How Eating Disorders Are Identified

If you’re coming to this page, it’s probably because you’ve noticed some problems with your eating or your weight. Or maybe someone else has expressed concern about your weight, appearance, or eating behavior. Maybe someone has suggested you have an eating disorder and you don’t believe it. You should know, though, that this is a common symptom of the illness. It can be hard to confront the possibility of an eating disorder. It is common to feel scared, confused, and ashamed.

Real-life eating disorders are very different than how they are often portrayed in popular media. Eating disorders are not a choice or a symptom of vanity. They are serious mental illnesses caused by a combination of biological, environmental, and psychological factors.

Eating disorders can affect anyone—people of any gender, age, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status. Plus, you do not have to be underweight to have an eating disorder.

Maybe friends and family have been expressing concerns about your weight loss. Maybe you are feeling increasingly scared around activities involving food. Maybe you’re feeling a loss of control around food. Maybe you’re spending more time at the gym and missing social activities. How do you know whether any of these issues are signs of a more serious problem? How do you know when a diet has gone too far? It can be hard to know!

Warning Signs

Some signs of an eating disorder can look a lot like behaviors that our culture considers virtuous. It can be hard to admit you have a problem when people around you are dieting, complimenting your weight loss, or asking for diet tips. Or you may feel ashamed about certain behaviors such as bingeing, purging, eating in secret, using laxatives, or chewing and spitting. So, what are some of the warning signs?

  • Significant weight loss (or among growing children, a failure to gain weight)
  • A food preoccupationthat interferes with the ability to concentrate
  • Engaging in bingeing, purging, or laxative use
  • Hiding food or secret eating
  • Refusing to eat with or extreme anxiety eating in front of others
  • Following strict dietary rules and experiencing distress if you break them
  • Avoidance of foods previously enjoyed
  • Forgoing social, school, or work obligations in order to exercise
  • Significant anxiety and self-consciousness regarding body shape or size

Types of Disorders

Each of the eating disorders has their own specific criteria. The most common eating disorders are:

  • Binge eating disorder (BED)—involves consuming large amounts of food in a discrete period of time and the feeling that the eating is out of one’s control.
  • Bulimia nervosa—involves episodes of bingeing (out of control eating) alternating with behaviors aimed to compensate for the binges. These compensatory behaviors include fasting, overexercising, vomiting, and using laxatives.
  • Anorexia nervosa—involves restricted eating and maintenance of a lower than expected weight along with a fear of weight gain and distorted body image.
  • Other specified feeding and eating disorder (OSFED)—a category for anyone who has a significant issue with eating that does not neatly fall into one of the primary categories. Sometimes people with OSFED have some symptoms of one disorder and some of another. Or sometimes they fall just short of meeting the full criteria. This does not mean that they do not still suffer greatly. 

While it is not the case that everyone who diets or worries about their eating or weight has a disorder, there is also not a fine line between normal and a problem. There are many individuals who have subclinical eating disorders. Subclinical eating disorders may be steps in the development of a full-blown eating disorder and can be the source of significant suffering in their own right. So, please don’t get caught up in diagnostic criteria if you think you have a problem.

What to Do

You may be feeling scared. You may be unwilling to admit that you have a problem. You may be ambivalent about getting help.

It can be especially hard for some people with certain eating disorders to recognize that they have a problem. This condition is called anosognosia and it may be related to changes in the brain due to malnutrition. If someone in your life is worried about you and you disagree with them about having a problem, there is a good chance they have a valid concern.

Admitting you have a problem is an important first step. Eating disorders can cause serious medical problems and, in some cases, can be deadly. So, it is best to err on the side of caution and seek help for your eating problem. Early intervention increases the chance for a full recovery. The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) provides an online eating disorder screening tool.

Seeking help is also recommended. NEDA has a confidential toll-free helpline. You can call and speak to a trained volunteer who can offer support and make referrals. The number is 800-931-2237.

A Word From Verywell

It is common to not feel sick enough and deserving of help. It’s hard to admit you have a problem. Asking for help can be one of the hardest things to do, but it’s so important because eating disorders that aren’t treated can become chronic and dangerous.

You do not have to continue to live this way. Please seek help from a qualified professional. Know that getting better is hard work and has its ups and downs, but that full recovery from an eating disorder is possible. 

Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  • Thomas, J.J. & Schaefer, J. Almost Anorexic: Is My (or My Loved One's) Relationship with Food a Problem? (The Almost Effect) (Harvard University, 2013).

By Lauren Muhlheim, PsyD, CEDS
 Lauren Muhlheim, PsyD, is a certified eating disorders expert and clinical psychologist who provides cognitive behavioral psychotherapy.