If you’re on this page, you might know someone who has shown signs of eating disorder. National surveys estimate that 20 million women and 10 million men in America will have an eating disorder at some point in their lives. And they have the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness and several medical complications that come from binge eating, purging, starvation, and over-exercising. People who struggle with eating disorders also have a severely impacted quality of life and recovery can be a long and slow process. Where do you start if you see signs of an eating disorder?
Which eating disorder?
Associating behaviors with a specific eating disorder may help the person get the right support. There are several different eating disorders, including: anorexia nervosa, avoidant restrictive food intake disorder, binge eating disorder, bulimia, pica, orthorexia, and unspecified eating disorder.
Even though weight is often used as an indicator for diagnosis, it’s really important to recognize that not everyone who struggles with an eating disorder is severely underweight.
Sometimes some one who has been struggling for many years will show physical signs, while other times there are no physical signs. Author Harriet Brown likens eating disorders to a cancer that has already reached stage III, or worse.
The good news is that recovery is possible with the proper treatment. And an active support system plays a key role in recovery.
Here are 7 signs that indicate someone may be struggling with an eating disorder:
1. Discusses weight concerns frequently.
- Individuals who are constantly on a diet and are emotional when they don’t reach goal weights
- Expresses concern about body shape or weight, or expresses a desire to lose weight or look different
- Talks excessively about food, healthy foods, “clean” eating, “bad foods”, or avoids eating foods because they are on a diet
2. Uses exercise to manage weight and to “undo” what they ate.
- Increases an exercise regimen or physical activity without also increasing caloric intake
- Becomes anxious or upset if he or she cannot exercise
- Frequently chooses exercise sessions over events or social gatherings
3. Highly concerned about meal preparation.
- Becomes unusually interested in cooking, but might not actually be eating the meals or treats he or she makes
- Makes safe meals instead of eating what the family is eating
- Constantly avoids restaurants because there is nothing they can eat on the menu
4. Expresses desire and concern to have control over mealtimes and food.
- Becomes anxious and/or upset when unable to control mealtimes or meal plans change
- Expresses anxiety, anger, or frustration when dinner plans change or the restaurant isn’t serving the meal they planned to order
- Avoids eating if mealtime is at a different time
5. Odd behaviors during and after meals.
- Consistently uses the bathroom after a meal
- Refuses to eat in anyone else’s presence
- Engages in rituals with food, such as cutting it into small pieces or eating things in a certain order
- Takes abnormally long time to complete a meal
6. Has frequent mood changes that are unexplainable or are triggered by food, body image, or exercise.
- Appears more depressed, anxious, irritable or fatigued than normal
- Mood changes if conversation relates to food, body image, exercise, or size
7. Change in energy levels.
- Seems to have less energy, less vivacious, or less interested in the activities they once loved. Seems “down” all the time
- Has become extremely high energy
- Takes on too many responsibilities and activities wearing themselves down
- Depressed and upset when they are not able to 100 percent at all times
The presence of one or more of these signs doesn’t necessarily mean that the individual has been diagnosed with an eating disorder, but it does represent a red flag. And at the least calls for extra awareness and extra support.
Onset of Eating Disorders
It often takes psychological therapy to identify what triggers the onset of an eating disorder. But stress, trauma, and social environment can provide clues that someone might be struggling with an eating disorder. Eating disorder behaviors can develop as coping mechanisms for a person and provide false sense of control.
If you see some of the above signs, take a moment to think about the stress that the person might be going through. Several questions you may ask or think about:
- Has there been any family change or tragedy?
- Any personal trauma? Recent or in the past.
- Are they being bullied (especially about weight or body shape)?
- Is the person highly anxious about school and grades?
- Do they feel like they have to live up to unrealistic standards or goals?
If the answer is “yes” to any of these questions be supportive.
If you think your friend, daughter, son, partner, spouse, coworker or loved one is exhibiting signs of eating disorder don’t panic, judge, or accuse. You’re already doing the right thing by taking the time to research. Use sites like NEDA, Eating Disorder Hope, or Project Heal.
Talk to a trusted health professional, such as a physician, pediatrician or a therapist, or reach out to me or someone else who has gone through similar struggles.
Most importantly, start the conversation with your friend or loved one. Gently express your concerns and show your support and love. Sometimes the person does not even know or want to admit they are struggling with an eating disorder. They may not be aware of the signs of eating disorder. You may the first person or one of many who have expressed concern. No matter what make sure they know you are there for them.
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