Eating disorders do not develop overnight. An eating disorder, categorized as a psychological condition that causes unhealthy eating patterns, can cause severe repercussions and even death. There is a gradual change in perception and mindset that contributes to disordered eating patterns. These small changes may be hard to catch in a person, but it is important to look for them to prevent the further growth of an eating disorder. Check out our list of the top 10 signs of an eating disorder.
- Fear of gaining weight
The fear of gaining weight is the characteristic sign of anorexia nervosa. Individuals who have this fear will constantly view themselves as overweight even if they may be severely underweight. Repeatedly weighing oneself and trying to hide one’s body with loose clothing are also signs of an eating disorder that play into the fear of gaining weight. Anorexia nervosa is not really about food but rather equating self-worth with the thinness of their body and the only way to control that perception is through eating or rather choosing to not eat.
- Binging and purging
Binging and purging can be used together or separately in eating disorders. Bulimia nervosa is characterized by both while binge eating disorder typically only includes binging. Those with bulimia will try to avoid eating in public and often eat in secret so that there are no purging witnesses. Sometimes, people with bulimia will also abuse laxatives or weight-loss supplements in order to rid themselves of the food they have ingested. Binge eating disorder is also accompanied by feelings of shame and embarrassment over the inability to stop eating and resist the urge to eat more. One overlooked sign of binging and purging is called Russell’s sign which is the name for calluses on the tops of the knuckles from induced vomiting. The calluses develop from repeatedly scraping the knuckles on the incisor teeth from producing the gag reflex.
- Obsession with being healthy
In an attempt to strive for health, individuals can actually harm their health. Having an obsession with being healthy can lead to an eating disorder known as orthorexia. Those with orthorexia have a preoccupation with dieting and tracking nutrient intake. Checking the nutrition label or ingredient list, cutting out entire food groups such as carbohydrates, and having an unusually high interest in what others are eating are all signs of orthorexia. Ironically, registered dietitians or nutritionists are the highest risk population for orthorexia because they are constantly exposed to information about diet and health.
- Extremely picky eating
While picky eating is normal in children and some adults, having extreme aversions to a wide variety of foods is not typical. In fact, severely picky eating behaviors can be a sign of the eating disorder known as avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID) or formerly known as selective eating disorder. This eating disorder is not associated with the fear of weight gain or body image issues like many other eating disorders are. Those with ARFID restrict their food intake so badly that they become deficient in most nutrients and have a significant weight loss from lack of calories.
- Saving calories for beverages or alcohol
Recently, a new diagnostic term has been added to the plethora of eating disorders which describes individuals who save their calories for alcohol consumption. This new term is called drunkorexia. It is common for other eating disorders to avoid the consumption of high-calorie beverages as these are seen as “empty calories” but drunkorexia works in the opposite manner by inviting the consumption of high-calorie alcohol drinks and instead avoiding all solid food. Drunkorexia is a double-edged sword because not only is it an eating disorder, but it is also a substance abuse disorder.
- Cravings things that are not considered foods
People may be concerned or ashamed of craving things that are not considered foods such as hair, dirt, and chalk but this behavior is actually a diagnosable eating disorder known as pica. The urge to eat non-food items can be caused by malnutrition and is the body’s way of trying to correct a nutrient deficiency. While pica is more common in less developed countries, it can still occur anywhere a nutritional deficiency exists. Pregnant women are at a higher risk for developing pica since nutrient deficiencies occur more commonly during pregnancy, especially iron deficiency which is a leading cause of pica.
- Chewing and spitting up food
Chewing and spitting up or regurgitating food is a sign of the eating disorder called rumination syndrome. Unlike purging, this form of regurgitation is not associated with feelings of embarrassment, anxiety, or disgust. The spitting up of partially digested food is unintentional and is a reflex malfunction caused by a psychological condition. Breathing exercises and reversing the habit of regurgitation through behavioral therapy are the two ways to recover from rumination syndrome.
- Eating large amounts of food only at night
Night eating syndrome is an eating disorder identifiable by the consumption of large amounts of foods only at night paired with insomnia. People with night eating syndrome feel an undeniable urge to eat after waking up from a restless sleep and they will not be able to go back to bed until food is consumed. Depression and anxiety are also common in people with night eating syndrome and can often heighten symptoms of these conditions. It can be difficult to know if someone is suffering from night eating syndrome since the behaviors occur when everyone is asleep, but looking out for a decreased appetite and fatigue during the day can be a sign of this eating disorder.
- Complaints of stomach cramps
Complaints of stomach cramps or other gastrointestinal-related issues are common signs of an eating disorder. Of course, stomach cramps can be produced by countless circumstances but when this sign occurs in conjunction with other eating disorder behaviors, it may be a cause for concern. Having unusual eating patterns disrupts the body’s normal digestion, so it is typical for GI issues to result. Stomach cramps are not necessarily diagnostic for any single eating disorder so it can be difficult to identify the specific problem. All the fancy labels and categories for eating disorders can be great for people looking to find an answer to their health problems, but for those who lack the strong signs of specific eating disorders, labels can be frustrating. For those who do not fall under a specific eating disorder, do not worry because thousands of people struggle with atypical eating behaviors, and because of this other specified feeding or eating disorders (OSFED) has become a category for those who feel lost.
- Excessive exercise
Exercise is great for health, but like all things, it should only be done in moderation. Excessive exercise is often paired with disordered eating in order to lose weight quickly and achieve an “ideal” body. Many people use exercise as permission to eat and feelings of guilt will emerge if not enough movement is done. Others use exercise as a form of purging in which calories are burned or removed as soon as they are eaten. Those who compulsively exercise may show signs of discomfort with inactivity, injuries, and secretive exercise. Exercising too much can lead to fatigue, muscle weakness, feeling faint or dizzy, and menstrual irregularities all of which are not good for health.
Eating disorders are serious mental conditions that can take years of conditioning to develop and perhaps, years of treatment to recover. However, eating disorders are treatable and most importantly, preventable, unlike many other psychological disorders. If you are struggling with an eating disorder or know someone who is, you are not alone. Remember that an eating disorder is not anyone’s fault and it can be managed.