It’s easier to recover from most eating disorders with earlier detection. That’s just one of the many reasons why its important for families and friends to be on the lookout for signs of eating disorders. However, it’s not always easy to identify eating disorders. They are not all the same, and can present in different ways. Make yourself aware of some of the warning signs of the eating disorders so you’re in a better position to notice when something is wrong.
Remember, this isn’t a checklist—although there are self-assessments you can take. This is an overview of some of the most common signs of eating disorders, and how they might look in people struggling with these diseases. These warning signs can give you a sense of the kinds of behaviors to watch for, and how and why they can mean that your loved one is having a problem.
The Most Common Signs of Eating Disorders
1. Skipping Meals: Anorexia
Anorexia nervosa, also simply called anorexia, is one of the most well-known eating disorders. This is partly because in extreme cases it’s easy to see its effects. Of course the poor skin and hair, low body fat, bony frame, and eventual organ failure of people with anorexia are notable. However, don’t think that everyone with the disease will be that obviously spotted.
One of the most telltale signs of anorexia is skipping meals and refusing to eat. Over time the person will try to be creative, making various excuses for why they’re not eating. Sooner or later, though, you’re bound to wonder why they simply never eat in front of anyone else. They’re also likely to weigh too little, exercise to excess and compulsively, and focus intensely on weight loss to the exclusion of all else.
Remember, anorexia may seem to be about beauty standards or achieving a physical look. However, that’s really not so important. The actual issue that drives most anorexics is control. The ability to master the basic impulse to eat is a display of control. If your friend or loved one is struggling to control certain aspects of their life, that need to control can surface as anorexia.
2. Signs of Eating Disorders | Eating Until Sick: Binge Eating Disorder
Binge eating disorder, also called compulsive overeating, is another common eating disorder. People with this problem regularly binge until they feel sick. They usually binge on “unhealthy” or “bad” foods, such as fast food, snack foods, and sweets. Right after the binge, binge eaters feel strong emotions such as shame and depression. However, they don’t typically purge intentionally (although they may vomit simply from eating too much).
Binge eating is sometimes tied to emotional problems or challenging situations. If you see a friend or loved one who regularly “stress eats” until they are sick, for example, they might have binge eating disorder. People who eat to cope with problems are also showing you a warning sign.
3. Hitting the Bathroom After Eating: Bulimia
People struggling with bulimia nervosa, also called bulimia, typically purge after meals. They do this by forcing themselves to vomit, or by abusing laxatives and diuretics, most commonly. Some bulimics diet successfully, and some even eat normal meals. In other words, bulimics may not binge at all. Purging is the common thread for bulimics. For this reason, look for trips to the bathroom right after meals.
Eventually you may also see tooth decay as stomach acid destroys the enamel of the teeth. Another sign of bulimia is throat problems and acid reflux from vomiting. Ongoing constipation and dehydration can be caused by laxative abuse, so they are two more signs of purging and bulimia.
4. Signs of Eating Disorders | The Food Detective: Orthorexia, Anorexia
Another sign of an eating disorder is a person who is obsessed with food ingredients. The food detective disguises their eating disorder as a focus on health, organics, or a stance against GMOs and processing. However, they are really simply restricting all “bad” foods that can cause them to gain weight. They often classify foods in a binary way: pure or impure, healthy or unhealthy. In the end, their diet is far too restrictive to actually be healthy.
Look for obsessing over food’s nutritional information, a sense of superiority over anyone who doesn’t do the same, and severe restriction of foods that are acceptable. In addition, people with this kind of problem are also likely to punish themselves for deviations.
5. Signs of Eating Disorders | Burning It Off: Compulsive Exercising and Eating Disorders
People with anorexia more generally, and a special subtype of the disease called anorexia athletica, exercise compulsively and to excess. They focus obsessively on burning off every calorie they consume, and more. They are also likely to embody signs of the “food detective” and exhibit preoccupation with extreme health food trends.
Look for your friend or loved one calculating exactly how much activity it will take to burn off calories they consume, and for them spending hours working out.
6. Signs of Eating Disorders | All Night Junk Food Fest: The Night Eater
Some people with eating disorders successfully diet all day but have trouble at night. This is especially true when they are around other people during the day but alone at night. They then “fall off the wagon” and binge on junk food in the privacy of their own home at night.
Look for food in shared spaces disappearing at night without explanation. This kind of pattern is often seen in people with bulimia, binge eating disorder, or even people in the “eating disorder not otherwise specified” category.
The bottom line
Eating disorders are all different, and so are the people who struggle with them. By watching for some of these more common signs of an eating disorder, you might be better prepared to notice someone who is in trouble and help prevent their eating disorder from getting worse.
If you are wondering whether you might have an eating disorder, remember, there’s nothing to feel ashamed about. A great place to start is with a self-assessment that you can fill out to see where you stand. Once you’ve got a sense of your own position, reach out for help.