Six Symptoms of Eating Disorders that You Should Know
Updated May 11, 2020
Reviewer Lauren Guilbeault
Eating disorders are a serious mental illness affecting just over 10% of the population of the United States. Negative habits around food and body image are considered eating disorders when they significantly impair a person's health, emotional stability, and ability to function. While eating disorders are most common in young women, they affect people of every age and gender.
Types Of Eating Disorders
Any list of eating disorders includes anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. But these are not the only types of eating disorders. Binge eating disorder, rumination disorder, and avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder are all lesser known but important eating disorders.
Each eating disorder has its own specific set of effects and symptoms that doctors and mental health professionals take into account when making a diagnosis, and deciding on treatment for eating disorders. However, some general symptoms can indicate that a person may be struggling with an eating disorder of some kind. Here are six symptoms of eating disorders that you can be on the lookout for, in yourself, friends, and family.
1. Unusual Behavior Around Food
Skipping Meals And Making Excuses
Most of us skip meals occasionally, for various reasons. Breakfast and lunch can sometimes get crowded out by our schedule, and dinner-time can fly by as we work late or meet up with friends. Some people feel better when they don't eat at particular times of the day. When people make a habit of skipping meals, however, it can be a red flag for an eating disorder.
Skipping meals can be a particularly troublesome signal if it is part of an effort to diet, and does not include making up for it by increasing our intake of food later. If you or your friends are skipping meals and then making excuses not to eat later, you might want to consider the presence of an eating disorder.
Adopting A Very Strict Vegetarian Diet
As with skipping meals occasionally, adopting a vegetarian diet is not by itself a cause for concern. However, any version of a diet that is overly restrictive can be a symptom of an eating disorder. Vegetarian or vegan diets should include a wide variety of foods for proper nutrition and sufficient calories. If this is not the case, these diets can be part of an eating disorder.
Eating Very Little Food
Eating disorders like anorexia nervosa and avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder can cause people not to get enough calories (energy) through their food. In addition, they might not be getting enough nutrients to support various body systems. In anorexia nervosa, calorie restriction is often due to fear of gaining weight. People with the avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder, on the other hand, can find it difficult to eat certain foods because of taste, texture, smell, or sight of the food.
Eating Too Much Food
Since anorexia nervosa is one of the most well-known eating disorders, people might not realize that eating too much food can also be a sign of an eating disorder. Bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder can both include eating abnormally large amounts of food. Eating very large amounts of food in a short time frame, or eating very large amounts of very sweet, fatty food are particularly worrisome signs.
Eating In Secret
Some eating disorders can lead people to be ashamed of the way that they eat, and they start to do their eating in secret. Eating alone, of course, is not the same as eating secretly. A late night snack doesn't have to indicate an eating disorder. But eating alone because of fear or shame is a sign that something may be wrong.
2. Strange Behavior Around Meal Times
Similarly to skipping meals and making excuses around food as we discussed above, joining a group of people for meal time and then not eating can be a red flag for an eating disorder. This can be true in the home with family or roommates, or out with friends.
Leaving The Table To Use The Bathroom Often
One of the common aspects of bulimia nervosa and some forms of anorexia nervosa is inducing vomiting to get rid of food eaten. If you find yourself compelled to leave the table to vomit during or after a meal, that is a very large signal to reach out for help. As a friend or family member, if you notice that your loved one often leaves for an extended amount of time in the middle of a meal, this can be a warning sign of an eating disorder.
Being unwilling to eat the same food as other friends or family members are eating can be a symptom of an eating disorder. This is not always the case, as some people have legitimate reasons to prepare or bring their own food. However, in combination with other problematic behaviors, it can indicate that a person is too concerned with which kinds of food that they eat, or is restricting their eating.
3. Being Obsessed With Getting It Out
People with eating disorders, especially anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, are often obsessed with getting food or calories out of their bodies after they have taken them in. This can take many different forms.
Bingeing and vomiting are widely known as a classic sign of bulimia nervosa. Induced vomiting, however, is not restricted to people who suffer from bulimia nervosa. People with anorexia nervosa may also vomit food that they eat, even though they are not likely to have binged in the first place. One sign of vomiting in friends or family can be calloused that form on the knuckles from using the fingers to induce vomiting. Another symptom of vomiting can be losing tooth enamel from the acidity of vomiting.
