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 not at all unusual for people to talk about dieting and exercise. Eating disorders cross a line into dangerous territory, however, 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, so you can help yourself or someone you care about get the help that they need.

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.

Note: Not everyone will experience these signs, and symptoms will vary depending on your type of eating disorder. However, these are some general behaviors that my indicate the need to seek help.

Recent Weight Changes

People with eating disorders are often underweight, but in some cases they may be overweight. 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.

Fear of Weight Gain or Body Image Problems

People with eating disorders may have an intense fear of gaining weight, even when they're actually underweight. They may also truly believe that they are overweight when they are not.

Problems with body image can prevent people with eating disorders from participating in activities they would normally enjoy.

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.

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 perfectionists, or overly critical of themselves in other areas as well.

Making Oneself Sick

Self-induced vomiting or other forms of purging after meals or after bingeing is a sign of an eating disorder. Loved ones may notice that the person always goes to the bathroom after meals. Or they may find evidence of excessive laxative/diuretic use, such as pill packages in the trash.

Excessive Exercise

While exercise can be a wonderful thing, sometimes a person with an eating disorder can 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 feels they must exercise.

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 people with eating disorders may exhibit a complete refusal to eat, while others may eat much more than the average person in one sitting. A preoccupation with food can also include an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating (also known as orthorexia).

Health Problems

Eating disorders cause many different health problems, including physical and mental effects. Some of them may be apparent, while others are largely silent until they become serious.

Physical Effects

Eating disorders affect every system of the body and can lead to physical health problems like:

  • Amenorrhea (in women, their period may stop)
  • Brain mass loss
  • Bruising
  • Dehydration
  • Dental problems
  • Dry skin and hair
  • Electrolyte imbalances
  • Esophageal tears
  • Fainting spells
  • Gastrointestinal issues (chronic constipation, gastroesophageal reflux)
  • Hair loss or downy hair all over the body (called lanugo)
  • Heart problems
  • Low blood pressure
  • Musculoskeletal injuries and pain
  • Osteoporosis or weakened bones

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

Mental Effects

Eating disorders often occur with the following mental health conditions:

Getting Help

If you or someone you care about is experiencing such symptoms, it is important to get them evaluated and diagnosed by a medical doctor. Talk with them to express your concerns, and encourage them to seek help from a professional, such as a therapist, dietitian, or physician. Set aside time to talk about it, communicate your support, and avoid placing blame or shaming the person.

If you or a loved one are coping with an eating disorder, contact the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) Helpline for support at 1-800-931-2237. 

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

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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. Roberto CA, Mayer LE, Brickman AM, et al. Brain tissue volume changes following weight gain in adults with anorexia nervosaInt J Eat Disord. 2011;44(5):406-11. doi:10.1002/eat.20840

  4. Misra M, Golden NH, Katzman DK. State of the art systematic review of bone disease in anorexia nervosaInt J Eat Disord. 2016;49(3):276-92. doi:10.1002/eat.22451

  5. 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

  6. Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Eating disorders.

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