There are several different types of eating disorders. The most commonly discussed are anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder. At its essence, an eating disorder is a psychological disorder. Each functions differently, with all being characterized by abnormal eating habits. Someone suffering from an eating disorder could be limiting how much food they consume, unhealthily purging food, or eating excessively in a short span of time.
Food isn’t the primary motivation for eating disorders. Eating disorders are rooted in the feelings and emotions of the person struggling. Individuals with eating disorders interact with food in ways that make them feel more in control of their lives and better able to manage themselves.
However, the unhealthy patterns of eating established by these disorders affect the thinking, behaviors, and mood of the people suffering from them. This ends up negatively impacting physical health, school, work, and relationships.
It’s not always easy to know what to watch for when you suspect that someone has, or is developing, an eating disorder. All types of eating disorders are complex. So, the behaviors that they trigger vary from person to person. However, some common behavioral, physical, and psychological signs can indicate if someone you know is suffering from an eating disorder.
Changes in Eating Habits
Since the disorders create unhealthy preoccupations with food, one of the tell-tale signs that someone is suffering from an eating disorder is that their eating habits change unusually. This can mean they stop eating around others, they’re drinking a lot of water or caffeine to suppress their hunger, or eating smaller amounts than normal.
To eat less, and not be noticed, they may adopt new habits like cutting their food into small portions, chewing for long periods before swallowing, moving food around on the plate, or even hiding food in a napkin to get rid of later.
On the flip side, eating certain foods more than usual can be a sign of binge eating, a compulsion affecting bulimics, which is followed by purging, going to the bathroom immediately after and vomiting everything up, or taking laxatives.
Drastic Weight Loss
Drastic weight loss is a strong indication that someone could be suffering from an eating disorder. When a person weighs less than 85 percent of their (ideal) body weight, that’s cause for alarm, and could be the result of anorexia nervosa.
Not all people suffering from eating disorders experience extreme weight loss or are underweight. Some diagnosed with them are close to or weigh more than their healthy body weight. This is the case for many living with bulimia who habitually binge and purge.
Those who suffer from anorexia have a completely distorted body image. They’ll be extremely afraid of gaining any weight. To prevent weight gain, they’ll diet and exercise relentlessly, counting every calorie. They may even go so far as to starve themselves.
Because people who suffer from anorexia believe they’re obese, when they’re slim or underweight, you’ll hear them make negative comments about their physical appearance and weight. They’ll insist that they’re overweight.
Anorexia is an eating disorder that slowly develops over time. So, the early signs of anorexia are subtle and not always noticeable. The disorder can start as a regular diet, possibly before a vacation or special event, which then escalates into an intense obsession with weight.
The obsession with weight often causes anxiety. The more pounds they lose, the more they obsess over their weight. People living with anorexia are good at hiding their disorder from others. Signs of the disorder may not be noticeable until it’s progressed.
Unlike anorexia, the symptoms of bulimia are easier to hide, making it one of the hardest eating disorders to recognize. People suffering from bulimia tend to be good at hiding their unhealthy activities, so it can take years for family and friends to realize that someone close to them is living with the disorder.
A major warning sign of bulimia is evidence of purging. This includes going to the bathroom immediately after eating, smelling like vomit, scarring on their knuckles, and taking laxatives.
Another warning sign is exercising obsessively, with the person feeling it’s necessary to dedicate hours of their day to physical fitness, and being motivated by the number of calories they burn. Even getting upset when their exercise routine is interrupted.
Other warning signs have to do with the mood and mental state of the person suffering from the eating disorder. As the disorder progresses, the sufferer’s mood can fluctuate, causing them to be irritable, anxious, and depressed. They’ll start to distance themselves from others, and stop socializing. They’ll even lose interest in activities that used to bring them joy.
There is no exact reason why eating disorders develop. It’s been recognized that some people are at higher risk of developing eating disorders. This includes people related to others who’ve had eating disorders, those who are extreme dieting, and those who’ve experienced trauma. Psychological issues like depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem also contribute to the risk someone has of suffering from an eating disorder.
Struggles With Body Image
People who have body image issues are more likely to develop eating disorders. If someone you know spends a significant amount of time looking at their body in the mirror, obsessively talks about being unhappy with their weight, and becomes preoccupied with comparing their body to those of celebrities and models, these behaviors should be causes for concern.
If you realize that someone you know is exhibiting signs of suffering from an eating disorder, don’t feel hopeless. It’s important to remember that eating disorders are treatable conditions. Regardless of the health consequences that someone with an eating disorder faces, they’ll continue the behaviors and habits triggered by the eating disorder.
Without intervention, the harmful actions caused by eating disorders can cause organs to stop functioning properly, and in the most extreme cases result in death.
Approach the situation cautiously, and offer to get them professional help. Despite the severity of an eating disorder, the earlier help is sought, the better chances that sufferers will achieve a full recovery.