Disordered eating is a descriptive phrase rather than a diagnosis, and does not meet the criteria for eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa or binge-eating disorder, which are serious mental health problems, which if untreated seriously impact physical and emotional health of young people. Disordered eating may include chaotic, selective or radical patterns of eating, chronic yo-yo weight, or troubling feelings around eating, such as shame or guilt, that may occur. Orthorexia is a fairly new phrase which describes the driven pursuit of healthy eating, where purity of food choice dominates, over the desire to control body weight or appearance, and is not considered to be an eating disorder. Eating disorders are not about the food itself. Rather, eating disorders are expressions of conflict within a person’s internal world, which is often unrecognised (unconscious) in the person. It may start with a preoccupation with controlled eating or dieting in the pursuit of a certain body shape, appearance or weight.

controlling body shape, weight or appearance

Controlling appearance in teenage girls is the norm. Some girls control their weight by skipping meals, exercising more and avoiding particular foods.  Girls are particularly vulnerable to social “norms” about appearance, and controlled eating, food restricting or low weight will likely self-limit in the coming years. Young people with disordered eating often have a sense of the need to keep control, perhaps with perfectionist tendency and may become very anxious if unable to do this. Controlling appearance through dieting is a powerful way of managing their environment, in particular when other aspects of life don’t make any sense.  Eating disorders continue to increase in teenagers, affecting boys as well as girls. Be aware of the signs of damaging eating behaviour and seek help if you are worried.

feelings other than hunger

A sense of being out of control around food can occur during the teenage years and over-eating can can become a pattern. It can be a way of coping, and finding respite from difficult feelings. This may happen at a time when a young person lacks the maturity to be able to manage difficult feelings such as anger, rejection, stress or loneliness. Without a way to deal with those difficult feelings, binge-eating or emotional overeating alleviates those feelings in the short-term.  Very large quantities of food can be eaten, without a sense of control and often without a memory of exactly what has happened. This can be very distressing, leaving people feeling shame and guilt, and may take place alongside other disordered eating patterns such as anorexia nervosa.  If binge-eating persists into adulthood it is likely to lead to chronic weight gain and obesity, co-existing with mental health problems and emotional dis-regulation such as depression, anxiety and low-self esteem.