Eating Disorder Sign

Warning Signs of an Eating Disorder

Eating disorders are a common but often misunderstood issue. An estimated 9% of the U.S. population will experience an eating disorder at some point. When people think about eating disorders, the first things that often spring to mind are anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. However, many other forms of disordered eating are harder to identify but can still have a lasting impact on a person’s well-being.

What Is an Eating Disorder?

Eating disorders are serious conditions that affect people’s eating behaviors. Some of the most well-known eating disorders include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder, but there are other conditions, such as avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (AFRID), that are less well-known but can still lead to significant health issues if left untreated.

One common misconception is that eating disorders are a lifestyle choice. This isn’t the case. The distorted body image, preoccupation with food and feeling of loss of control that can occur in someone who’s living with an eating disorder are signs of a serious illness that requires careful treatment.

Signs and Symptoms of Eating Disorders

The signs and symptoms of eating disorders can vary depending on the specific condition. For example, the extremely restrictive eating habits of someone with anorexia nervosa may lead to extreme weight loss, anemia, thinning hair, dry skin and increased risk of osteoporosis. Left untreated, anorexia nervosa can lead to organ failure and may be fatal.

Bulimia nervosa is sometimes harder to notice, especially if the individual is good at hiding their purging behaviors. Some people living with bulimia are underweight; others are a normal weight or overweight. Prolonged purging behaviors can lead to some noticeable symptoms, however, including worn teeth enamel, swollen salivary glands, acid reflux and chronic sore throat.

Before such symptoms appear, there may be some early signs that a person is struggling with their relationship with food, such as:

  • An increased interest in cooking for others
  • Precise tracking of calorie intake and activity levels
  • A loss of interest in certain food groups
  • Increased interest in specific diets
  • Excessively chewing food
  • Weighing food or measuring portions carefully
  • Secrecy around food intake

These behaviors may start on a small scale and become more noticeable over time. A person who’s struggling with an eating disorder may also become irritable and quick to anger or become defensive if their food intake or exercise behaviors are questioned.

Eating Disorders vs. Stress and Anxiety

Some people find themselves eating less if they’re stressed or anxious. It’s also not unusual for people to comfort eat when they’re depressed. Short-term changes in appetite due to external influences aren’t necessarily a sign of an eating disorder. However, if emotional eating becomes a persistent behavior, it could cross the threshold into a binge eating disorder. Some individuals struggling with binge eating may find working with Overeaters Anonymous or a similar support group can help them develop a better relationship with food.

Around 70% of people who are living with an eating disorder also show signs of other conditions, such as anxiety or a mood disorder. Stress, anxiety and depression are all serious challenges in their own right, and it’s important to seek help if you’re experiencing symptoms of one of those conditions. Typically, treating the underlying issue will help return your appetite to normal.

Conditions Similar to Eating Disorders

Many conditions coexist with eating disorders or have similar symptoms. For example, women with ADHD are more likely to be diagnosed with an eating disorder than those who aren’t. In addition, AFRID is often comorbid with autistic spectrum disorder.

Other conditions, such as achalasia and celiac disease, can lead to weight loss and difficulty eating certain foods. The symptoms of these conditions are sometimes mistaken for anorexia nervosa. This misdiagnosis can lead to a delay in treatment for the underlying physical condition.

What to Do If You Think You Have an Eating Disorder

If you find yourself wondering, “Do I have an eating disorder?” know that help is available. Talking to a counselor about your difficulties with food could help set your mind at ease and help you address the challenges you’re facing.

At MentalHealthHotline, we can help connect you to a counselor in your area. Our helplines are open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for confidential, free support.