Should You Be Worried? Eating Disorder Signs & Symptoms to Look Out for

Should You Be Worried? Eating Disorder Signs & Symptoms to Look Out for

With the rise in mental health struggles among children and teenagers, we know that families are more concerned than ever about their kids’ wellbeing. But even though eating disorders are increasingly common, the early warning signs are really easy for parents to miss.

Eating disorders are the second deadliest mental illness and have far-ranging consequences for mental and physical health — and early intervention can make a big difference in how long it take a person to reduce symptoms and fully recover. Because of all this, it's important for parents and caregivers to recognize potential eating disorder symptoms, even if their child doesn't fit the stereotypical mold of someone who gets an eating disorder. Knowing what to look out for can at the very least help educate you about this important issue (which undoubtedly affects someone you know), and at best save the life of your loved one.

Eating Disorder Symptoms & Warning Signs

There are many different types of eating disorders, and the same type of eating disorder will look different in different people. Given that, there is no exact symptom profile you can use to identify an eating disorder. Still, there are a number of common behavioral, physical, and emotional signs that tend to show up with most eating disorders.

Here's what to look out for:

  • Placing a high value on weight, weight loss, and body size or shape
  • Preoccupation with food and its nutritional content (calories, carbs, fat, etc)
  • Avoidance of meals or snacks with other people 
  • New eating behaviors, such as a new diet, significantly different portion sizes, eating much more slowly, or cutting food up into small pieces
  • Mood changes, including but not limited to anxiety, depression, or euphoria
  • Weight fluctuations
  • Digestive issues
  • Feeling cold all the time
  • Poor immune function (getting colds frequently)
  • Social withdrawal 
  • Exercising obsessively 

If you’re concerned about your child, it's important to look at the big picture — not just their eating — to identify potential signs and symptoms of an eating disorder. You can use this screener to help you consider various areas of your child’s life that may be affected by disordered eating or an eating disorder and determine whether to see a health professional.

Why Eating Disorders Are So Tricky to Spot

Despite the fact that eating disorders are on the rise, many of them continue to go undetected. This is in part due to the self-obscuring nature of these diseases themselves, and partly due to a larger societal misunderstanding about what eating disorders are and what they look like.

Here are some of the key reasons that eating disorder symptoms can be so tricky to spot:

  • Eating disorders thrive in secrecy and many of the concerning symptoms — restricting, bingeing, vomiting, and overexercising — may happen privately without anyone noticing at first.
  • Parents who pick up on troubling cues may not get an honest answer if they ask their child a direct question about food. This has nothing to do with how trustworthy a child is, but is a result of their eating disorder compelling them to deceive.
  • A teen or tween who might normally share worries with their parents is unlikely to ask for help for an eating disorder. This could happen for a number of reasons, including shame, denial about the problem, or a belief that their eating disorder is a good thing.

This last part — the idea that an eating disorder could be a good thing — emerges out of the confusing fact that our culture praises many of the behaviors common to eating disorders. All around us, society encourages people to limit portion sizes, choose lower-calorie options, avoid caloric drinks, cut out certain food groups, and exercise as much as possible. Because of this, the early symptoms of an eating disorder could at first seem like a “healthy” behavior.

Many people also have unconscious misconceptions about eating disorders, which can make them blind to the disease even if it's right in front of them. Some common myths around eating disorders include:

  • Despite what the media tends to portray, eating disorders don’t have a “look.” Anyone can develop an eating disorder, regardless of gender, race, body size, age, or socioeconomic status.
  • While many people with eating disorders are concerned about their weight or body size, not everyone with an eating disorder has body image concerns.
  • Eating disorders are not choices or lifestyles. They are complex illnesses rooted in biological, psychological, and social risk factors. As we believe strongly at Equip, eating disorders are not vanity issues, they are brain disorders
  • People can develop eating disorders without any history of mental illness, abuse, or other trauma.

It can be frightening to acknowledge that someone you love might be struggling with an eating disorder. Parents are often wary of making things worse by drawing attention to their child’s eating, changes in their body, or other warning signs. It makes sense to feel anxious about these topics, but the truth is you can’t make an eating disorder worse by talking about it. 

If you think your loved one is showing symptoms of an eating disorder, getting a professional evaluation will help. It will either ease your mind that everything is okay, or get you the support your family needs to move toward recovery. Accessing treatment as soon as possible will help give your child the best chance of a swift and robust recovery, and being aware of warning signs is the first step on the path toward healing. 

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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