Spotting the signs: 12 symptoms of eating disorders

How old were you the first time you thought about your weight?

For 70% of girls, it was between ages 9 and 11— long before most of us would expect weight to become a concern.

“For many people an unhealthy relationship with food starts early,” says Melissa Perry, registered dietitian-nutritionist with BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee. “People often tell us how their parent or other adult in their life introduced them to restricting food, and it caused them to look at food a different way their whole lives. It happens to people of every age, size, and gender — not just underweight women.”

Stephanie Bustamente, registered nurse at BlueCross with a focus on behavioral health, agrees.

“Sometimes people don’t even realize they’re doing something unhealthy,” says Bustamente. “Eating disorders are, at their core, unhealthy coping skills people use to control the few things they can control in their daily life. Often people who struggle with them have some sort of trauma in their past, and that magnifies the problem.”

The most common eating disorders are anorexia, bulimia and binge eating. While symptoms vary by person and disease, there are some common signs to look out for.

Excluding food groups

Avoiding a food group or even seeming fearful of a particular food is common, particularly when it comes to restricting:

  • Sugar
  • Dairy
  • Carbs
  • Fat

Social isolation

People may dislike eating in front of others, act embarrassed when they have to, or seek out isolation around mealtime.

Compulsive eating habits

Wiping or cutting fat off of food or separating foods in a deliberate way can be a sign of a problem, as can taking tiny bites, or eating too slow or too fast.

Obsession with dieting and “wellness”

Most people with eating disorders have a long history of dieting. They may also use wellness as a mask to hide eating disorders, constantly talking about why certain foods aren’t good for you or why a particular diet does or doesn’t work.

Body checking

Body checking is an obsessive behavior that causes a person to check certain features of his or her body many times a day.

Weighing constantly

Talking about weight or checking weight constantly is a red flag.

Negative body image

Body image takes into account a person’s perceptions and attitudes about their physical appearance. A positive body image indicates a true perception of your body, whilenegative body image is distorted and often accompanied by shame, anxiety and self-consciousness.

Water loading

People may drink a lot of water or fluid before a meal so they feel full and don’t consume as many calories.

Improper use of laxatives, diuretics or insulin

  • Repeated use of laxatives to eliminate calories often follows eating binges, though this approach doesn’t actually lead to weight loss.
  • Diuretics may be improperly used to decrease weight by flushing liquid from the body, which can result in dehydration and loss of electrolytes.
  • Diabulimia occurs most often in people who have type I diabetes and occurs when the person purposefully restricts insulin in order to lose weight.

Dental problems

Eating disorders have many effects on dental health, which is why dentists often notice the signs first. Symptoms include:

  • Gums and mouth that bleed easily
  • Redness, scratches and cuts inside the mouth
  • Tooth decay and gum disease due to nutritional deficiency
  • Lost enamel and eroded teeth due to frequent vomiting

Swollen glands and lymph nodes

Frequent binging and purging can cause an enlargement of the salivary glands or swollen lymph nodes in face.

Preoccupation with exercise

Focusing on exercise solely as a means to “burn off” a certain number of calories can be a sign of disordered behavior.

What should you do if you think you or someone you love may have an eating disorder?

Talk to your doctor.

You can also use the information and resources provided by the National Eating Disorders Association to:

To learn how to foster a healthy relationship with food and avoid body-shaming, click here

Ashley Brantley

Ashley Brantley

Ashley Brantley has been writing about food, culture and health for more than a decade, and has lived in three of Tennessee’s four major cities (Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville).

More Posts - LinkedIn