Understanding Disordered Eating

April 30, 2019   •  Posted in: 

You understand anorexia and bulimia. But what about “disordered eating”? Yes, it’s an unhealthy relationship with food, but do you recognize the signs in a friend or loved one? Disordered eating may never be diagnosed as a full-fledged eating disorder.

But to the person who lives with it, they live with ongoing internal struggle and pain. When food ceases to be nutrition and fuel for the body, it warps into something else. Whether it is an eating disorder or disordered eating, the individual suffers.

Do you recognize these common characteristics of someone who lives with disordered eating?

Engaging in Battle

This person engages in an unceasing battle over what she eats. She struggles every day, at every meal, with every mouthful. There can be constant guilt about what has actually been eaten. Every meal is entered into reluctantly, with no real expectation of victory. Because she so rarely wins, she worries about food, weight, and mealtimes all the time. While she thinks the battle is with food, the real conflict lies within herself, and not on the plate.

The Defense of Dieting

If a diet has existed, this person has tried it. In fact, this person seems to always be on a diet. The only problem is that this person never really loses any weight. In fact, they likely have gained a few pounds each year. How is that possible? Their diet actually consists of following only the enjoyable parts of the diet.POH while also incorporating a consistent reward system.

Adhere to the diet all week? Enjoy a reward of a favorite cookie – okay cookies – on Friday after work. Cheated a couple of times during the week? Encourage yourself to do better next week with a motivational bowl of ice cream on Sunday night. For this person, it’s about what they think, not what they do. And this person thinks they are on a diet, with the expectation that someday he or she will actually lose weight.

Balancing The Scales

Eating isn’t about food or nutrition for this person. For them, it’s a numbers game. Most meals are about counting calories, a means to an end. It is a constant balancing act. One day she will starve herself, so the next day she can eat what she wants. On Monday, she gets an invitation to go to a chick flick with her girlfriends on Friday. And she loves buttered popcorn and chocolate-covered raisins.

Starting Monday night, it is lettuce with a squeeze of lime and a few carrot sticks. Same for Tuesday, and Wednesday. She doesn’t eat it because she believes it healthier. It is a means to save up the calories that she will need Friday night at the cinema. And this behavior goes on and on. Eating is a way of keeping score, of tallying up “good” and “bad” behavior. As long as she can tally up more points on the good side, she can continue with the bad behavior. And that’s really the whole point.

The Casual Restrictor

Twelve hours of no food is simply the price to pay for a frothy caramel double mocha. This person convinces themselves that in order to enjoy special foods or treats, an appropriate number of fasting is required. A chocolate sundae may require a full day of restriction. A handful of potato chips, maybe just lunch.

The Scale Balancer eats what they don’t want in order to eat what they do. The Casual Restrictor doesn’t even bother. She just goes without a pittance for what has been eaten or restricts in preparation for an anticipated treat.

Safety First

This person has no real awareness of how small their list of acceptable foods is. It’s because it is hidden amidst all the other food they get for their family. For this person, food isn’t about nutrition, calories, or weight. It is about fear.

Eating the unknown produces severe anxiety. Anything in the past that has proven unsafe–in actuality or perception–is unthinkable. She only eats what she believes is safe. This provides relief.

The Obsessive Organic

Not only does this person obsess about eating organic, but they also need to convert everyone around them. Only knowing something is organic can prevent unwanted pesticides. Grilling the waiter about the contents of each course is required to ensure the purity of food. Watching online videos to learn more about organic food is a required ritual.

Only by focusing so much on food does it begin to bring relief. Food is not enjoyed or thought of as nutrition. It is a potential source of evil that must be strictly evaluated and screened to ensure its safety…and to provide relief.  

The Ritual Eater

Food can be a battle for many. To cope, some people create very rigid rules regarding their meals. Where can she eat, when, and even how can food be consumed? A truce with food is never easy and must be tightly managed. This can manifest in taking an inordinate amount of time to prepare a simple meal. This person may require different foods to be served on different plates and not touch each other. Portions may need to be cut in a precise way, or prepared to exact requirements. If not, the meal may need to be started over, or perhaps halted if a process or procedure was done incorrectly.

By following the rules, this person feels safe about their food. In reality, they need to control this aspect of their life so they can feel safe in general.

Feast or Famine

During the two weeks of the in-law’s visit, this eater is the epitome of health. Leafy greens, lean meats, and no sugary drinks are the rules. When the in-laws leave, she reverts to eating her comfort food. She rallies for big occasions–family gatherings, opening day at the pool, the fundraising gala. But most other times, her eating is haphazard and undisciplined. Food is a battle that becomes harder and harder to win. If she is successful, her mood is bright. If she is not (as she more often is), she and those around her struggle. For her, it is feast or famine. And if she loses a battle, her relationship with food can become open warfare.

Sound Familiar?

Do any of these disordered eating scenarios sound familiar? These are not anorexics, bulimics, or binge eaters. But their struggle can last a lifetime, and eat away at their self-worth and honesty with food. Each of these scenarios is treatable with a professional eating disorder treatment program. If you or a loved one struggle with scenarios similar to these, speak with a licensed eating disorder specialist. They can help you return to balance, honesty with your food, and enjoyment with nutrition.


Dr. Gregory Jantz is the founder of The Center • A Place of HOPE. For over 30 years, The Center has treated thousands with eating disorders and other mental health issues. Recognized as a Top 10 Center for the Treatment of Depression, The Center utilizes the whole person approach to care. Dr. Jantz is a leading voice and innovator in mental health utilizing a variety of therapies including nutrition, sleep therapy, spiritual counseling, and advanced DBT techniques. Dr. Jantz is a best-selling author of 39 books and has appeared on CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox, and CNN.




Dr. Gregory Jantz

Pioneering Whole Person Care over thirty years ago, Dr. Gregory Jantz is an innovator in the treatment of mental health. He is a best-selling author of over 45 books, and a go-to media authority on behavioral health afflictions, appearing on CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox, and CNN. Dr. Jantz leads a team of world-class, licensed, and...

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