What is Disordered Eating?
Disordered eating includes a wide range of unhealthy or abnormal eating patterns that are most typically viewed on a spectrum as shown below. Disordered eating patterns are important to pay close attention to. Many struggling with disordered eating will not fit the strict criteria for an eating disorder yet it can be helpful to discuss all that is happening in relation to a person’s eating patterns with a wellness professional.
When Healthy Eating Becomes Unhealthy
The most common eating disorders include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, and orthorexia.
- Anorexia Nervosa: Characterized by weight loss; difficulties maintaining an appropriate body weight for height, age, and stature; and, in many individuals, distorted body image. People with anorexia generally restrict the number of calories and the types of food they eat. Some people with the disorder also exercise compulsively, purge via vomiting and laxatives, and/or binge eat.1
- Bulimia Nervosa: Characterized by a cycle of bingeing and compensatory behaviors such as self-induced vomiting designed to undo or compensate for the effects of binge eating. 1
- Binge Eating Disorder: Characterized by recurrent episodes of eating large quantities of food (often very quickly and to the point of discomfort); a feeling of a loss of control during the binge; experiencing shame, distress or guilt afterwards; and not regularly using unhealthy compensatory measures (e.g., purging) to counter the binge eating. It is the most common eating disorder in the United States. 1
- Orthorexia: Orthorexia is not a formally diagnosed eating disorder on its own, but it is a common feature of eating disorders. Orthorexia occurs when there is an obsession with perfect or healthy eating and it is taken to an extreme. For many who struggle with this, it is hard to see this as problematic or limiting. Orthorexia is characterized by adherence to numerous food rules, as those suffering may feel very ‘safe’ and reassured by these rules. This lends itself to an unhealthy relationship with food and our bodies, and can be very isolating. Eating feels mechanical and is no longer an enjoyable experience.
Disordered Eating in the University Environment
College can be a difficult period of transition and adjustment, often urging comparison to others that can spark feelings of body dissatisfaction or inadequacy. Disordered eating patterns often express as a means of dealing with stress, anxiety, low mood and/or body image issues.
It is important to note that you cannot see eating disorders. That is, you cannot evaluate whether or not a person is struggling with an eating disorder based upon their physical appearance or weight. Eating disorders impact people of all genders and identities.
According to the 2018 USD Health Survey, 2% of USD students reported being diagnosed or treated by a professional for Anorexia and 1% for Bulimia within the last 12 months. Additionally, 20% of male-identifying students and 32% of female-identifying students reported that their personal appearance was something that they found to be traumatic or very difficult to handle within the last 12 months.
Signs that you or a friend or loved one may be suffering with disordered eating:
- Preoccupation with weight, appearance, shape, or excessive ‘body checks’ or time spent looking in the mirror
- Skipping meals
- Eating secretly
- Losing a significant amount of weight
- Adherence to a rigid diet, possibly excluding one or more food groups without medical necessity (in the absence of a true food allergy or intolerance)
- Making a sudden or unprompted shift to veganism or vegetarianism
- Using laxatives, diuretics, stimulants, diet pills or supplements for weight loss
- Excessive exercise
- Eating large amounts of junk food
- Excessive use of caffeine and/or artificial sweeteners
- Expressing shame about eating
- Withdrawal from loved ones and social situations with changes in mood (irritability, depression, loss of interest in activities once enjoyed or lack of energy)
- Feeling overwhelmed by the information on the internet around pesticides, fad diets, organic foods, antioxidants, inflammatory processes, etc.
- Avoiding engagement in social activities that involve food or feeling irritated that friends or loved ones all seem to want to do food-related activities
- Immediately disregarding foods or recipes that include ingredients that are ‘imperfect’ or ‘unnatural,’ or don’t fit within food rules
- Spending excessive time navigating through the grocery store, adhering to a rigid grocery list, constantly negotiating better choices, or feeling regret later with what was chosen.
If you notice any of these signs in yourself or your friends, you are encouraged to connect with Student Wellness. Eating disorders are treatable and the sooner one seeks out treatment the better. You can speak with a mental health provider at the Counseling Center or visit the Student Health Center to meet with a medical provider. The easiest way to secure an appointment at the Counseling Center or Student Health Center is by making a same- or next-day appointment via the Wellness Portal.
Concerned about a friend? This resource can help you help a friend who may be struggling with disordered eating.
Find Treatment providers near you.
Page content provided in partnership with Dr. Megan Holt-Hellner, DrPH, MPH, RD
1: National Eating Disorders Awareness Association: https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/information-eating-disorder