Honestly, I’m sorry that you’re reading this right now. It makes me sad that something like this even needs to be written. Chances are, if you’re curious about eating disorder warning signs, you’re probably worried about someone you know.
Eating disorders are not glamorous or exciting; they are deadly and ruin lives. In fact, eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. I pray that your loved one isn’t struggling, but I also know that knowledge is power, and it’s always best to be informed.
Because anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, and all other disordered eating (EDNOS) are not going away any time soon, I wanted to create a resource for those that fear their loved one is struggling.
Note: I’m going to be writing this in reference to “your child”, but this can be applied to anyone. If you’re wanting to find out the warning signs for eating disorders, you’ve come to the right place, regardless of if it’s in your child or your best friend.
Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional, nor are these the only possible signs of eating disorders. This is written from my experience as well as diligent research.
My Eating Disorder Story
If you’re new here, you might want to know how I know these things. If you’ve already read my About Me page, then feel free to skip ahead.
I suffered from anorexia nervosa (as well as occasional purging, although not full-fledged bulimia). Most of my teenage years were spent in an escalating relationship with my eating disorder.
I also was lucky enough to spend time at a treatment center specifically for eating disorders. It was the best thing I ever did for my life.
It also means I have lots of experience speaking with others who have struggled with eating disorders, as well as numerous therapists.
This post is based on those experiences and the knowledge I’ve gained along the way. I have also decided to make this post into a series. The next posts will outline who is at risk for eating disorders, what causes eating disorders, and what to do if you believe you or a loved on is suffering from an eating disorder.
Eating Disorder Warning Signs
We’ll start with some obvious ones and move down the line from there.
Weight Loss or Gain
Weight loss is not a necessary condition of an eating disorder (despite what many people think). There are many, many people out there who are at a healthy weight, or even overweight, and have severe eating disorders.
However, I do have to mention this since it’s one of the more “visible” signs.
If your child is suffering from binge eating, they may actually be putting on significant weight.
Weight fluctuation is also a sign. If your child’s weight is constantly going up and down, you may have a problem on your hands.
Signs of Malnourishment
Other signs include common signs of malnutrition. Watch for thin, unhealthy hair; yellowed skin (a sign of liver failure), weak and brittle nails. They may just look generally unwell. Many people comment on how those that are emaciated just have no “light” left in their eyes.
Anorexia and bulimia have a lot of overlap, but they also have a lot of differences. Bulimia will present itself with bad teeth (due to excessive vomiting). Because of the acidity of vomit, many people with bulimia have cavities and tooth decay, which often leads to bad breath as well. They may also have callouses, scars, and wounds around the knuckles, and swollen cheeks or jaw.
Lanugo is a layer of fine, soft hair that will grow to help keep a person who is severely underweight warm. You may also hear your child constantly complain of being cold, and dressing in excessive layers (both to keep warm and to hide their body). If you spot this hair, that’s a red flag that your child is underweight.
Loss of Period (Amenorrhea)
When a person’s body weight drops low enough, their period will stop. I’ve heard of some girls keeping track of when their period should be so that they can fake it and go through tampons like normal. But some people don’t think about it or notice. So if you suddenly don’t need to buy feminine products like this for your daughter, something is probably up.
Slow Healing and Bruising Easily
Essentially, all the calories being consumed are going to basic bodily functions, so your child will heal much slower than normal. Also, due to malnourishment, they will bruise much more easily than normal.
Sometimes there are no (or very few) physical signs. If you suspect that your child is struggling, be sure to pay close attention to their behaviors.
Eating disorders are so incredibly sneaky. Someone with an eating disorder (or developing one) will have a handful of excuses at the ready to defend their behaviors.
“I already ate at my friend’s house.” If you fear that your child has or is developing an eating disorder, call the friend or his/her parents and confirm this. I know you’ll feel silly, but it’s essential that you find out the truth. Someone without a problem wouldn’t likely find it necessary to lie about this.
“My stomach hurts.” It’s common for people with anorexia to complain of an upset stomach, bloating, cramping, and any other number of ailments that would excuse their lack of eating.
“I’ll eat later.” It’s okay to set a hard and fast rule of eating meals together. Don’t be afraid to enforce this.
Like I said, eating disorders are crafty. They are masters of manipulation. It might help for you to keep track of your child’s behaviors in a notebook or on your phone.
Most likely, your child isn’t going to use the same excuse over and over. Give them some credit, they’re smarter than that.
So you might consider keeping track of which meals are skipped. It can seem so innocent or even reasonable. You might not think anything of your child saying they have too much studying and will eat later. The next day their extracurricular activity runs late. The next day they have diarrhea. Then they “eat at a friend’s”. But look at that, four days have passed in which you have no clue if your child has eaten.
Food Being Stashed
Oh, God. Remember how eating disorders are insidious? Well, just wait.
Depending on the situation, you may notice some odd behaviors regarding where they keep their food. This can run the gamut from stashing food in their room to hide it and avoid eating it (anorexia), to stashing food in their room to binge on (binge eating or bulimia).
A few things to look out for:
- Old food that is hidden away (purses, their room, pockets)
- An unusual amount of snacks stashed away
- Stashes of wrappers
- Small portions of food
I kept snacks hidden in my room that I would eat throughout the day. I got pretty obsessive about it. I had individual baggies for each day of the week. Each one had a select amount of calories that I deemed sufficient.
A huge part of any eating disorder is shame. So these things are likely to be well hidden. Some people are obviously sneakier than others, but in general, you might find things in closets, drawers, backpacks, purses, hidden under other garbage, etc.
