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How To Recognize the Signs of an Eating Disorder

It’s estimated that some 30 million people in the United States have an eating disorder, such as bulimia, anorexia, binge eating disorder, or orthorexia. While it’s true that eating disorders frequently occur in teenage girls or young women in their 20s, these disorders can affect anyone, of any age.

Eating disorders can take many forms, but they do share some characteristics. People who experience them have an unhealthy relationship to food. They may be dissatisfied with their body shape or their weight, even though they appear slim and fit to others, or are considered healthy according to accepted standards such as BMI. It is common for people with eating disorders to struggle with eating a healthy diet that is not overly restrictive; they may be unable to treat themselves to an indulgent meal or dessert without feeling intense shame and guilt.

One of the hallmarks of both anorexia and bulimia, the two most common disorders, is a distorted perception of one’s own body shape, weight, or both. And eating disorders can be difficult to recover from, particularly on one’s own; it’s important to seek treatment from experienced, compassionate professionals.

What Are the Health Risks of Eating Disorders?

Eating disorders take an undeniable toll on a person’s health — both physical and mental. Depending on the particular disorder that is in play, the individual might develop issues or conditions such as:

  • Anemia or low blood-cell count
  • Amenorrhea or irregular menstrual periods
  • Dizzy spells or fainting
  • Dry hair and/or hair loss
  • Dry skin and/or dry and brittle nails
  • Dental problems, especially erosion of tooth enamel and cavities
  • Wounds that are slow to heal
  • Frequently feeling cold and an inability to warm up
  • Muscular weakness
  • Bones that are abnormally prone to fractures
  • Cardiovascular problems

As you can see, eating disorders are much more than just picky eating or going on an extreme diet. They can lead to very serious medical problems.

Not only that, but it’s very common for an eating disorder patient to also be diagnosed with a comorbid mood disorder, such as depression or anxiety, or a comorbid substance abuse disorder. Similarly, many patients also suffer from attachment disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder.

What Are the Signs of Eating Disorders?

If you have a child, sibling, romantic partner, friend, or other loved one whom you suspect of having an eating disorder, there are some symptoms to be on the lookout for. It’s important to remember, however, that not every person dealing with an eating disorder will exhibit all of these signs. They may also exhibit behaviors that are not included here. However, the following indications may give you an idea of whether your loved one has developed an eating disorder.

  • A preoccupation with food. This may include counting calories, fat grams, or carbohydrates. The individual may refuse to eat certain foods or even entire food groups — such as sweets, processed foods, white flour, saturated fats, or meat. Rituals surrounding food are another common behavior associated with eating disorders. Such rituals might be rearranging the food on the plate, eating certain items first, or chewing each bite a certain number of times.
  • Refusal to eat meals or snacks, and making excuses to avoid social events or other situations that revolve around food. The eating disorder patient might claim to have eaten elsewhere or to have consumed a big meal earlier in the day, or simply say she is not hungry. People with eating disorders often don’t like to eat in public, or in front of others.
  • A preoccupation with exercise or burning calories. Of course, there are plenty of people who are strict about developing and sticking to an exercise regimen. However, people with eating disorders may work out for many hours each day, exhibit an unhealthy desire to exercise, or comment on how many calories a particular activity burns.
  • Fluctuations in weight. Dramatic weight loss is one indication that your loved one may have an eating disorder, but contrary to popular belief, not everyone with an eating disorder is unhealthily skinny. Many bulimics, for example, are average weight or even overweight.
  • Dressing in layers or baggy clothing. This sign may be indicative of weight loss, or it may point to the individual’s desire to hide their body from public view simply because of their own unhappiness with it. Dressing in layers, or wearing long pants and warm tops, is sometimes a sign that the person can’t regulate her own body temperature — one of the physical symptoms of eating disorders.
  • Menstrual issues. Again, it’s not uncommon for teenagers and young women to have irregular menstrual periods, but this — or, especially, a loss of all menstrual periods — can be a sign of an eating disorder.
  • Controlling behavior, or difficulty being flexible about scheduled activities or social plans. Maintaining eating disorder behavior is often hard and time consuming. When plans change at the last minute, someone who suffers from an eating disorder may become irrationally upset or unable to cope.
  • Behavioral changes. Withdrawing from her friends and social circle, opting out of activities and events, or being secretive and isolated are all warning signs that something isn’t quite right.

One of the most unusual aspects of eating disorders is that they are a form of mental illness that is manifested on a physical level. In other words, both the patient’s physical symptoms and the underlying mental and emotional issues must be addressed for treatment to be effective.

According to the experts at Fairhaven Treatment Center, a state-of-the-art treatment center for eating disorders in TN, “Establishing a healthy relationship between both mind and body makes a powerful contribution to recovery and sets the stage for lifelong health.”

As with other forms of treatment, such as for alcohol or drug abuse, it is difficult and ineffective to impose recovery on someone else. The patient herself has to want to make changes in her life. Nevertheless, understanding the signs of an eating disorder can help you learn about your loved one’s condition and better equip yourself to be supportive.

For more resources, visit The National Eating Disorders Association.