Symptoms of Eating Disorders

Woman weighing herself at home
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Most people have struggled with how they look at one time or another, and it is common for people to talk about dieting and exercise. Eating disorders cross a line into dangerous territory as they aren't simply an attempt to lose five pounds or tone up at the gym. They are serious, and it is important to recognize the symptoms in order to support sufferers getting the help that they need.

Signs of Someone Who May Have an Eating Disorder 

Do you believe that someone you love might have an eating disorder? Have you been struggling with thoughts about your own weight and/or food? See below for an overview of symptoms that might indicate an eating disorder.

1. Recent Weight Changes
People with eating disorders are often underweight but may be overweight as well. Rapid and significant weight changes can be a warning sign. It is important to remember that some people with eating disorders are also of normal weight.

2. Fear of Weight Gain/Body Image Problems
People with eating disorders may have an intense fear of gaining weight, even when actually underweight. They may also truly believe that they are overweight when they are not.

Problems with body image can prevent sufferers from participating in activities they would normally enjoy.

3. Secretive Behaviors
Guilt and shame can cause a person to eat in secret or hide large amounts of food. Loved ones may notice the person leaving the table immediately after meals or find hidden stashes of food. Sometimes people with eating disorders will also attempt to hide weight changes by wearing large and baggy clothing.

4. Low Self-Esteem
A person's self-image or self-esteem may be dependent on outward appearance, including body shape and weight. They may also be overly critical of themselves in other areas as well.

5. Making Oneself Sick
Self-induced vomiting or other forms of purging after meals or after binging is a sign of an eating disorder. Loved ones may notice that the person always goes to the bathroom after meals or may find evidence of excessive laxative/diuretic use, such as the packaging of pills.

6. Excessive Exercise
While exercise can be a wonderful thing, sometimes people with eating disorders become so obsessed with exercise that it becomes a problem in their life. Examples of this would be an insistence upon exercising at times when it is inappropriate, such as going for a run in inclement weather, or not being able to participate in regular activities because the person must exercise.

7. Preoccupation With Food
Thoughts about food and nutrition can take up most of a person's thoughts and time when they have an eating disorder. These thoughts may include counting calories or fat grams, or dividing types of food into "good" and "bad" categories. Some sufferers may exhibit a complete refusal to eat, while others may eat much more than the average person in one sitting.

8. Health Problems
Eating disorders cause many different health problems among sufferers. These may include but are not limited to, hair loss, bruising, amenorrhea (in women, their period may stop), electrolyte imbalances, osteoporosis, low blood pressure, dehydration, esophageal tears, and cardiac problems.

Eventually, physical problems related to eating disorders can lead to death.

If you, or anyone you know, are experiencing such symptoms, it is important to be evaluated by a medical doctor.

If you begin noticing these symptoms in someone you know, it is important to talk with them to express your concerns and encourage them to seek help from a professional, such as a therapist, dietician or physician. Set aside time to talk about it, communicate your support, and avoid placing blame or shaming the person.

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Article Sources
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  1. National Institute of Mental Health. Eating Disorders: About More Than Food. Updated 2018.

  2. National Eating Disorders Association. Warning Signs and Symptoms. 2018.

  3. Arcelus J, Mitchell AJ, Wales J, Nielsen S. Mortality Rates in Patients With Anorexia Nervosa and Other Eating Disorders: A Meta-analysis of 36 Studies. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2011;68(7):724-731. doi:10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2011.74

Additional Reading
  • Cotton M, Ball C, Robinson P. Four simple questions can help screen for eating disorders. Journal of General Internal Medicine. 2003;18:53-56.

  • Morgan JF, Reid F, Lacey JH. The SCOFF questionnaire: assessment of a new screening tool for eating disorders. BMJ. 1999;319:1467-1468.

  • American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.