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Eating Disorder Early Warning Signs


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Any eating disorder is a mental illness which involves disordered patterns of eating. Whether this means limiting how much food is consumed, purging food in an unhealthy way or eating excessive quantities in a short space of time, eating disorders aren’t really about food but instead about emotions and feelings. Essentially, the way the individual interacts with their food makes them feel better able to manage and more in control.

There are many different eating disorders, although the best known include:

  • Anorexia – a condition characterized by significant weight loss from excessive exercise and dieting. Those suffering from anorexia never feel thin enough, continuing to believe they are fat even when they are extremely underweight.
  • Bulimia – a condition characterized by cycles of bingeing (or extreme overeating) followed by some form of purging to compensate. 
  • Binge eating disorder – a condition characterized by episodes of binge eating and a feeling of lost control when it comes to eating.

All of these conditions cause significant harm and can even prove fatal, with anorexia having a higher mortality rate than any other form of mental illness. However, despite their severity, eating disorders can be treated, and the earlier help is sought, the better the prospects for a full recovery become.

Who Develops An Eating Disorder?

In many cases, an eating disorder will first develop during adolescence, and females are more at risk. However, men and older people can be sufferers too. Nobody knows precisely why eating disorders develop, however they usually coexist with other medical and psychological issues like anxiety, depression, substance abuse and poor self-esteem.

In many people with an eating disorder, their obsession with food is a way of gaining more control over their lives. While it often begins at just eating less or more than usual, it can quickly get out of hand, eventually taking over their life. The long-term consequences can be very serious for anyone who fails to get appropriate treatment for their eating disorder.

Spotting The Signs Of An Eating Disorder

Since all types of eating disorder are very complex, not every sufferer experiences identical symptoms. Some people are affected by multiple eating disorders of find that they symptoms change over time. Often, eating disorder sufferers experience other physical or mental health problems simultaneously with their eating disorder. These may have developed because of or alongside the eating disorder, or may have actually played a role in the development of the eating disorder in the first place. 

There are a number of behavioral, psychological and physical signs which signal the presence or onset of an eating disorder. Those who suffer from any form of eating disorder might be displaying a range of symptoms or only one. Some sufferers may not display any signs of their condition. It is very common for anyone with an eating disorder to try hard to hide their behaviors. This makes it very challenging to recognize the symptoms of their condition, particularly during the early stages.

There are, however, a few things to look out for which could be a tell-tale sign of disordered eating patterns. Of course, not every sufferer will show all of these symptoms or signs, and, indeed, people who display some of these symptoms may not have an eating disorder at all. However, this list is a good place to start if you’re worried about a friend or family member.

Physical Signs

  • Frequent dieting or very fast weight loss
  • Disturbed or lost menstruation in females
  • Decreased libido in males
  • Dizziness or fainting
  • Fatigue and insomnia
  • Low energy and lethargy
  • Swelling around the jaw or cheeks, damaged teeth, bad breath or calluses on their knuckles – these could all be due to induced vomiting
  • Feeling cold even during warm weather
  • Stomach cramps, acid reflux and constipation 
  • Difficulty in focusing or concentrating
  • Abnormal lab tests such as anemia, low hormone or thyroid levels, slow heartrate or low blood cell count
  • Dry skin and nails
  • Thinning hair
  • Development of fine hair all over the body
  • Muscle weakness
  • Mottled and cold feet and hands
  • Swollen feet
  • Impaired immune system
  • Slow wound healing

Psychological Signs

It is especially difficult to spot the psychological signs of an eating disorder. Often, these only become apparent through behavioral changes or through conversation.

  • An obsession with weight, body shape, food and eating
  • Feeling as if they can’t control themselves around food
  • Feeling irritable or anxious at mealtimes
  • Rigid thought patterns about food being “bad” or “good”
  • Using food to comfort themselves
  • Distorted body image
  • Using food to punish themselves
  • Feelings of ineffectiveness 
  • Having a strong need to be in control
  • Displaying patterns of inflexible thinking
  • Having extremely restrained emotional expression

Behavioral Signs

Many people with an eating disorder display behavioral symptoms, although they may still be hard to spot.

  • Dieting behaviour such as counting calories, fasting, avoiding carbohydrates or fats
  • Frequently going to the bathroom during meals or just after eating
  • Evidence of overeating such as hoarding food or finding empty wrappers hidden away
  • Using laxatives, appetite suppressants, diuretics or enemas
  • Vomiting
  • Wearing large and oversized clothing
  • Excessive or compulsive exercising, such as working out even when injured or unwell or in inclement weather and becoming very distressed if exercise isn’t possible
  • Changed food preferences – no longer eating foods they used to enjoy, replacing normal meals with fluids or suddenly becoming obsessed with healthy eating
  • Developing obsessive rituals surrounding eating and food preparation such as eating extremely slowly, cutting up food into tiny pieces or eating at precisely the same hour every day
  • Becoming extremely over-sensitive to comments about exercise habits, eating, weight and body shape
  • Becoming secretive around food such as saying they’ve already eaten if they haven’t or hiding food which hasn’t been eaten
  • Starting to become more isolated and withdrawn from usual activities and friends
  • Starting to be worried about eating food in front of other people
  • Having limited social spontaneity
  • Unable to stay at a bodyweight which is suitable for their build, height and age
  • Having a terror of gaining weight or becoming fat, possibly even though they are underweight

Recognizing The Signs Of Specific Eating Disorders

While the above list includes signs and symptoms which may be applicable to any type of eating disorder, there are certain specific signs which may be associated with the three most commonly seen eating disorders. Here, we take a closer look at these individual symptoms.