Laxatives, Supplements, And Herbs
Instead of inducing vomiting, some people with eating disorders use laxatives or other supplements to make food move through their digestive system faster. This makes it difficult or impossible for their body to absorb energy and nutrients from the food. Any supplement or herb that is intended to block or change the way that bodies absorb food can also be a symptom of an eating disorder.
Sometimes, rather than attempting to remove food from their bodies, people with eating disorders will be obsessed with using up all of the energy that they have taken in. This can be especially true with anorexia nervosa. Sometimes people will become so anxious after eating food that they feel compelled to exercise until they think that they have "worked it off." If exercise is associated with significant anxiety or compulsion, it can be a sign that something is wrong.
4. It's An Obsession
It can be difficult not to worry or talk about our weight or body image. After all, it's easy to compare ourselves to what is supposed to be a standard or ideal shape and size. It's also normal to want to eat in a way that helps us maintain energy and feel healthy. If any of these things turn into an obsession, however, it can be a red flag for an eating disorder.
Lots Of Talks
If you, or someone you know, often talks, complains, or worries about their size, shape, or weight, this can be a sign of an eating disorder. This can be especially clear with anorexia nervosa, where people are often underweight but remain anxious, ashamed, or disgusted with what they perceive as "being fat." Anorexia nervosa can actually change the way that a person perceives their body, so a mismatch between how a person looks and the way that they perceive themselves can be an indication that there is a problem.
Obsession with talking about body shape and size isn't limited to anorexia nervosa, however. People who are normal weight or overweight can become obsessed with their appearance as well. This is sometimes overlooked because cultural signals can indicate that it's appropriate to be ashamed of or obsessed with body weight if you aren't thin. In fact, normal weight or overweight people can also have eating disorders, and talking a lot about unhappiness with their bodies can be a sign of this.
Shame Or Disgust
Any time that a person expresses a lot of shame or disgust about their body, it can be a symptom of an eating disorder. While people with anorexia nervosa often misperceive the size and shape of their body, disgust or self-loathing is no more appropriate for people who see themselves more accurately.
Hyperfocus On Healthy Eating
While eating for energy and health is a good thing, an obsessive focus with what a person perceives as healthy eating can be a red flag for an eating disorder. This is especially true if their idea of healthy eating is very restrictive. In addition, if they are afraid, disgusted, or ashamed at the idea of eating something that they don't think is healthy, this can indicate a problem.
Checking Yourself Out (In An Unhappy Way)
If you, or someone you know, obsessively check the mirror with the goal of finding and criticizing imperfections, this might be a sign of an eating disorder. Mirrors are a handy tool for making sure that we look presentable before we head out the door, but an eating disorder can turn them into a trap. If your friend or loved one is spending a lot of time with the mirror, and if they come away from it sad, angry, or disgusted, it might be time to reach out to them.
5. Things Are Out Of Control
For people with a binge eating disorder, eating is not necessarily connected with enjoyment. In fact, during a binge, they might feel uncomfortable, or even want to stop eating, and feel unable to stop. When healthy people overeat on occasion, it is usually because they are enjoying the food, and don't want to stop. An unhealthy binge, on the other hand, usually has little to do with wanting food. If you find yourself eating very large amounts of food while not enjoying the food, or feeling out of control, this can be a symptom of an eating disorder.
In addition to feeling out of control while bingeing, people with an eating disorder might feel like they can't control how often it happens. Birthday, holidays, and special occasions are times when people sometimes eat extra food. Bingeing, on the other hand, may happen much more often and the person doing it may feel like they can't control the times when they binge.
Some people with anorexia nervosa, or other eating disorders that restrict food intake, are unaware that their habits are problematic. Other people who suffer from an eating disorder, however, are aware that their food restrictions are not healthy, but they feel unable to stop them. The emotional aspects of an eating disorder such as shame, fear, and disgust can be a factor in this lack of control. Other people may not be purposely restricting calories, but follow diets that don't allow them to eat certain foods. If these restrictions feel out of control and are accompanied by negative emotion, it can be a sign that a supposedly healthy diet is not very healthy at all.
