Recognize the Signs: Subtle Clues That Your Loved One Suffers from an Eating Disorder

It is not often that someone makes a conscious decision to engage in behaviors that will result in an eating disorder. While it may be true that some eating disorders begin as what could be called normal dieting that then escalates into an obsessive behavior, most eating disorders develop over time and have subtle warning signs that may be easy to overlook or pass off as something different. If you have noticed changes in your loved one but are unable to put a finger on what is going on or what you should do about it, here are a few subtle clues that your loved one is silently suffering from an eating disorder.

They Don’t Want to Eat with or in Front of Other People.

Humans are social creatures and eating together is one of the most common reasons to get together and socialize. Where there are groups of people, you can be sure to find food nearby. When someone seems anxious or avoids eating with or in front of people, this is a signal that something is going on. For someone who suffers from anorexia, eating in public can be overwhelming and nerve-racking when they assume everyone is watching what they eat and will notice their food rituals (see below). For those who suffer from bulimia, eating in public may cause anxieties because people may notice the binge and prevent the purge. Being in a new location with access to unknown facilities makes someone who suffers from bulimia highly anxious. And, someone who suffers from binge eating disorder (BED) may feel very uncomfortable when others notice the combinations and quantity of what they eat.

Eating Is Very Ritualistic

Eating disorders are very reminiscent of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and the two are often found together. If your loved one has a specific food ritual and gets very upset if it is altered or noticed, it is a sign that they may be suffering from a number of eating disorders. Most commonly, ritualistic eating behaviors are indicative of anorexia nervosa. Rituals such as excessive chewing, cutting food into small pieces, or arranging for in a particular fashion are tactics to avoid eating.

New Diets or Food Obsessions

New diets may be a legitimate attempt to lose or gain weight and may be perfectly healthy and no cause for concern. However, when food becomes an obsession and everything consumed must be logged or is accounted for in one way or another, it is more than just a diet. A newly recognized eating disorder, orthorexia, is an obsession over avoiding foods that are considered unhealthy and analyzing the foods that are considered healthy. While dieting to lose weight is not of much concern if done safely and in moderation, becoming obsessed with food and calorie counting is cause for concern. If your loved one is frantic over how many calories are in their gum or seasoning, these are hard warning signs that a diet has gone far beyond healthy.

Always Has an Excuse Not to Eat

To hide or normalize symptoms of restrictive intake eating disorders or for the sake of binge eating in private, many who suffer from an eating disorder will do so silence. A tale-tell sign is the constant avoidance of eating and food. To make light of the situation or to avoid prying questions, someone who suffers from an eating disorder will come up with excuses of why they cannot partake — not hungry, just ate, waiting for a special meal later, upset stomach, suddenly a vegetarian or allergic to new foods, on a new diet, etc.

Change in Appearance

A change in appearance is typically a later sign that a person has been suffering for a while and able to hide it until the outward signs become more apparent. Perhaps they noticed the changes — weight gain or loss, brittle hair, dry skin, dark circles around the eyes — and made every attempt to hid it, successfully. Changes in skin, hair, and nails are often caused by starvation of essential nutrients and are more common in those who suffer from anorexia and some who suffer from bulimia. Weight loss can be an indicator of most eating disorders, while those who suffer from binge eating disorder may gain, lose, or maintain their weight.

Poor Body Image

While most people struggle at some point with their appearance, it is not obsessive. Negative self-talk such as “I am so fat” can be warning signs that poor body image may be more than just a self-confidence issue. Some warning signs that your loved one has poor self-body image include their obsession about how their body looks and how food affects it, constant checking for fat deposits, inability to see any positives, takes compliments as negative and refuses to see self as they actually are.

Obsessive Exercise

For some, but not all, who suffer from restrictive eating disorders, excessive exercise goes hand in hand. Exercise is used as both a form of self-punishment, but also as a way to rid the body of the few calories that were consumed. It may be difficult to recognize obsessive exercise behaviors in athletes or those who are training for something specific (i.e. a marathon). Indications that the behaviors are obsessive and may be tied to an eating disorder include obsession with workout tracking apps, relating food consumed to need to burn calories, anger and anxiety related to missing a workout, and over-doing workouts.

Not all symptoms of eating disorders will be present in every person who suffers, nor will an eating disorder manifest the same in each person. Other symptoms may include constantly being cold, development of fine body hair (lanugo), hoarding food, hiding food, use of laxatives, and consuming large amounts of unhealthy food in one sitting. If you are concerned that your loved one suffers from an eating disorder, it is okay to directly ask them about their feelings and beliefs toward food. Reach out to us at Canopy Cove for more information regarding eating disorders and how to help your loved one. We have a variety of treatment options and can help you address the topic. Contact us today!