Signs Of Anorexia

Someone who is suffering from anorexia will have a significant fear about putting on any weight. Usually, they will exercise and diet relentlessly, even to the point where they are starving themselves. Somewhere between a third and a half of all anorexics displaying bingeing and purging behaviors by misusing laxatives or vomiting. 

Those who suffer from anorexia believe they are obese when actually they are extremely slim, or even extremely underweight. Their body image is completely distorted. Obsessive calorie counting is common, as is only eating very small portions of specific foods. If you confront someone who has anorexia, they will usually say they don’t have a problem.

Since anorexia develops slowly over time, the early signs are very subtle. Usually, it starts out as standard dieting before a special occasion or event such as a vacation. However, once the disorder has taken hold, the sufferer’s obsession with their bodyweight intensifies. This creates a cycle of obsession and anxiety. The more pounds they shed, the more they obsess and worry about their weight.

These are some of the behaviors and symptoms commonly seen in anorexia sufferers:

  • Extreme weight loss
  • Preoccupation with calories, dieting and food
  • Wearing bulky or loose clothes 
  • Avoiding eating with other people or avoiding mealtimes
  • Make elaborate meals for other people but not eating themselves
  • Excessive exercising
  • Constantly calling themselves fat
  • Complaining about stomach pains or constipation
  • Stopping menstruating
  • Denying that being underweight is a problem

As people living with anorexia are good at keeping their condition hidden, it’s often only when the disease has progressed that other people begin to spot that something is wrong. However, if anorexia goes untreated, serious complications can arise including organ failure and malnutrition. The good news, however, is that when someone with anorexia gets treatment they will regain the lost weight and their physical problems associated with their condition will improve.

The Signs Of Bulimia

People who suffer from bulimia go through episodes of bingeing during which they eat excessively, followed by episodes of using laxatives or vomiting (known as purging), excessive exercise or fasting to compensate for their overeating.

People who have bulimia, unlike anorexics, often have a normal bodyweight. However, they share the same terror of putting on weight and also have a distorted self-image. Even if they are a normal size, they believe they are fat and are desperate to lose weight. Since they are usually ashamed of their bulimic behavior, they also excel at hiding their symptoms until the disease has progressed.

Some common signs of bulimia include:

  • Evidence of purging. This could include visiting the bathroom immediately after eating, smells or sounds of vomiting, or packs of diuretics or laxatives.
  • Evidence of overeating. This could include food disappearances over short periods or many empty food containers or wrappers. These may be hidden in the sufferer’s room, car or bag.
  • Avoiding eating with others, eating tiny portions or skipping meals altogether
  • Excessive exercising
  • Constantly calling themselves fat
  • Wearing bulky or baggy clothing to hide their body
  • Using mints, mouthwash or gum more frequently
  • Scars on the knuckles from inducing vomiting repeatedly
  • Constantly being on a diet

When bulimia remains untreated, long-term health issues can occur including bleeding from the throat because of stomach acid reflux, dental problems, kidney problems and an abnormal heartrate. However, it’s possible to treat bulimia successfully with antidepressants, CBT and other therapies, and as long as help is sought as quickly as possible, a full recovery is possible.

The Signs Of BED (Binge Eating Disorder)

People with BED don’t eat excessively constantly. Rather, they go through regular episodes of bingeing on huge volumes of food. Just like those suffering from bulimia, they usually feel completely out of control when going through one of these episodes. This causes them to feel guilty and ashamed afterwards.

The behavior associated with Binge Eating Disorder is a vicious cycle. The more upset the sufferer feels about their bingeing, the more they’re unable to prevent themselves from doing it. However, since they don’t fast, exercise or purge after bingeing, people with BED are usually obese.

Binge Eating Disorder is seen almost equally in women and men. It also has an older average age of onset. Most sufferers begin developing symptoms at the age of around 25 rather than during their teenage years.

Some of the most common signs of BED include: 

  • Evidence of excessive eating such as large volumes of food disappearing within a short period of time or lots of empty food containers or wrappers.
  • Evidence of food hoarding. Food may sometimes be hidden in unusual locations.
  • Wearing large or oversized clothing to hide their body
  • Avoiding eating with others or skipping meals
  • Constantly being on a diet but losing virtually no weight

Since binge eating causes obesity, this eating disorder also has severe health repercussions when left untreated. There are some helpful programs which can support weight loss in sufferers while helping them to control their compulsive to overeat. Some medications have also been approved by the FDA for treating this condition, while psychotherapy and antidepressants have also often proved to be effective.

Stethoscope | Eating Disorder | The Meadowglade

Seeking Help For An Eating Disorder

If you believe you may have an eating disorder, or if you’re worried about a friend or family member who has disordered eating patterns, seeking medical help as quickly as possible is essential. Although any eating disorder can have serious consequences in the long-term, it is possible to make a full recovery with the right support and treatment, and many people who have suffered from anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, or other problems have been able to get back to living a normal life and to having a healthy attitude to food and eating after getting the help that they need. 

Fight for yourself, not with yourself.

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