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Discerning the difference between dieting and disorders can seem tricky, but recognizing the signs and changing behavior could impact the long-term health of you or a loved one.

Here’s the difference. Dieting is a conscious effort to change eating habits to achieve a desired body shape or weight. An eating disorder is an unhealthy relationship with food that can have serious physical and emotional consequences.

Dieters may choose to limit certain foods, such as sweets, or to eat smaller portions and are often motivated to make these changes to improve their health and overall well-being.

Eating disorders are mental health disorders that involve extreme behaviors such as restricting food intake, binging, or purging to control weight or physique. Natalie Lagger, MS, RD, a dietician at Loma Linda University Health, says behaviors can have serious physical and emotional consequences like fatigue, depression, and an increased risk for medical conditions such as heart disease and diabetes.

Signs of an eating disorder

  • Restriction of food intake
  • purging via vomiting or laxative use
  • Excessive exercise
  • Binge-eating episodes
  • Poor body image, distorted self-perception
  • Preoccupation with food and body image
  • Various physical symptoms impacting health and regular body function

Eating disorders are often rooted in underlying psychological issues; Lagger says isolation can exacerbate these problems.

“An eating disorder thrives in three things: shame, secrecy, and silence,” Lagger said.

People with eating disorders may turn to food to cope with uncomfortable emotions or to help them feel safe and secure in their environment. Isolation makes it easier for people to engage in disordered eating behaviors, providing a sense of control and denying exposure to people or situations that trigger unhealthy eating habits.

“A person struggling with an eating disorder is often struggling with a low ability to regulate or tolerate emotional distress,” Lagger said. “Behavior episodes can contribute to immense shame, guilt, and fear. However, the person struggling may feel they cannot stop the behaviors despite how they are feeling.”

Loma Linda Behavioral Health offers treatment for eating disorders of Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa in a partial hospitalization and intensive outpatient day program. The intensive program combines therapy, nutrition, and psychiatry to help individuals struggling to build a strong foundation for recovery. Most of the treatment occurs in a group setting, but each person meets individually with all specially trained staff members.

“An eating disorder is a curable illness. Please seek help from specialized care with trained professionals if you are struggling,” Lagger said.

Learn more about the eating disorder programs offered at Loma Linda University Behavioral Health. Request more information from an intake coordinator here.