Eating Disorder Signs & Symptoms Explained

Eating Disorder Signs & Symptoms Explained

As more people become aware of the rising rates of eating disorders, it’s common to wonder if someone you love may be struggling. While an eating disorder professional – such as a therapist, dietitian, or psychiatrist – is best equipped to determine an official diagnosis, recognizing possible symptoms of an eating disorder is an important first step to getting the support your loved one may need.

Eating disorders can be difficult to spot because they vary widely from one person to another, and many of the behaviors around food and exercise may be perceived as “healthy” – making it even harder to realize someone may be suffering from an illness. Learning about the range of various symptoms below can help you stay informed and aware.

Food-Related Symptoms

One common red flag for many eating disorders is a change in the way someone eats, such as shunning foods they used to enjoy. Other food-related symptoms include:

  • Counting calories and/or limiting or avoiding entire food groups
  • Studying nutrition labels (without a medical reason)
  • Having rigid rules about when, where, and what to eat
  • Dining alone (avoiding eating with family or friends)
  • Using the bathroom (including taking showers) right after meals
  • Cooking or baking for others, but not eating the food themselves
  • Eating slowly
  • Cutting food into tiny pieces or smearing food on the plate
  • Adding an unusually large amount of low-calorie condiments, such as mustard, hot sauce, or pickles

Physical Signs

Because eating disorders can affect every organ system in the body, physical symptoms are often present. While weight loss or weight fluctuations are probably the sign people are most familiar with, a lack of expected gain in weight or height in growing children is another major cause for concern.

Additional physical symptoms to watch out for are:

  • Feeling cold all the time
  • Frequent illness or injuries (such as stress fractures)
  • Loss of a period in those who would normally be menstruating
  • Hair loss
  • Growth of fine hair on the body
  • Puffy cheeks
  • Scabs/scars on fingers,
  • Dizziness or fainting
  • Insomnia
  • Constipation or other GI issues

Exercise Red Flags

Even though eating disorders, by definition, refer to a problem with eating, exercise is a common component of these illnesses. Some warning signs of potentially problematic exercise include:

  • Working out in a rigid, compulsive, obsessive, or secretive way
  • Obsessively tracking physical activity, such as with a fitness app
  • Feeling compelled to complete an exact amount of exercise each day, regardless of illness, injury, or other negative effects on other areas of life
  • Compensating for food through exercise (i.e., feeling that they need to “earn” or “make up” for food eaten)

Concerns About Appearance

Not everyone with an eating disorder has body image concerns, but for those who do, intense dissatisfaction with physical appearance can interfere with daily life. Some signs that someone is struggling with body image:

  • Wearing oversized clothing
  • Avoiding social activities because of body image worries
  • Weighing themselves
  • Frequently judging their appearance in mirrors
  • Trying on specific clothing items to check the fit
  • Body checking (e.g., pinching their flesh, measuring body parts)

Troubling Changes in Mood

When someone is suffering from an eating disorder, it can affect their mood and relationships. New or increased anxiety, depression, or obsessive-compulsive symptoms are very common in those with eating disorders.

However, changes in mood can also be more subtle, such as increased irritability or gradual social withdrawal. Many people with eating disorders also suffer from intense perfectionism and black-and-white thinking, such as feeling that anything less than an ”A” is a failure.

If any of the above symptoms sound familiar to you, it’s time to get your loved one the support they need. And if you aren’t sure but have a gut feeling that something just doesn’t seem right, listen to your intuition. Eating disorders can be very secretive and sneaky, so if you’re picking up on any warning signs, odds are that you are right to be worried.

It can be scary to recognize someone you love might be suffering from an eating disorder. Remember that eating disorders tend to get worse over time, so acting now – rather than taking a “wait and see” approach – is the best thing you can do. Getting someone timely treatment could be the greatest gift you ever give them.

Oona Hanson
Oona Hanson

Family Mentor

About Equip

Equip is a virtual eating disorder treatment program helping families recover from eating disorders at home. Equip’s holistic, data-driven, gold-standard care program is delivered by a team of five care professionals, giving families confidence they’re providing the best opportunity for progress and lasting recovery.

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