Normal Eating Versus Disordered Eating: A Guide for Parents

Last Updated on: 1st February 2024, 06:17 pm

In my paediatric eating disorder clinic, a common question from parents arises: “How can I differentiate between normal eating and disordered eating when supporting my child on their healing journey?”.  I deeply empathize with parents and guardians navigating this challenging terrain. Eating disorders are relentless, and when you add a layer of diet culture to the mix, it becomes an even more complex minefield to navigate.

Why is it so complex? Well, because diet culture often normalizes many behaviours associated with eating disorders. For instance, while I may tell a young person in my clinic that all foods are acceptable and there are no good or bad foods, parents may recall being taught differently – that some foods are good, and some are bad. This creates a confusing situation where some behaviours we’ve been taught are actually eating disorder behaviours. Parents often ask, “How do we untangle this, and how can we recognize it?”

The truth is, It’s a challenging task with some nuances, but I’ll provide a general guide on distinguishing disordered eating from normal eating.

Before diving in, let’s establish two important points. Firstly, it’s crucial to understand that eating disorders and disordered eating exist on a spectrum. Some individuals dealing with disordered eating may eventually develop an eating disorder, and those in recovery may sometimes struggle with disordered eating. The severity can vary, so keep that in mind when trying to identify symptoms of eating disorders.

Secondly, some behaviours categorized as disordered eating might actually be related to sensory issues. If you notice sensory symptoms in your child, it might be worth discussing this with a dietitian and a GP.

With these considerations in mind, here’s a list of differences between disordered eating/eating disorders and normal eating. My hope is that this list will provide you with guidance, a starting point and maybe some confidence as you navigate the challenging journey of supporting a young person dealing with disordered eating or offer you clarity if you’re personally struggling.

Disordered Eating Behaviours:

  1. Constantly thinking about what foods you should or shouldn’t eat.
  2. Engaging in compensatory behaviours like excessive exercising or fasting/restricting after consuming foods deemed “off-limits” or if you feel like you have ‘over eaten’.
  3. Strictly adhering to specific calorie goals, regardless of hunger cues.
  4. Labelling foods as “good” or “bad” and letting it significantly affect your emotions if you’ve eaten a “bad” food.
  5. Avoiding foods high in carbs or calories due to fear of weight gain.
  6. Experiencing harsh self-criticism for eating foods categorized as unhealthy,
  7.  Rigid rules around food without any medical basis.
  8. Denying yourself food even when you’re hungry because you feel you shouldn’t eat.
  9. Being overly fixated on watching others eat without partaking in meals.
  10. Continuously obsessing over food types, calorie content, and their impact on your body.
  11. All your thoughts revolving around eating, affecting your social and work life. For instance, skipping social events to avoid temptation or prioritizing the gym over socializing.
  12. Frequently eating past fullness or consistently undereating to the point of feeling faint, dizzy, or experiencing headaches.
  13. Mood swings closely tied to eating, fearing hunger, or feeling uncomfortable when hungry.
  14. Extreme worry about how ‘clean’ or ‘healthy’ a meal is which may lead to eating very little.
  15. Having chaotic eating patterns due to skipping meals, perhaps leading to a binge and restrict cycle.

Normal Eating Behaviours:

  1. Respecting your hunger and fullness cues as best you can, not adhering to strict calorie counting.
  2. Flexibility in food choices, allowing for a variety of foods without moral judgments (e.g., no “good” or “bad” foods).
  3. Feeling comfortable eating foods, you enjoy without excessive guilt or self-criticism.
  4. Honouring your body’s cues for hunger and fullness, even if it means occasionally eating past fullness or not finishing a meal.
  5. Engaging in social and celebratory eating without anxiety or rigid restrictions.
  6. Viewing food as nourishment for your body and mind rather than a source of fear or punishment.
  7. Not obsessively thinking about food or letting it dominate your thoughts and actions.
  8. Maintaining a balanced approach to exercise, recognizing its role in health and well-being without excessive compulsion.
  9. Not feeling like you need to ‘earn’ your calories.
  10. Feeling emotionally stable regardless of mealtimes or hunger levels.
  11. Being open to various eating experiences and happily adapting to different social situations
  12. Flexibility around food rules and mealtimes.

A quick rule of thumb is- Normal eating includes regularity, variety, flexibility and fun!

Understanding the distinction between normal eating and disordered eating is crucial for both parents and young individuals on the path to recovery. By recognizing these behaviours, you can provide invaluable support and guidance, fostering a healthier relationship with food and self.

With this knowledge, you can start to navigate the complex landscape of eating disorders with greater confidence and compassion.

If you would like some 1-2-1 support with navigating this tricky road, I’m always happy to help. Book a free discovery call today!

Some helpful resources

BEATS offer more independent information on disordered eating

Eva Musby gives real and practical advice especially around supporting a young person who wont eat.

About Me

I’m Sarah, a registered dietitian and eating disorder specialist. I am passionate about helping individuals and families overcome the challenges of eating disorders, disordered eating, and mental health conditions. My expertise lies in supporting families and individuals with a history of trauma, including domestic abuse, and guiding children and teenagers through the complexities of eating disorders, particularly those stemming from adverse childhood experiences.

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