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Healthy Dieting or Eating Disorder? Know the Signs of an Eating Disorder


Many people worry about their body image and weight, especially in our society where we are constantly presented with unrealistic standards of perfection.

However, it is important to know when you, or your loved one, might be crossing the line from healthy dieting to unhealthy disordered eating patterns.

The consequences of ignoring the signs of an eating disorder can be severe. Often, eating disorders are not addressed at a time when it would be easier to intervene because the clues can be subtle. Despite the fact that many sufferers rarely admit they have a problem, if they are appropriately confronted, they are willing to accept help.

Many times family may be met with anger and denial when trying to confront a loved one with an eating disorder, but in such cases it is advised that you remain calm and noncritical. Try to provide your loved one with a detailed description of what you're observing and stress the importance of seeking help.

If you are concerned that you or a loved one may be developing an eating disorder, you may want to look out for some of the signs.

Signs of an Eating Disorder

Avoiding Meals

An individual with anorexia may often offer excuses for not eating during meals or for skipping meals. Those who suffer from bulimia or binge eating disorder may find it uncomfortable to eat around others and may also offer excuses. If your loved one often tells you they already ate or they're going to eat later, it may be a warning sign that something is up.

Unusual Eating Behavior

On the one hand, anorexics commonly cut food into very small pieces and move their food around on the plate to avoid eating it. Bulimics, on the other hand, are more likely to eat food rapidly. Bulimia sufferers may also consume large amounts of water to make vomiting easier. Odd combinations of food are also common among bulimics and binge eaters. People with either eating disorder are also known to take very small portions when eating with others, though reasons for this are not quite clear.

Distorted Body Image

Among eating disorder sufferers there tends to be a preoccupation with weight that can lead to excessive dieting and exercise. People with eating disorders often wear baggy clothes to hide their shape and avoid looking in mirrors.

Mood and Mind Effects

You may notice increased anxiety around meal times or whenever your loved one is around food. However, other signs may be apparent due to malnutrition such as increased irritability, poor concentration, and impaired memory and cognitive abilities. Depression may also be a symptom of an eating disorder, and you may also notice some of the typical symptoms of depression such as fatigue, lack of motivation and irregular sleep patterns.

Physical Signals

One of the most obvious signs that a loved one may be suffering from anorexia is a dramatic weight loss that is not related to any other illness. However, there may be earlier physical signals that you can pick up on such as dry hair, hair loss, brittle nails, changes in skin complexion and lack of energy or constantly feeling cold. Many of these physical changes arise from the gradual elimination of key nutrients that would typically be obtained from a balanced diet.

When there is no obvious weight change in someone who has been eating ravenously, it may point to bulimia nervosa. The physical changes to look for in this case are usually related to induced vomiting and can include discolored or callused fingers, discolored teeth, swollen or bleeding gums or cheeks and complaints of stomach pain, constipation or diarrhea.


Within all three of the major eating disorders there is a level of secrecy. Anorexics often wear baggy clothes in an attempt to cover up their body and weight loss. Bulimics and binge eaters tend to go to great lengths to keep erratic food eating patterns hidden. Look for signs of late-night eating, large quantities of food missing, hidden foods, and numerous empty wrappers or containers in the trash.

Other signs may also include the excessive use of laxatives and/or diuretics after meals. You can also be on the look out for signs of vomiting like its smell, running water to hide the sound, or the consistent use of mints or gum when coming out of the bathroom.

Source: UCLA Magazine