Eating disorders are potentially life-threatening illnesses marked by severe disturbances to one’s eating behaviors and can result in extreme mental and physical consequences. An estimated 20 million women and 10 million men in America will have an eating disorder at some point in their lives, however, with the proper help, these illnesses are treatable.
It is common for the symptoms of eating disorders to go unnoticed by family and friends of the affected individual, which results in many cases going undiagnosed and untreated. Learning more about the warning signs and symptoms, as well as the groups most at-risk, can help provide early intervention.
10 Eating Disorder Warning Signs & Symptoms
Suspect you or a loved one might suffer from an eating disorder? Although there is no one sign, here is a list of 10 red flags to keep on your radar.
Preoccupation with Food and Weight:
According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), the obsession with weight starts at an early age, with 81% of 10-year-olds claiming they are afraid of being fat. If you or a loved one suffers from an eating disorder you may partake in excessive talk about weight, fat, and calories to the point that food and weight dictate almost every aspect of life. You may start dieting incessantly, obsessing about the food you consume and the way your body looks.
Indulging in food through cooking shows and excessively cooking and baking for others, but not always eating the food is common. Additionally, a history of dieting and other weight-control methods are often associated with the development of binge eating and eating disorders.
Weight and body image dissatisfaction plays a big role, so take the cues if you obsessively look in the mirror, criticize problem areas, frequently measure and weigh themselves, and constantly berate yourself for your appearance.
Unusual Food Habits and Rituals:
Check out the list below. Do any of these bizarre rituals sound familiar? If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, you may develop and engage in unusual food practices such as:
- Eating at irregular times
- Saturating foods with low-calorie condiments, herbs, and spices
- Eating unusual food combinations
- Creating odd portion sizes
- Cutting food into extremely small pieces
- Controlled patterns such as eating and chewing very slowly or always using a particular plate or glass
- Extra chattiness during meals
- Always being the last one to sit down
In the relentless pursuit of thinness, your body becomes an obsession. Do you/your loved one partake in intense exercise sometimes in private and at strange times? Do you still partake in extreme exercise despite an injury or other obligations? Note that excessive exercise does not just mean hitting the gym obsessively. It might mean excessive movement, which could manifest in your inability to stay still or sit down for long periods of time, constantly standing, pacing, fidgeting and hopping about – anything to cut calories.
Stress & Inflexibility Around Mealtime:
Do you ever feel a high level of anxiety when it comes to food and mealtime? It’s common for those suffering from eating disorders to be distrustful about those preparing the food, and thus try to control their food intake and all elements of their meal. Eating out at a restaurant, while on vacation or in someone else’s home can prove stressful. You may notice a change in your mood and exhibit irritability, distraction, nervousness, excitement and hostility leading up to and during meals.
This inflexibility may also result in trying to control the eating habits of those around you – condemning people’s eating habits, food shaming, and cooking and baking excessively (i.e. pushing food but not always eating) are quite common.
Buying, hiding, consuming and disposing of excessive food in private are warning signs of an eating disorder. Take notice if you or a loved one leave packages, such as containers, cups, and wrappers in wastebaskets not only indoors, but outside the home as well.
Withdrawing from Family, Friends & Social Situations:
Food is often a part of social gatherings, making it difficult for individuals suffering from an eating disorder to partake and feel comfortable in typical social situations with family and friends. Are you/your loved one avoiding or feeling apprehension about events where food will be present or making excuses for not eating while there?
Take heed of this warning sign, as eating disorders dramatically affect one’s personality, causing things such as irritability, depression, and fatigue, which may result in the withdrawal from social events.
Abnormal Intake of Drinks:
Pay attention if you/your loved one is drinking massive amounts of diet carbonated beverages and other drinks such as tea, coffee, and water both during and between meals. Eating disorder sufferers may consume as much as 3-4 glasses of water during a regular meal, which may be a sign of future bingeing and/or the desire to feel full more quickly.
