role models poised against the crazed media forces that bombard us daily.
    I too agree, this world is a scary place sometimes. But I believe that family and friend support is EVERYTHING!
    Thoughts?
    Love,
    mamaV

  9. mamaV says:

    Welcome Back Gabi! I remember you.
    Dont give up hope babe. Set backs go with this territory, so pick yourself back up, and get headed in the right direction.
    Life can be different, you need to believe this. Reach out for support to get back on track.
    Love,
    mamaV

  10. Shannon says:

    To me, the line b/t eating disorders and disordered eating falls where behaviors begin to cut into the rest of your life, i.e., jobs, relationships, etc. That said, there are behaviors and then there are behaviors. Functionally, though, I think that trying to separate the two is damaging, at least, and really dangerous, at worst. Anything that encourages thoughts like “I’m not sick enough to seek treatment” is a bad thing, in my book.
    In the case of Weight Watchers, I think the hypervigilance that they require of their members was designed for people who need to lose weight for health reasons and need help developing a sense of appropriate portion sizes, meal timing, and exercise. These days, it seems that everyone with 15 pounds they’d like to lose is signing up, and what ends up happening is that people use those skills to try to keep their bodies at weights below where their bodies want to be. The angst inherent in that either makes folks yo-yo or end up with chronic restrictive and obsessive behaviors. I know that I am oversimplifying and that it works for a lot of people, but like you, I wonder at what cost.
    At any rate, I just stumbled onto your blog recently and find it immensely helpful. Thanks.

  11. Leire says:

    Don’t worry MamaV; it isn’t just a girl problem any more! Now there’s plenty of fun for everyone! I guess that would qualify as “dark humor” . . . mehh. Sorry.
    I want to make a pithy statement to summarize it all, but I got nothin’. Perhaps the one thing I can say is that I hope, however my strange eating habits settle out in the end, that they settle out on the side of thin. I’d rather be anorexic then fat.

  12. FreeEternally says:

    I have thought a lot about the difference between disordered eating and an eating disorder. I have spent almost half of my life telling people that my eating is a little disordered at the moment and I tend to explain it away with I’m stressed or I am busy but never (even to myself) with the reason of I have an eating disorder. Even today I don’t see myself as having an eating disorder because my disordered eating is sorta within societies acceptable boundries…I mean…I only restrict a couple days a week and I eat veggies and rice.
    I guess I still have to figure out the relationship of disordered eating with an eating disorder…

  13. Lee (For the love of peanut butter) says:

    oh my gosh, I am so happy I found your site through Tales of A Disordered Eater. All I have to say is, thank you thank you thank you. This is what I want to do when I grow up. I want to spread the word. you are getting your message through. The media is a point in large to “blame” per say for this message. They tell us that we are what we put into our bodies. One piece of cake we should feel guilty. Have you seen the Kellogg ads? How it says CHEAT and then EAT?!! I TOTALLY agree with you when you say that Eating disordered “titles”, anorexics/bulimcs are on the same page as disordered eaters. There is a mindset, “I am only what I look like, I am only what I look like” It is negative, hard to escape, detrimental and can be (as posted above) life-taking. We focus on our outer appearance. It’s what society says…if we are not on a diet, then we are doing something wrong. I remember reading seventeen and cosmo girl when i was 12 and seeing diet tips for prom. What message is that sending out??
    IN CONCLUSION, We focus on what we eat. WHEN WILL IT STOP MAMA V?

  14. mamaV says:

    Hi Lee: Great to have you here! So when will it stop?
    Never.
    The goal is to stop yourself from paying attention to it.
    Then be a positive role model to young women who are so heavily influenced by the media…age 8 is when dieting is starting now.
    The whole thing just ticks me off….but it keeps me blogging like a maniac!
    Great to meet you!
    mamaV

  15. kasey_anne says:

    I don’t understand why you would make a video aimed at people who are trying to recover from eating disorders and tell them that it is a beautiful thing to forget to eat.

  16. sannanina says:

    Kasey_anne: I am not anorexic and never have been, in fact I am a binge-eater (and chronic dieter) and I guess it seems more intuitive for people why it can be a good thing if a binge-eater “forgets to eat”. But from what I know from myself as well as from the (admittedly limited) number of people who had anorexia and/or bulimia a lot (all?) of people with eating disorders obsess about food. You don’t “forget to eat” when you are obsessing about food, you might not eat, but you don’t just forget it.
    Also, non-eating disordered people who forgot to eat will at some point start to feel the hunger. At this point they will most likely have a somewhat bigger meal than usual because there hunger is stronger than usual – after that they will just continue to eat normally. Their hunger is just a signal to eat – nothing more. It’s a little like “forgetting to sleep” when you are very engaged in something – you only realize that you are very tired once you stop with the activity you are engaged in, but then your body wants to catch up with the lost sleep (not more and not less).
    All truly non-disordered eaters that I know (and they are unfortunately few) eating is something that occurs completely intuitively. They don’t have to practice portion control to eat not too much or not too little, their body simply tells them to stop. If they overeat at one meal they eat less during the next. If they forget to eat they will eat more than usual later on. This is not working for people with disordered eating or full-blown eating disorders. There can be a variety of reasons why this is not working, but the common theme is it does not work. And it might not work for a good while even once you have started to recover (in fact, for some people it might never work again). I think this is one the things that exhaust me the most: This constant conscious thinking about what I should eat or shouldn’t eat and how much of it I should eat and when I should eat it.

