With eating disorder rates on the rise, you're not alone if you're worried that someone you love may be struggling. While it's always best to seek out an eating disorder professional for an official diagnosis, family and friends are usually the ones who first notice potential eating disorder symptoms. This noticing is an important first step to getting your loved one the support they may need.
Unfortunately, the symptoms of an eating disorder aren't as cut-and-dried as the symptoms of other conditions, like, say, strep throat. Eating disorder behaviors vary widely from one person to another—even within the same eating disorder diagnosis—and many signs and symptoms of eating disorders can be perceived as "healthy" or praised by others (an unfortunate effect of diet culture). The good news is that by learning about the type and range of various eating disorder symptoms, you can better notice red flags and help determine if your loved one needs treatment.
Below are common symptoms of eating disorders, broken out by category.
Food-related eating disorder symptoms
One common red flag for many eating disorders is a change in the way someone eats. This might mean avoiding foods they used to enjoy, or other food-related symptoms like:
- Counting calories
- Limiting or avoiding entire food groups
- Studying nutrition labels (without a medical reason)
- Having rigid rules about when, where, and what to eat
- Eating alone (avoiding meals 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 eating disorder symptoms
Eating disorders can affect every organ system in the body, so physical symptoms are often present. While weight loss or weight fluctuations are probably the eating disorder symptom people are most familiar with, there are a number of other physical signs (and someone can have an eating disorder without any weight loss). For growing children or teens, weight loss might be replaced by a lack of expected gain in height or weight.
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 or scars on fingers (which might be a sign of purging associated with bulimia)
- Dizziness or fainting
- Constipation or other GI issues
Exercise-related eating disorder symptoms
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)
Appearance-related eating disorder symptoms
Not everyone with an eating disorder has body image concerns (for instance, those with ARFID generally do not), but for those who do, intense dissatisfaction with physical appearance can interfere with daily life. Some signs that someone is having body image struggles that may be tied to an eating disorder include:
- Wearing oversized clothing
- Avoiding social activities because of body image worries
- Weighing themselves frequently
- 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)
Mood-related eating disorder symptoms
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, and might include:
- Increased irritability
- Social withdrawal
- Intense perfectionism (i.e., feeling like anything less than an "A" is a failure)
- Black-and-white thinking (things are either "good' or "bad," with no in-between)
- Mood swings
If any of the above sounds familiar to you, your loved one could very likely be struggling with an eating disorder and it's time to get them the support they need. 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 signs and symptoms of an eating disorder in someone you love. But remember that eating disorders tend to get worse over time, and so acting now, rather than avoiding the issue due to fear or discomfort, or hoping it will get better, is the best thing you do.
Your loved one is still the same person they always were. Their eating disorder symptoms are just that—symptoms—and with the right diagnosis and treatment, they can return to the life they deserve to live, unencumbered by a debilitating disease.
- Asch DA, Buresh J, Allison KC, et al. Trends in US Patients Receiving Care for Eating Disorders and Other Common Behavioral Health Conditions Before and During the COVID-19 Pandemic. JAMA Netw Open. 2021;4(11):e2134913. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2021.34913
- Zimmerman, J et al. Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID), Current Problems in Pediatric and Adolescent Health Care, Volume 47, Issue 4, 2017, Pages 95-103, ISSN 1538-5442, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cppeds.2017.02.005.