How to identify if a loved one has an eating disorder

Learn the warning signs to look out for if you suspect a loved one has an eating disorder.

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  • In our weight-obsessed society, eating disorders are increasingly prevalent. According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD), as many as 24 million people in the US suffer from an eating disorder such as anorexia, bulimia or binge eating disorder. Eating disorders are highly disruptive to one's quality of life, and can sometimes be deadly.

  • I work at a clinic where we provide counseling for bulimia and other eating disorders. Oftentimes, eating disorder sufferers seek help at the urging of their families who have witnessed some alarming warning signs. Read on to learn the main signs to look out for if you suspect a loved one may have an eating disorder.

  • Anorexia Nervosa warning signs

    • Insufficient food intake, causing weight loss

    • Underweight or emaciated appearance

    • Obsession with weight and appearance

    • Body dysmorphia — when someone has a distorted view of their body; for example, believing they are overweight when they are actually underweight

    • Withdrawal from friends and family

    • Intense fear of weight gain

    • Weight strongly tied to self-esteem

    • Refusal to eat or highly restrictive diet

    • Increased sensitivity to cold

    • Compulsive or excessive exercise

    • Hair loss

    • Increased facial and body hair (caused by inadequate protein intake)

    • Absence of menstruation in women

  • Bulimia warning signs

    • Evidence of binge eating (when someone eats a large amount of food in a short amount of time), such as discarded food wrappers

    • Evidence of purging, including signs of vomiting or trips to the bathroom after eating

    • Attempts to conceal binging and purging episodes

    • Signs of depression, such as lack of interest in activities they used to enjoy and sleeping excessively

    • Feeling out of control during binge episodes

    • Use of laxatives and diuretics

    • Body image strongly tied to self-esteem

    • Compulsive exercise to burn off calories consumed, sometimes to the point of injury — excessive exercise is also a form of "purging"

    • Stained or decayed teeth

    • Swelling in face or jaw area

    • Calluses on knuckles from self-induced vomiting

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  • Binge eating disorder (BED) warning signs

    • Binge eating, but without purging behaviors

    • Overweight or obese appearance

    • Feeling out of control during binge episodes

    • Eating to control difficult emotions or to get a "high" — something people in our profession refer to as food addiction

    • Eating when not hungry

    • Eating to the point of pain or discomfort

    • Eating alone because of guilt or shame in connection with binge eating

    • Depression and weight-related health problems

  • Learn about the symptoms of additional feeding/eating disorders, such as pica and rumination disorder.

  • Negative self-talk is a cornerstone for eating disordered behavior. Although many people talk about "good" and "bad" foods, a person struggling with an eating disorder experiences a disproportionate amount of shame around what they eat. They tend to see things in all or nothing terms. If they aren't perfect in their diet or exercise plan, they feel they have failed. They berate themselves by calling themselves names and this drives them further into the eating disorder spiral. They punish their "bad" behavior by restricting, exercising more or even binge eating to the point of pain. Due to this sense of shame, they may become very defensive when a loved one expresses a concern.

  • It's important to note that someone with an eating disorder will not necessarily have every sign on this list — they might just have two or three. But recognizing the signs of an eating disorder in a loved one can make a big difference in their life, especially if you are able to detect a problem before the disease progresses too far. When you know what to look for, you can seek help for your loved one before it's too late.

  • If you know someone who could be helped by this information, please share it. You might just save a life.

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