Is It A Diet or An Eating Disorder?

February 26, 2015 Jessica Hudgens

I had been in outpatient therapy for six months. I was seeing a dietitian. I was made to attend an eating disorder support group. Even given all those interventions, if you asked me, I didn’t have an eating disorder. I was a healthy eater who maybe had a few “funny” things around food. It's hard to tell the difference between a diet and an eating disorder for some.

I was reminded of this recently when a colleague posted an article to her Facebook page discussing “orthorexia nervosa,” a term that is gaining traction with regards to the growing obsession with healthy or “clean” eating. This particular article centered its thesis on the idea that isn’t really an eating disorder, but, rather, a way to pathologize people and prescribe them medications. I wanted to track down the author and have a strongly worded chat with him.

But it’s National Eating Disorders Awareness Week and it brings up the question: when does an eating disorder become an eating disorder and not just a diet or something else?

Eating Disorders Disrupt Your Life, Diets Probably Don't

In my class about diagnosis and assessment in counseling, we had a saying: “It’s not a problem unless it’s a problem.” There are plenty of people in the world who can eat vegan or vegetarian or raw diets and have that enhance their life and health. Or people who can run or train for triathlons and enjoy the endorphins without overdoing it. Or people who can overeat occasionally and then just get back to their normal eating the next meal or next day.

When you have an eating disorder, you can’t do that. When you have an eating disorder, your ability to function in day-to-day life is compromised. Your job, your family life, your friendships, your studies – all of these are affected.

Eating disorders may look like just diets to some, but how do you know if it's a diet or an eating disorder?

I frequently stayed out past midnight in my eating disorder because I refused to miss a workout, even though it meant I was constantly sleep deprived and felt ill. I avoided meals with family or friends because I couldn’t be seen eating or couldn’t eat things that I hadn’t prepared. Restaurants? Out of the question. My meager breakfast took almost 45 minutes to eat because everything had to be measured, mixed, assembled and eaten in a very specific order. Meals were the same every single day because I knew the exact nutrition information for those two or three things. Substitutions were not allowed. If I binged, there were very specific consequences that often meant I had to cancel my entire day.

Maybe your eating disorder has 20 rules. Maybe it has two. Regardless, if you find yourself rearranging your life, avoiding things, or having difficulty getting things done because of food and/or exercise, you may have a problem.

Is It An Eating Disorder or a Diet?

If you are concerned about your eating habits or those of a loved one, please take the time to be screened. The National Eating Disorder Association has a quick online screening tool that can assess your risk and connect you to resources immediately (such as their hotline and chatline).

It may not be a “textbook” case of anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating. Your eating disorder may fall into the category of other specified feeding and eating disorder (OSFED), which was previously called eating disorder not otherwise specified (EDNOS).

That doesn’t make it any less serious or you any less worthy of recovery.

Jess can also be found on Google+, Facebook and Twitter.

APA Reference
Hudgens, J. (2015, February 26). Is It A Diet or An Eating Disorder?, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 13 from

Author: Jessica Hudgens

Nicole Lascurain
May, 3 2015 at 5:47 am

Hi Jessica,
I am happy to inform you that your blog has made Healthline’s list of the Best Eating Disorder Blogs of 2015! Healthline’s editors carefully selected each winner based on quality, frequency of updates and contribution to the community. You can see the full list here:
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Thank you again for providing a great resource to the Eating Disorder community! I’m happy to answer any questions you may have.
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March, 1 2015 at 2:31 pm

I've lived with disordered eating since my adoptive mother first put me on a diet at age 16. I was maybe 25 pounds overweight at the time (what I probably needed was just a little exercise). Mom never had a weight problem in her life so she just couldn't understand why I was so heavy. I was bulimic for many years trying to live up to her standards. I never felt I was ever good enough. I was also molested by her husband which I felt played a big part in my eating disorder
As I got older and was on my own, every time I dieted I would restrict the type and amount of food and basically eat the same thing every day. If I couldn't stick to that diet (no normal person could for long) then I'd purge. I was so full of self hate and loathing, a legacy from earlier days of living at home.
I've since given up dieting, for the most part. I've recently been diagnosed bipolar and the medication has caused me to gain a ton of weight. I'm pretty disgusted with myself. Basically I know what I needs to be done (I've been to a nutritionist) but I just can't be bothered anymore because the medication makes it impossible to lose weight. So I also binge eat now as a form of self comfort. l basically feel dead inside and I feel like I'm just eating myself to an early grave. Amy semblance of self esteem has long gone

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Jessica Hudgens
March, 2 2015 at 6:16 am

I'm so sorry you've been struggling lately, but glad to see you are reaching out for support. I can really understand the frustration about the weight gain from medication - I have had the same problem and it is really distressing if you have a history of an eating disorder. I would recommend you work with your psychiatrist (or prescribing doctor) to find a solution (as well as a dietitian). Sometimes a change in dosage can alleviate some of the side effects without decreasing the therapeutic effect. And sometimes, the side effects are so miserable that you have to find a new (if not altogether as effective) medication. It sounds like this might be the case with your current medication regiment - you seem pretty miserable. Meds should help, not add to the stressors and negative feelings of bipolar disorder.
Hang in there!

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