Recognizing Eating Disorders
Eating disorders are serious yet treatable mental and physical illnesses that can affect people of any age, gender, race, body shape, and weight. Eating disorders include a wide range of conditions, such as anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating. There is no single known cause for eating disorders, and research shows that its development is impacted by biological, psychological, and sociocultural factors.
Eating disorders are serious and can significantly impact one’s physical and mental health. The earlier an eating disorder is detected, the greater the chance for recovery. It is therefore important to be aware of some of the signs and symptoms that can warn you of whether you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder.
Signs and Symptoms of Eating Disorders
Below are two lists of some common behavioral and physical signs and symptoms that can be observed in people with eating disorders. It is important to remember as you read through these lists that most people with eating disorders will not have all of these signs and symptoms. It is also important to note that someone with an eating disorder may have other signs or symptoms that aren’t listed here.
As eating disorders are both mental and physical illness, and have consequences on one’s psychological and physical wellness, there are both behavioral and physical symptoms listed below.
Common behavioral symptoms of eating disorders include:
- Weight loss, dieting, and control of food becoming primary concerns
- Preoccupation with weight, food, calories, carbohydrates, fat grams, and dieting
- Refusal to eat certain foods or restricting whole categories of food (not related to allergies or sensitivities)
- Feeling or appearing to feel uncomfortable eating around others
- Developing food rituals (not allowing foods to touch, excessive chewing, eating only particular food or food groups)
- Skipping meals or taking small portions of food at regular meals
- Frequent dieting
- Extreme concern with body size and shape
- Extreme mood swings
- Withdrawal from friends or usual activities
- Frequently checking in the mirror for perceived flaws in appearance
Common physical symptoms of eating disorders include:
- Noticeable fluctuations in weight (both up and down)
- Stomach cramps, other non-specific gastrointestinal complaints
- Menstrual irregularities
- Difficultly concentrating
- Abnormal laboratory findings (anemia, low thyroid and hormone levels, low potassium, low white and red blood cell counts)
- Dizziness, especially upon standing
- Sleep problems
- Feeling cold all the time
- Acid related dental problems
- Dry skin and hair, brittle nails
- Impaired immune function (including poor wound healing)
There is a wide range of symptoms displayed by someone affected by an eating disorder. It is important to recognize the signs and symptoms as early detection increases the chance of recovery and can reduce the impact on one’s overall health and wellbeing.
Treatment and Recovery from Eating Disorders
Along with medical and psychiatric monitoring, treating an eating disorder generally involves a combination of psychological and nutritional counseling. Because eating disorders impact several areas of one’s life and the causes of eating disorders are varied, successful treatment must address the eating disorder symptoms, medical consequences, and the psychological, biological, and social factors in one’s life. Nutritional counseling is a necessary step in recovery as well as planning for healthy choices in the long-term.
Recovery is possible for those who have an eating disorder and getting diagnosed is the first step toward recovery. While people with long-standing eating disorders can and do recover, the best results are seen in those who detect and treat an eating disorder before it becomes chronic. Recognizing eating disorders as early as possible is essential. Consider reaching out to your health care provider and engaging other counseling resources for guidance on next steps.