What is disordered eating?

You’ve heard about eating disorders, of course. Anorexia and bulimia are serious medical conditions that can endanger a person’s life. But eating disorders aren’t black and white. There’s a whole gray area of disordered eating that can affect a person’s health and well-being, even though it doesn’t fit into a neat, diagnosis check box. If your child has eating quirks, is it disordered eating? Or just a quirk of childhood he or she will outgrow?


Your teenager will only eat certain foods in a certain order in an effort to stay a certain size in advance of sports tryouts — but your child has a healthy weight generally and doesn’t argue when asked to take a multi-vitamin. Is this disordered eating?

Your kindergartener won’t eat anything at school, but instead stashes snacks and lunches in coat pockets for eating in secret later. Is this disordered eating?

Your middle schooler refuses to eat anything — anything at all — that is green and only wants white food. Is this disordered eating?

In each case, the answer is, “Maybe.” In each case, the situation definitely warrants your attention, though the depth of attention will vary.

Out of the norm

Disordered eating can be just about any out-of-the-norm food-related behavior that is causing an issue well beyond the actual eating. But not all out-of-the norm habits are disordered. A temporary quirk of childhood — for example, refusing all orange food — may be annoying and an inconvenience, but there’s a good chance your young child will outgrow this preference and if it doesn’t cause any other issue (that is, general nutrition is still good), making a big fuss about it may backfire on all of you.

However, if a food related quirk or issue starts intruding on other parts of life, it could be disordered eating. If your child believes that consuming orange food will cause them physical harm and becomes anxious and agitated at the thought or sight of orange foods…well, that’s something else. And it’s not just about eating.

Slippery slopes

While disordered eating is a broad category and is often perceived to be less serious than a diagnosed eating disorder, that is by no means reason to take it less seriously. Disordered eating can be very dangerous, especially when that disordered eating involves the intake of substances not meant to be food, or involves rituals that are potentially harmful or reduces nutritional intake. Obsessive habits around food can be a signal that there are other issues going on in your child. It could be a body image issue or some other self-esteem issue manifesting itself at the dinner table.

Catch it

If you start to observe changes in your child’s eating habits, what should you do? For starters, you can:

  1. Talk about it. Ask your child why he or she feels so strongly about the food or ritual in question.
  2. Consider other things that might be going on in your child’s life. Is there something else that needs to be addressed?
  3. Gather information and look for patterns in eating behaviors.
  4. Talk to your child’s pediatrician about your concerns, and get a professional referral if necessary.
  5. Reiterate your own healthy eating habits and make sure you are setting an healthy eating example.
  6. Support and reassure your child of your love and commitment to his or her health.

Disordered eating is serious and needs to be addressed seriously. Early intervention can help keep your child healthy — and may prevent odd rituals and habits from becoming disordered eating or even an eating disorder.

More about kids and eating disorders

Does your teen have an eating disorder?
Recognizing eating disorders in children

Understanding childhood eating disorders

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