  17. mamaV says:

    Hi Kasey-Anne: I see your point.
    My point was to stop for a moment and envision a day in which you are so totally engaged in LIFE, real life, one with passion and wonder, that you forget to eat.
    Those with eating disorders do not FORGET to eat and when you are in this state of mind you think this would be virtually impossible to achieve.
    I have achieved it and it is bliss. Women here need to know this is a realistic goal to have. You can recover to the point that food does not control your every moment.
    Love,
    mamaV

  18. sim'One says:

    i know this blog is mainly about the disorder that’s going on in the hearts and minds of people, but have you ever considered what is going on physically with our food? with all the hormones and the toxins and chemicals that are in our everyday food products. the normalcy of consuming goods that are contaminated with chemicals and refined until there’s no trace of nutrition left? read the book entited “food incorporated”…read just a few pages and tell me if you don’t feel a little paranoid.
    these things might be an important factor of eating disorders. it makes sense to me: if you consume food that lacks nutrition, you;re going to try & compensate by eating more and thus piling on the calories and the pounds. if you observe this pattern in others, you might develop a paranoia of it happening to you. the marketing and the paranoia is certainly going to target young girls because women being obsessed about their weight is not a new concept..it’s as old as the hills!
    so, our food itself or our concept of what food is and should be is dysfunctional; our orientation to what our physiology is also dysfunctional for various reasons..
    the best solution i can come up with is to educate people about what is really physically there and to keep communicating and reaching out.
    i hope that made some sense..

  19. kasey_anne says:

    I wasn’t trying to be insulting in my last post, I’m sorry if it came across that was. I totally understand what you were saying. As an anorexic every single thought that passes through my head is about food or calories. I agree that it would be amazing to just get so carried away with actually living life that for a little while I could forget about food.

  20. sannanina says:

    Sim’One – I am not quite sure I understood you correctly, so feel free to correct me but it sounds to me like you are saying that binge-eaters/ compulsive overeaters consume too much food calorie-wise because their food lacks nutrional value and their body tries to make up for it by consuming greater amounts of food while people with anorexia (and possibly bulimia) watch this behvior and supposedly the weight gain that accompanies it for many people and become hypervigilant about food because they don’t want to get fat themselves.
    I think that this idea is based on a lot of assumptions, assumptions that I question based on my experience… For one, while I personally am fat and a binge-eater a lot of fat people are neither binge- nor overeaters, so I think your theory (as I understood it) explains part of what is going on at best. Secondly, I did not become fat solely because of binge-eating – in fact I was fat as a child and from what I can tell I started binge-eating partially as response to the pressure to lose weight and food restriction. Of course I am just one person, and I also could simply not have the necessary insight in my behavior to explain it correctly, but there is at least some research supporting this idea. Thirdly, as far as I can tell I do eat a lot of food with good nutrional value – lots of fruits and in-season veggies, lots of home cooked stuff, lots of whole-grain products, etc. And while I admittely eat a lot of sweets, I hardly ever eat food with a lot of additives, or things like typical fastfood, soda etc. – the kind of foods that many people think of when thinking about food with high calorie content but otherwise low nutrional value.
    Concerning your possible explanation for anorexia there might be some people who at least partially restrict due to fear of becoming as fat as people like me. In fact, I believe that many people like that exist, except that most of them are not anorectics but rather chronic dieters. However, this is not inherently part of being a women. While appearance might have been important for women at pretty much all times, there are still cultures where being fat is considered beautiful, and where girls are actually overfed on purpose to make them gain weight (a practice that is obviously just as bad as putting even young kids on diets). So if girls and women (and increasingly boys and men) are afraid of getting fat than it has more to do with how fat is portrayed in contemporary western culture. And in line with what I said earlier, namely that overeating/ binge-eating is often a response to food restriction, I think that one could just as easily make the point that fear of becoming fat drives weight gain among some people as the point that seeing fat people might make you paranoid about your food because you don’t want to end up looking like them.

  21. Anonymous says:

    Certainly sannanina, as you say, some people react to the societal pressures to be a certain way by conforming (you call them “chronic dieters”); others by conforming to the extreme (anorexic/bulimic), and still others rebel and go the oppossite direction (binge eaters). That idea definitely holds water, I think; you’re saying that different people react in different ways to the same environment. Makes sense to me.
    I do want to ask; what’s wrong with “chronic dieting,” as you put it? I think MamaV might call “chronic dieting” “disordered eating,” but under any title it isn’t actually hurting you, so what’s the big deal with it?

