Disordered Eating: 9 Signs of an Unhealthy Relationship with Food

This week, the Savvy Psychologist reveals 9 signs of disordered eating so prevalent they pass as “normal”--plus 4 tips on how to improve your relationship with food, and your body.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
5-minute read
Episode #35

Disordered eating--the less serious, but much more common version of an eating disorder--is an unhealthy, obsessive relationship with food. Disordered eating is so common that it’s arguably, and unfortunately, “normal.”

While 10% of Americans will experience a full-blown eating disorder at some point in their lives, a 2009 national survey of over 4,000 women ages 25-45 found that 65%—that’s right, almost two-thirds—struggle with disordered eating.  And men aren’t immune either, especially as unrealistic male body standards become more entrenched in the media and our culture..

What’s the Difference Detween an Eating Disorder and Disordered Eating?

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In a nutshell, disordered eating is an unhealthy, obsessive relationship with food and weight. Disordered eating is, no pun intended, the “lite” version of an eating disorder. Some of the same behaviors occur as in eating disorders, but to a lesser degree. 

And while disordered eating isn’t a diagnosable disorder, it does place one at risk for a full-blown eating disorder—disordered eating as gateway behaviors, as it were. 

Plus, disordered eating often goes along with depression and anxiety—it’s really hard to hate your body, deny yourself food, and not feel anxious, worthless, or less-than.

So this week, here are 9 signs of disordered eating. Again, it’s all on a spectrum.  But if you decide your relationship with food could use a tune-up, rest assured you’re in good company—and listen on to the end for 4 tips on what to do next.

Disordered Eating Sign #1: Black and White Thinking About Food 

You think of foods as either all “good” or all “bad,” and you’ve accordingly cut out entire food groups, like carbs or fat, because you worry they’ll make you fat.  Or, you might skip a meal, like breakfast, to save the calories.  Finally, you only eat foods you’ve vetted or know the caloric content of.

Disordered Eating Sign #2: The Perma-Diet

You’re basically on a permanent diet, or at least dieting more often than not. As a result, your weight yo-yos accordingly, and as a result of all the deprivation, sometimes you lose it and binge.

You’re certainly not alone: a national survey of over 70,000 people found that 38% of women and 24% of men were currently trying to lose weight.  And it starts early, not just after a desk job and a couple of kids: 53% of high school girls and 43% of high school boys were either trying to lose or gain weight. 


All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast from 2014 to 2019. She is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. Her debut book, HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, was published in March 2018.

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