Possessiveness, defensiveness, and control all play a role when suffering from an eating disorder. Without being questioned or approached, you may find yourself presenting those around you with a dirty plate, food wrapper, or some sort of evidence “proving” that you ate. You may also share too many details about your meals as a way for hiding any shame around food that you might feel.
Physical signs and symptoms from an eating disorder may not present themselves right away, but the toll this illness will have on your body can be life-threatening. Here are just a few physical warning signs to look out for:
- Noticeable weight loss
- Loss of menstrual periods in women
- Gastrointestinal issues such as constipation and acid reflux
- Cold intolerance
- Fine body hair
- Dental enamel erosion
- Muscle weakness or wasting
- Fainting spells and dizziness
- Pale complexion (almost a pasty look)
Those Suffering from Stress, Anxiety Disorders & Other Emotional Problems:
Whether it’s a relationship issue, family crisis or major milestone such as applying to college, life changes can bring stress, which may increase the risk of an eating disorder. Psychological and emotional problems such as low self-esteem, perfectionism, behavioral inflexibility, and anxiety are huge contributors that may increase an individual’s propensity to develop an eating disorder.
According to the NEDA, research has shown that a significant number of eating disorder sufferers, including two-thirds of those with anorexia nervosa, exhibited signs of an anxiety disorder (including generalized anxiety, social phobia, and obsessive-compulsive disorder) prior to the onset of their eating disorder.
Groups That May Be Prone to Eating Disorders
According to the Johns Hopkins Eating Disorder Program, sufferers of eating disorders tend to exhibit certain personality traits – perfectionism, eagerness to please, sensitivity to criticism, and self-doubt. Difficulty adapting to change and being extremely ambitious and future-oriented are common. If you/your loved one possess any of these characteristics, you might be more vulnerable to an eating disorder.
With this in mind, the following groups may be more susceptible.
- COLLEGE STUDENTS: Eating disorders often run rampant on college campuses. Says Chelsea Kronengold, M.A., Program Coordinator with the NEDA and body image & eating disorders activist, “College is a period of development in which disordered eating is likely to arise, resurface, or worsen for many young men and women. The increased social pressure to make friends, have romantic relationships, achieve academically, and fear of the “freshman 15” are all potential risk factors for disordered eating and other maladaptive coping mechanisms for college students.”
- ATHLETES: Athletes in certain sports, particularly female gymnasts, ice skaters, dancers, and swimmers, are at high risk for eating disorders, says the Academy of Eating Disorders. In a study of Division 1 NCAA athletes, over one-third of female athletes reported attitudes and behaviors placing them at risk for anorexia nervosa, while male athletes are also at increased risk, especially those in sports such as wrestling, bodybuilding, crew, running, cycling, climbing, and football.
- ADOLESCENT-ONSET: Studies show that most eating disorders typically onset during adolescence, possibly due to the start of puberty and the vast changes occurring both physically and mentally. It can be a complicated time for young people, which could have the power to trigger emotions that may lead to developing an eating disorder. According to the Mayo Clinic, approx 60% of teens show behaviors associated with disordered eating.
- TYPE 1 (INSULIN-DEPENDENT) DIABETICS: Recent research has found that approximately one-quarter of women diagnosed with type 1 diabetes will develop an eating disorder. The most common pattern is known as diabulimia, which according to the NEDA is, “A media-coined term that refers to an eating disorder in a person with diabetes, typically type I diabetes, wherein the person purposefully restricts insulin in order to lose weight.” Experts say that the intense focus for diabetics on food, labels, numbers, and control, along with the many disruptions that occur in their metabolic system, leaves them at a high-risk factor for developing an eating disorder.
Heed the Warning Signs and Seek Help
If you think you or a loved one may be suffering from an eating disorder, it’s imperative to reach out for help immediately. Even just one or two of the warning signs and symptoms mentioned above are reason enough to talk to someone now. DON’T WAIT! Eating disorders are treatable conditions, but without proper medical attention and support, they can be life-threatening.
Here are a few ways to seek help:
- Talk to a family member or friend and speak openly and honestly
- Call the NEDA Helpline at (800) 931-2237