Eating disorders will affect 30 million Americans in their lifetime, impacting all ages, races, genders and socioeconomic levels. Eating disorder diagnoses as described in the newest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual include anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder and other specified feeding or eating disorders (OSFED), and can result in serious medical complications such as heart disease, respiratory failure, gastrointestinal issues and even death.
So what are the symptoms of an eating disorder? The short answer: they’re rarely the same between two individuals. Eating disorders come in different forms, have different causes and are triggered by different biological, emotional and/or environmental factors.
While below are some general warning signs, it’s important to note 1). Just because someone may experience some of the symptoms below, it does not necessarily indicate an eating disorder 2). If any of the symptoms below provoke any questions or concerns, we encourage you to reach out to a specialized professional.
Preoccupation over one’s appearance: Some eating disorders, especially anorexia and bulimia, stem from an individual’s dissatisfaction or self-loathing around their appearance or body shape. This often leads to an intense fear of gaining weight and subsequent (often unhealthy) measures of weight manipulation. Specific examples can include a noticeable fixation over nutrition or the types of foods consumed, as well as obsessive calorie counting and/or weighing oneself multiple times per day.
Unusual and damaging eating habits: Anorexia, for instance, involves restriction of food intake, while binge eating disorder and bulimia include the consumption of large amounts of food over a short period of time, otherwise known as binge episodes. Compensatory behaviors following meals, such as self-induced vomiting, excessive exercise, laxative usage or diuretics abuse, occur among cases of bulimia. Eating foods in a certain order, excessive chewing and rearranging food on a plate are also potential symptoms of an eating disorder. Frequent visits to the bathroom after eating may also be an indicator of an eating disorder.
Distorted thinking: Eating disorders can heavily alter one’s cognitive abilities. For instance, someone with anorexia might think they are overweight, when in many cases, they aren’t. The disconnect between perception and reality is very common among those with eating disorders as malnutrition directly impacts brain function.
A strong history of dieting: First and foremost, the majority of the millions of Americans who diet, in one way or another, will not have an eating disorder. But there are some studies that reveal a history of dieting can be a precursor to eating disorders. Avoiding entire food groups, without a documented allergy or medical condition or cutting out foods that were once enjoyed could indicate an underlying issue.
Changes in weight: While not everyone with an eating disorder experiences weight gain or loss, a common indicator of an eating disorder can be any significant change in weight (gain or loss) or fluctuating weight in a short amount of time.
Social isolation or withdrawal: Eating disorders are often very secretive disorders – one’s thoughts and resulting behaviors are often hidden from the outside world, including close friends or loved ones. Individuals with an eating disorder may eat alone, experience intense stress during meals and even avoid social situations entirely.
Emotional distress: Many eating disorders are accompanied by other psychiatric disorders such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, OCD and borderline personality disorder. The disorder is often used as a coping mechanism for these underling conditions.
Again, the presentation of these symptoms does not necessarily mean someone has an eating disorder. But if reading this causes some level of concern for yourself – or a loved one – we encourage you to seek attention from a specialized eating disorder provider. Generally, the earlier an eating disorder is addressed, the better the chance for a lasting recovery.
Michael McDonough is the director of communications at Walden Behavioral Care. Prior to joining Walden in February of 2016, he was the Marketing Communications Manager for the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, elevating the organization’s brand awareness and increasing membership acquisition through digital and traditional marketing strategies. He also carries nearly ten years of public relations experience working with dozens of corporate and non-profit organizations.
Michael is a graduate of Syracuse University, where he obtained a Bachelor of Arts in both broadcast journalism and psychology. He is an avid runner, having completed five marathons (including four Boston Marathons).