One way to tell if your, or a loved one, exercise is problematic is to consider the emotions attached to it. If you feel like you are compelled to exercise, or are afraid of what will happen if you stop, it could mean that the exercise is part of an eating disorder.
6. All Of The Above, Plus…
While so many of the symptoms that we've looked at so far are behaviors, a large part of what makes problematic patterns eating disorders is what goes on in mind.
Previous trauma is a risk factor for eating disorders. This is probably because disordered and harmful eating patterns can emerge out of some of the other psychological effects of trauma. Things like low self-worth and misdirected blame or anger can feed into an eating disorder. In addition, trauma can sometimes make a person feel like they are not in control of themselves or their lives. Eating disorders can be part of their efforts to regain or hold onto control.
Other Mental Health Problems
Eating disorders often follow or exist alongside other mental health diagnoses like anxiety disorder, depressive disorders, or obsessive-compulsive disorder. If you or loved one has a history of being anxious, depressed, or compulsive, it's important to especially be on the lookout for signs of an eating disorder.
Bonus: What Comes Next?
Could This Be You?
Do you recognize yourself in these symptoms? Do you see a loved one? If so, recognize that a wide variety of emotions are normal and okay. You might be relieved, or overwhelmed. In any case, it's important to remember that acknowledging a problem is the first step in addressing it.
Treatment for eating disorders usually involves a team of medical professionals and a support network of friends and family. There are a few places to start if you suspect that you may have an eating disorder. Your primary care physician can help with a diagnosis. They can also help you get in touch with other professionals who can help. You can also start the process by reaching out to a mental health professional. A therapist or counselor, including the ones at BetterHelp, can help you get started on your eating disorders treatment.
Medical treatment for eating disorders might involve a primary care physician, a trained dietician, and other specialists as necessary. The goal of medical treatment is to care for the body, including reaching a healthy weight and stabilizing any body systems that may have been impacted by the eating disorder. There are also some medications that can be prescribed. Medications for binge eating disorders include certain stimulants and anti-seizure drugs that have been found to reduce the bingeing behavior. Doctors can also prescribe antidepressants, which can help people to moderate their problematic behaviors.
Mental Health Treatment
Mental health treatment is an extremely important part of treatment for eating disorders. Therapies like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can help people with eating disorders recognize the disordered thought patterns that often precede disordered eating. CBT then helps people to replace unhealthy or false thought patterns with healthy ones. In cases where eating disorders stem from past trauma or other mental health problems, talk therapy can help people to process trauma, and learn healthy ways to cope with things like anxiety or depression.
When You're Not The One Who Needs Help
Being the friend or family member of a person suffering from an eating disorder can be difficult. Many times, the people around a person recognize that they may have an eating disorder before the person themselves. People with eating disorders might be very resistant to acknowledging that something is wrong. They might not believe their loved ones. Sometimes they could be angry at this "accusation."
Keep The Love
When you're talking with someone who may have an eating disorder, it's important to keep in mind that eating disorders often come with a large amount of shame and disgust. They don't need extra shame from you. Keep your concerns positive and proactive. In addition, check into your own relationships with your body. If you use shaming or hurtful words for yourself, it's hard to convince others that they shouldn't do the same thing.
Your loved one may not acknowledge your concern right away. They might even be angry. It's important not to let yourself be driven away by this. Recognize that eating disorders affect the ways that people think and process things, and this can make them very difficult to recognize for those who suffer from them. Be patient with the person. When they are ready to recognize their eating disorder and understand that they need help, you want to be one of the people that they feel safe coming to.
Taking A Long View
Eating disorders treatment can be a difficult process; it is, however, worth it. As a person with an eating disorder, a friend, or a family member, it's important to reach out for help as soon as you can. It's also important to build strong support networks. A person working to recover from an eating disorder isn't the only one who needs support. If you are that support person, make sure that you're taking care of your own mental health. A therapist or counselor from a place like BetterHelp can help you help the ones that you love.