How to Recognize an Eating Disorder

Closeup of the legs of a women with an eating disorder wearing sweatpants and standing on a scale
Published:  February 19, 2024

Eating disorders are complex mental health conditions that can have devastating effects on individuals’ lives if left untreated. Recognizing the early signs of an eating disorder is crucial in helping someone seek the necessary support and treatment.

What are Eating Disorders?

Eating disorders are a group of conditions characterized by an unhealthy relationship with food and body image. They can affect individuals of any gender, age, or background, but they are more prevalent among teenagers and young adults, especially girls and women.

There are several types of eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, and avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID). Each type has its unique set of symptoms and signs, but they all share the common thread of negative preoccupation with food and body weight.

Recognizing Common Eating Disorder Signs in Teenagers and Adults

There are a variety of symptoms of eating disorders that can help parents and loved ones know when treatment may be necessary. Each symptom of eating disorders has behavior associated with it. Some of the most common warning signs of eating disorders include:

1. Changes in Eating Habits

One of the earliest signs of an eating disorder is a noticeable change in a person’s eating habits. Depending on the type of eating disorder this involves an increase or decrease in food intake. Behaviors associated with changes in eating habits include:

  • Regimented Eating Habits: The individual may become more rigid in their eating patterns, such as eating only at specific times, using specific plates and cutlery, or insisting on eating food in a particular order.
  • Food Manipulation: They may exhibit behaviors like moving food around their plate excessively, chopping it into tiny pieces or specific shapes before eating, or using excessive condiments or seasoning.
  • Anxiety and Restlessness: The person may appear fidgety and anxious during mealtimes, displaying unease or discomfort while consuming food.
  • Food Repetition: A person with an eating disorder may stick to eating the same foods repeatedly, avoiding variety in their diet.
  • Sudden Diet Changes: They might abruptly adopt a new diet, such as becoming vegetarian or going gluten-free, often without any medical or ethical rationale.

2. Heightened Interest in Food

Another early sign of an eating disorder is a sudden and intense interest in food. Someone with an eating disorder previously may have never discussed food to the extent they currently do. This conversation may center around how “bad” different foods are, influencer diets they are following, and more.

  • Increased Nutritional Knowledge: The individual may exhibit an in-depth knowledge of nutrition, calorie content, and dietary information, which seems to have emerged unexpectedly.
  • Exploration of Food-related Media: They may start downloading recipes, reading cookbooks, or watching cookery programs, despite having previously shown little interest in such content.

3. Social Withdrawal

People with eating disorders may withdraw from social interactions and isolate themselves. This can be a sign of emotional distress and may indicate the presence of an eating disorder. Signs of social withdrawal to look for include:

  • Avoidance of Social Activities: The person may stop seeing friends or participating in hobbies they once enjoyed.
  • Loss of Interest: They may no longer engage in activities they used to find pleasure in, such as going out with friends or engaging in social events.
  • Preoccupation with Food : They may prioritize their relationship with food over social interactions, making excuses to avoid socializing during mealtimes.

4. Emotional Changes Related to Eating

Emotional fluctuations, especially in relation to eating, can be indicative of an eating disorder. Someone struggling with an eating disorder may become depressed or anxious if they’re not meeting their chosen weight goals. Paying attention to these signs can ensure you or your loved one are getting the support needed to manage these emotions :

  • Mood Swings: Noticeable shifts in mood, particularly before or after mealtimes, can suggest an underlying eating disorder. These mood swings may manifest as heightened anxiety, irritability, or tearfulness.
  • Obsessive Thoughts: The person may exhibit obsessive thoughts about food, weight, or body image, which can significantly impact their emotional well-being.
  • Emotional Distress: They may experience intense emotions, such as guilt or shame, after consuming food, leading to negative self-perception and self-criticism.

Specific Signs of the Different Types of Eating Disorders

In addition to the common early signs mentioned above, eating disorders have a range of other symptoms that can vary depending on the specific eating disorder a person is struggling with and the stage of their eating disorder.

Anorexia Nervosa Symptoms

Anorexia nervosa is characterized by extreme weight loss, an intense fear of gaining weight, and a distorted body image. The following are primary signs of anorexia:

  • Dramatic weight loss
  • Body image distortion
  • Restrictive eating
  • Excessive exercise
  • Obsession with appearance
  • Self-harm and depression

Bulimia Nervosa Symptoms

Bulimia nervosa is characterized by cycles of binge eating followed by compensatory behaviors such as purging, excessive exercise, or fasting. Look out for the following signs of bulimia:

  • Binge eating
  • Purging behaviors
  • Dehydration
  • Tooth sensitivity
  • Persistent sore throat

Binge Eating Disorder Symptoms

Binge eating disorder involves recurrent episodes of excessive food consumption without compensatory behaviors. The following symptoms may indicate the presence of binge eating disorder:

  • Frequent binge eating
  • Feelings of guilt and shame
  • High body weight
  • Frequent diet attempts
  • Emotional distress

Treatment Options for Eating Disorders

Effective treatment for eating disorders must be holistic in nature as eating disorders have an impact on both physical and mental wellbeing. The primary goal is to address the root causes and help individuals develop a healthy relationship with food and their bodies. Treatment plans may include a combination of therapy, medical monitoring, and nutritional counseling.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is commonly used to challenge negative thoughts and behaviors associated with eating disorders. It helps individuals develop coping strategies, improve self-esteem, and establish healthy eating patterns. Family-based therapy is particularly effective for adolescents with eating disorders, involving the whole family in the recovery process. Medication can be used at the beginning of treatment to help with weight gain or loss. Medication can also be used long-term to assist in the treatment of co-occurring mental health disorders. 

In severe cases where medical stabilization is necessary, hospitalization or residential treatment may be required. These programs provide intensive medical and psychological support to address the physical and emotional aspects of the disorder.

How to Support Someone in Eating Disorder Recovery

Supporting someone in their recovery journey is essential. Encourage them to attend their regular therapy sessions and attend support groups where they can connect with others who have similar experiences. Be mindful of triggers in their environment and offer assistance in creating a supportive and nurturing space.

Promote self-care activities that focus on overall well-being, such as practicing mindfulness, engaging in regular physical activity for enjoyment rather than weight control, and cultivating a positive body image. Encouraging open communication and providing a nonjudgmental space for sharing thoughts and feelings can also aid in maintaining recovery.

Get Help for Eating Disorders with MindRx

Recognizing eating disorders and understanding their signs and symptoms is a crucial step towards seeking help and support. By educating ourselves and others, we can promote early intervention and improve physical and mental well-being. Remember, eating disorders are complex conditions, but with the right treatment and support, recovery is possible.

The MindRx team has experience in treating a variety of eating disorders. We believe in holistic and multidisciplinary approach. We provide in-person and virtual therapy and psychiatry services for individuals of all ages in Oregon and Washington. Together, we can make a difference in the lives of those affected by eating disorders. Contact us to schedule an appointment today.