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5 Tell-Tale Signs of an Eating Disorder

About 20 million women and 10 million men in the United States suffer from an eating disorder – anorexia, bulimia, binge eating, and also lesser-known illnesses like rumination disorder. Eating disorders can affect people of all ages and body types. Untreated, they can also be very dangerous.

Eating disorders can lead to malnutrition, dehydration, as well as an array of health problems such as gastroparesis, heart arrythmia, and hypothermia. Eating disorders also commonly co-occur with, or can lead to, substance addiction. Among all mental disorders, eating disorders have the highest fatality rate. That is why early intervention is key.

If you suspect your loved one is suffering from an eating disorder, it is important to take action as soon as you recognize the signs, and seek professional treatment. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, “the chance for recovery increases the earlier an eating disorder is detected.” Know the common signs of an eating disorder, and look for them in everyday interactions. Often, eating disorders are very hard to detect – not only for people on the outside, but even for those with the disorders themselves. This is because eating disorders alter a person’s perception, and make it difficult to see whether there is a problem at all.

As an inpatient dual diagnosis center and outpatient eating disorder treatment facility in Connecticut, Turnbridge is experienced in treating all extents of eating disorders. We understand that signs of eating disorders can vary, can be physical or mental, and can be masked very easily. For those who may not be familiar with disordered eating, we have outlined what to look for in your loved one below.

  1. Negative Moods and Social Withdrawal

According to Jessica Van Huysse, Ph.D., clinical director for the Comprehensive Eating Disorders Program, “People who aren’t getting adequate food intake often experience a lower or anxious mood, and they’re more likely to withdraw socially… They may seem depressed, but when we treat the eating issue, the depression dissipates.”

Depression and isolation are some of the most prominent signs of an eating disorder. A person may withdraw from their usual friends or activities, and particularly from events that involve food. Watch to see if your loved one gets uncomfortable around food, or makes excuses to avoid food altogether. After eating, see if he or she gets moody. Often, those with eating disorders will withdraw from others out of embarrassment, shame, or fear of what people might think. They may also feel disgusted with oneself or overly guilty after (over)eating, which can further lead to isolation and depression.

  1. Ritualistic Behaviors

Food rituals are another tell-tale sign of eating disorders, in which a person does something excessively. For example, a person with an eating disorder may only eat one category of food (e.g. “the cottage cheese diet” or simply condiments). They may excessively chew their food, or cut their food into tiny pieces so that lesser food is consumed. Some people will not allow their foods to touch. Others may arrange their food to create the appearance of having eaten (when in actuality, little to no food was eaten at all).

People with an eating disorder also will restrict foods in excess, considering certain foods or food groups completely off limits. They may be completely preoccupied by dieting regulations, calorie restrictions, or even the amount of sodium or grams of fat in their food. Does your loved one avoid carbohydrates altogether, have extreme diet restrictions, or refuse to eat certain types of foods? This is can signal that an eating disorder exists.

Eating disorders are largely disorders of control. Those afflicted typically crave complete control over what they have chosen to eat or not to eat, and may also feel the need to organize, move, pick at, or search food prior to consuming it.

  1. Physical Ailments

Restricted eating, binge eating, and no eating at all can have severe effects on the body. Each eating disorder will bring about an array of different physical symptoms, and every person will exhibit signs differently. However, some common physical signs of eating disorders to look for include:

  • Noticeable fluctuations in weight, both up and down
  • Abnormal lab results, such as anemia or low thyroid levels
  • Low blood pressure
  • Excessive tiredness or fatigue
  • Stomach cramps and gastrointestinal issues such as acid reflux
  • Dizziness or fainting
  • Feeling cold all the time
  • Dry skin and hair
  • Hair loss
  • Discoloration of teeth and dental problems
  • Impaired immune function
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Halted menstrual cycle

There are also other more obvious, physical signs of an eating disorder in action – these include an overconsumption of food, followed by purging, and the refusal to eat food at all.

  1. Excessive or Secretive Exercise

Is your loved one obsessive about getting exercise, working out even when he or she is tired, sick, or injured? Does your loved one exercise in secret, in fear of what others might assume? Does he or she maintain a very strict exercise regime, rain or shine, no matter which day of the week? If working out has become an obsession rather than a healthy habit, there could be an underlying eating disorder at play.

  1. Body Insecurity

Perhaps the most tell-tale sign of an eating disorder is body insecurity and low self-esteem – a person with an eating disorder will typically have negative and obsessive thoughts about their body size and shape. They may be very sensitive to how they look, or even to how others look and eat around them. Listen for persistent complaints or concerns about being fat, or about the need to lose weight. See if your loved one frequently looks in the mirror, or calls out their perceived flaws in appearance.

Again, the signs of an eating disorder will vary depending on what type of eating disorder exists. Anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, for example, differ greatly in their symptoms and side effects. It is important to consult with a professional if you have any suspicions of an eating disorder in your loved one. You can intervene and make a difference in his or her life. Eating disorders are very complex, yet very treatable diseases.

For information about Turnbridge’s inpatient or outpatient treatment services, please do not hesitate to reach out. Call 877-581-1793 to learn more.