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The Difference Between Disordered Eating and Eating Disorders

Adolescence is a time of significant change and challenge, both physically and emotionally. As teens cope with the many physical, social, and intellectual changes occurring during this critical stage of development, they may struggle to find their place in the world. 

Hormonal chaos often puts them at increased risk for developing eating disorders or disordered eating habits. While they share commonalities, eating disorders and disordered eating are two different clinical presentations with varying implications for treatment.

Eating Disorders

Eating disorders are complex but treatable mental and physical illnesses that can affect people of all genders, ages, races, religions, ethnicities, sexual orientations, body shapes, and weights. National surveys estimate that 20 million women and 10 million men in America will have an eating disorder at some point in their lives.

Adolescent eating disorder statistics show that less than three percent of teens in the U.S. between 13 and 18 years old have an eating disorder. In addition, the National Eating Disorders Association helpline has had a 40% jump in overall call volume since March 2020. Among callers who shared their age over the last year, 35% were 13 to 17 years old, up from 30% before the pandemic.

These numbers show that eating disorders are a serious problem among teens, with many teens struggling to cope with the stress, confusion, and emotions that accompany adolescence.

Eating Disorders Disrupt Life

An eating disorder is a severe condition that disrupts an individual’s life and affects their health, including kidney and heart issues, weakened bones, hair loss, organ failure, and even death. Eating disorders can involve a number of behaviors that occur on a continuum ranging from severe overeating to self-imposed starvation. The four primary eating disorder diagnoses are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge-eating disorder, and avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID), previously known as selective eating disorder.

Disordered Eating

Disordered eating is a complicated and often misunderstood topic. It’s important to understand that disordered eating differs from an eating disorder. 

The primary delineating factor between disordered eating and a diagnosable eating disorder is the frequency and severity of the abnormal eating pattern. Although both disordered eating and eating disorders are abnormal, eating disorders have very specific diagnostic criteria outlining frequent and severe behaviors.

On the other hand, disordered eating refers to unhealthy behaviors and attitudes around food that do not meet the clinical criteria for an eating disorder.

While disordered eating doesn’t always meet the criteria for an official diagnosis, it can still significantly impact your teen’s physical and emotional well-being.

Types of Disordered Eating

There are many different types of disordered eating, but some common signs include skipping meals, obsessing over calorie counts, and engaging in restrictive dieting behaviors. 

Disordered eaters often have a distorted body image and see food as either “good” or “bad.” They may also feel guilty or ashamed after eating, even if they’re not overeating. 

If disordered eating patterns are left unchecked, they can lead to serious health problems such as malnutrition, weight loss, and digestive issues. In severe cases, disordered eating can even lead to death.

When to Worry

While most teens go through some dietary change or experiment with their eating habits, a few behaviors could be cause for concern. These include suddenly missing family meals or refusing to eat food from entire categories, such as carbohydrates or processed foods. 

Worth concern, too, is the teenager who develops fixations such as carefully counting calories, exercising obsessively, or hoarding food, which may be a sign of a binge eating disorder. Parents should be on the lookout for these and other changes in their teens’ eating habits and talk to their teens about any concerns.

Eating disorders require specialized treatment, while disordered eating can often be treated on an outpatient mental health basis. If you suspect your teen may have an eating disorder, please seek professional help. Early intervention is key to helping teens overcome eating disorders and live healthy lives.

How to Help Your Teen

Teens and eating disorders have been increasingly recognized as a serious issue, and the rates of diagnosis among teens continue to grow. Teens today are exposed to many conflicting messages around body image and health, which can exacerbate pre-existing mental health conditions like anxiety or low self-esteem.

Despite these risks, there are steps that parents and educators can take to support teens in this critical phase of life. By providing a supportive environment where teens feel free to be themselves and explore who they are without judgment or shame, parents can help them develop healthy coping mechanisms to manage daily life stressors.

While teens with eating disorders receive a lot of attention, it’s important to remember that teens with disordered eating habits are also at risk. It can manifest in a number of ways, including skipping meals, refusing to eat certain foods, fixations on calorie counting or exercise, and hoarding food. At Clearfork Academy, we understand how important it is to recognize the warning signs and take action as soon as possible. Early intervention can prevent disordered eating from progressing into a full-blown eating disorder requiring specialized treatment. It can also prevent other co-occurring disorders from developing, such as using substances to cope. If you are concerned about your teen’s relationship with food, it’s crucial to talk to them and seek professional help. With the right support, teens can learn to develop a healthy relationship with food. For treatment options and referrals, call us today at (817) 259-2597.

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