  22. sannanina says:

    Dieting does have negative consequences. For example, people on a diet have been found to do worse on a number of cognitive tasks. Also, dieters/ restrictive eaters actually have a stronger tendency to overeat in stress situations than non-restricted eaters.
    For me personally dieting plays a huge role in my rather messed up relationship with food, and I do think this is true for other people also. Dieting in the sense of consciously restricting calorie intake for me has always ended in a) becoming obsessed about everything that concerns food and exercise which results in more and more food restriction and exercise behavior that borders on overexercising and b) eventually (sometimes after months of “successful” dieting) tends to end in a phase of regular binge-eating. Also, dieting and/ or weight cycling has resulted in some health problems that I did not have at a stable high weight.
    Frankly, I don’t believe in the idea of conscious “portion control”. A lot of our behavior is under subconsious control, and from my personal experience and from what I have read about it I believe that food intake is one of those things that are not “meant” to be consciously controlled. The few truly non-restricitve eaters among my friends have the most stable weight and the most positive body image of the people I know. That does not mean people should absolutely not pay attention to what they eat – I myself avoid certain foods such as highly processed things which often contain ingredients that you cannot find in any food we could have possibly evolved to digest. For ethical reasons I am also a vegetarian, and in contrast to trying to reduce calorie intake becoming a vegetarian has not made me more obsessed with food or has triggered me to binge-eat.
    In my experience, dieting and a dieting mind-set can also take part of the joy of eating away. Maybe there are people who go on a diet and still can enjoy food without feeling guilty, for me dieting (even rather moderate forms of it) literally causes fear of food. I remember for example that during one (in the short term successful) weight loss attempt I had nightmares about eating “bad” foods such as ice cream, etc. I truly had a few times when I woke up all panicky and needed a few moments to realize that it was just a dream and that I had not “failed” (yet). You could argue that I should have just eaten “a little” of those “forbidden” foods, however, this seemed absolutely unthinkable for me in that situation.

  23. sannanina says:

    And just to clarify: At least for me binge-eating has never been a form of rebellion against anything. From a very early age on I wanted to be thin and I believed that my body was basically “broken” and that I was a failure because I “broke” it and did not manage to “fix” it. I am 29 now, and I still feel that way, although I try to overcome it because it is a harmful mindset for both my physical and psychological health. In fact, my somewhat disordered eating patterns developed into fullblown binge-eating disorder at a time when I felt particularly bad about myself (mostly because I was bullied at school). It could have been “comfort eating”, although this is not how I see it. I see it as a backlash of carefully controlling food intake around others, including my family, something which was particularly hard to keep up in a time of high psychological stress. In line with this explanation my binge-eating is a lot worse after any kind of restriction. In fact, I had a 3-year period when I made a choice to not restrict and not pay much attention to my weight. During that time I binged maybe once a month – which is significantly less than what I do today. Unfortunately I have not managed to get back into the mindset I had at that time.

  24. RM says:

    MamaV, I discovered your site after discovering Thin’s Polly had died on IMDB.com. I have been a binge-eater/dieter/restrictive(non-purge) since I was 5. I’ve given up laxatives and diuretics when I was almost hospitalized several years ago. My mother has a Jekyll-Hyde stance when it comes to body image and dieting, and my father was mentally ill, abusive and fat but kept bullying me about my weight. I’ve been sick, didn’t have my period for almost 3 years, destroyed my once pretty hair (the only thing pretty about me) and am pretty much still restricting (I stay under 1500 calories a day). I understand what you mean and hope you keep this site going. But I still have my hopes of leaving size 18 for 12 and for good. I hate the negative attention I get because of my body no matter how long my clothes are, or if I’m dressed in a parka during summer. I think it would be nice to attract someone nice instead of the street trash that approach me. But I still have to try and trudge on. Please understand there is no other way for women like me.

  25. chris kraatz says:

    to reply to the original question –
    “disordered eating” is defined by a specific set of behaviors (detailed in the DSM-IV). “eating disordered” refers to mental states, ways of thinking about a wide variety of topics. it’s obvious that one can think in an eating disordered way, but not exhibit the behaviors of disordered eating – people in recovery are good examples of this. so, it’s the disordered eating behaviors themselves that are unhealthy, merely thinking in a way that is eating disordered is not unhealthy.
    perhaps it is true that people who think in an eating disordered way are more likely to end up with disordered eating behaviors, but this doesn’t mean that there’s anything bad or unhealthy about thinking in an eating disordered way (just because one group tends to get an illness more than another doesn’t mean that membership in that group is by itself unhealthy – only non-white people get cicle cell, but we don’t consider “non-white” to be unhealthy…).
    Naomi Wolf puts it best in The Beauty Myth (one of the most kick ass books available) – we eating disordered people are responding sanely to an insane set of social norms and customs…
    Chris Kraatz
    Indianapolis

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