I know this probably goes against a lot of parenting advice, and a lot of moral codes, but I think every parent should occasionally snoop in their child’s room.
Strange Exercise Habits
I say strange because obviously, you can’t diagnose an eating disorder based solely on the fact that someone exercises. And in today’s world, where obesity is an epidemic, it’s good that your child is taking care of their body.
Until it becomes bad.
The obvious sign a lot of people will look for is an unnatural amount of exercise. That can be different for different people, but most people will pay attention to something like that. But there are some other signs to be aware of.
They may also just become more active. If your child used to fight about taking the dog on a walk, but now disappears and walks the dog for 3 miles, take note. They might also just constantly be in motion. Jiggling their legs, tapping things, constantly getting up and down rather than relaxing to watch their favorite show.
If you catch your child hiding their exercise from you, something is probably going on. Remember the whole shame factor? Generally, the person suffering will know what they’re doing isn’t normal, so they try to hide it. If you find your kid exercising late at night, or doing small exercises throughout the day, proceed with caution.
Preoccupation With Food
Although food isn’t what an eating disorder is actually about, it definitely involves food. Many people with eating disorders have anxiety over the unknown of food. They might insist on preparing their own food (so they know exactly what is going in it and can accurately track calories). You may think your kid is trying to help out by making dinner, but there could be other reasons for this.
Other people just want to know what food they’ll be expected to eat so that they can plan ahead. This is harder to spot since most kids will hound their moms about what’s for dinner! But listen to your gut. Are they just curious, or do you sense an odd need to know?
Most of the day, someone with an eating disorder has food on their mind. Whether it be how to avoid the next meal, or how to obtain the food for their next binge, food plays a big role.
Personally, I don’t think anyone should be obsessed with counting their calories. Being aware in order to lose weight healthily is much different than tracking them obsessively, though.
Like a lot of these behaviors, there is such a fine line between normal and disordered. I actually remember as homework for my health class (in middle school!), we had to track our calories. Sadly, some professionals are teaching kids to count calories, which can plant the seeds of obsession.
If you find notebooks detailing every bite taken throughout the day, that’s probably a problem. Likewise, if you notice your child seems distressed when faced with a caloric unknown, that is a red flag. This could be going out to eat, eating a new dish, not seeing how something is made, not making the food themselves, etc.
Going to the Bathroom Frequently
This one is especially important after meals. Like I said, I was never bulimic, but I would occasionally make myself vomit if I had been forced to eat something. If your child seems to always use the bathroom after a meal, this could be a sign of purging. Some people will purge in the shower, or with the shower running, so be wary if your child showers every night right after eating dinner.
When I was in rehab, we weren’t allowed to go to the bathroom after a meal. If it was an emergency, we had to sing the entire time we were in there. I’m not suggesting that you adopt this, just giving you an idea of how big of a sign this can be.
Back to the topic of shame. Many of those suffering from eating disorders are extremely aware that what they are doing isn’t healthy or normal. They cease to relate to other people anymore. Because of this, they might isolate themselves.
There are actually many reasons for this. It could be that they have social anxiety (extremely common in those with eating disorders). Or they want to avoid the unknown, in case food is involved (remember how I said the majority of each day is spent thinking about food?). They may lock themselves away so they have more time to exercise or engage in other behaviors.
Obsession with Their (and Others’) Body
Particularly in the teenage years, it’s deemed “normal” to not be happy with your appearance. But there are a few things that might be signs of something more.
Many people will “body check”. This can be with or without a mirror and is basically what it sounds like. Running their hands over their “problem areas”, checking their reflection at different angles, pinching their fat, etc.
I’d say that most people with eating disorders (especially anorexia) also have body dysmorphic disorder. That’s a fancy way of saying they absolutely do not see the same person you see when they look at themselves.
Most women will sigh and comment that they look fat (how sad is that?) when they look at their reflection. But with body dysmorphia, you legitimately believe that there are hideous flaws where there are none.
You might notice excessive comments, both about their own body and others’. They might have stacks of magazines for the sole purpose of shaming themselves (“She is so thin and beautiful, I’m not!”). They might idolize people who have “perfect” bodies.
Apathy and Lethargy
The further a person falls into their eating disorder, the more they will become apathetic. They will lose all interest in things they used to love (also a sign of depression). They simply don’t have enough energy to care.
Because of the lack of energy, they may not be as active anymore. Where they used to jump up to do small things to burn those few extra calories, if their eating disorder has progressed, they may not have the energy for that anymore.
They may sleep for long periods of time and still act tired. They may get winded walking up a flight of stairs. They may experience fainting spells.
When your child is eating, pay attention. Not in a creepy or obvious way, as that can make them feel even more anxious about eating. But just take note.
A person with anorexia might chew their food for long stretches (generally counting in their head). They may also inconspicuously try to spit out their food, be it in their napkin, their hand, the floor, etc. They may eat things in a certain order, drink water between every bite, cut their food into tiny pieces.
People with bulimia may save their food (for a binge later). You might also notice large amounts of food disappearing.
Knowing the Signs of an Eating Disorder
I hope this article has been helpful to you. And as much as I hope the person you love isn’t struggling, it’s always best to know what to look for.
Because eating disorders are so very complicated, I’ve decided to create a series of posts, which I will link to as I write them. This is the first. Come back to learn who is at risk for eating disorders, what are the causes of eating disorders, and what to do when you think your loved one has an eating disorder.
Has this article helped you? What else would you like to know regarding eating disorders? If you’d like to know more, sign up down below to be alerted when the rest of the series is published!