Events / Helpful Hints

Tips for Spotting a Feeding or Eating Disorder

Feeding and eating disorders, such as anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, or avoidant-restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID) are dangerous and distressing conditions. Maybe you have heard these terms before, but don’t really know what they mean. Perhaps you have an inkling that someone you care for might be suffering with one of these problems, but you’re not totally certain.

In honor of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, we’ve compiled a list of some common signs of disordered eating and full-fledged feeding and eating disorders. If you recognize any of these symptoms in yourself or a loved one, don’t stay silent – speak up and learn about the treatment resources near you.

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1. Restrictive Eating Behavior: Has your loved one started cutting out foods from their diet? Many individuals who develop a feeding or eating disorder will eliminate foods from their diet until there are only a small number of foods they will allow themselves to eat. Foods may be eliminated because of their texture and color, as commonly the case in ARFID, or because of their fat or carbohydrate content, as typically seen in anorexia and bulimia nervosa.

What are you noticing during meals or snacks? Individuals with eating disorders may hide food during meals to make it appear as if they’ve eaten more than they have. You might also notice other unusual behaviors during meals, for example, cutting food into very small pieces, or mixing foods in odd combinations.

2. Binge Eating: Binge eating means eating an unusually large amount of food while feeling out of control. Binge eating is often done alone, so it’s unlikely you would observe it directly. Instead, you might see indirect signs of binge eating, such as noticing that food seems to have disappeared from the refrigerator or pantry, or finding food wrappers hidden in your loved one’s room. People who struggle with binge eating may also be spending a lot of money on food and this might be reflected in credit card bills or ATM receipts.

3. Vomiting, Laxative, Diet Pill, Diuretic Use, and Beyond: Some people with eating disorders will vomit or use different types of pills to attempt to get rid of the calories they’ve eaten (though this is by-and-large ineffective, and dangerous). Some individuals may spit out foods rather than swallowing them in an attempt to avoid absorbing calories.

Like binge eating, these behaviors are often done privately so you are unlikely to witness them directly. Does your loved one immediately head to the bathroom after eating? Have you noticed any unusual pills in the bathroom — laxatives or diuretics – or packaging from these items in the trash? Does your loved one seem to subsist largely on caffeinated coffees or teas (which act as diuretics)?

4. Changes in Weight: Significant, sudden weight loss or failure to gain weight during expected periods of growth (e.g., adolescence) can be a sign of a feeding or eating disorder and a result of overly restrictive eating. On the flip side, sudden significant weight gain (that does not seem to be better accounted for by a growth spurt or puberty) can be a sign that someone is struggling binge eating behaviors.  Rapid weight fluctuation can also signal that your loved one is having difficulty with food. Remember though, many individuals with eating disorders are not underweight, don’t experience a significant weight change, and may look physically “healthy” or “normal” at first glance. Looks can be deceiving.

5. Obsessing about Food: Has your loved one become totally preoccupied with watching cooking shows, reading cookbooks, or making food for others but not eating it themselves? Preoccupation with food is a common biological response to starvation and is seen in many people who are either underweight or under-eating.

6. Overdoing it with Exercise: Spending long hours at the gym and foregoing other activities may be a sign of struggling with an eating disorder. Does your loved one insist on exercising even when they’re sick or injured? Is it hard for him and her to vary the routine or take days off?

7. Changes in Personality: Dietary restriction, binge eating, purging, and excessive exercise can all cause your loved one to become more irritable, socially withdrawn, more easily tired, and more obsessive or rigid in their thinking. If you’ve noticed that a loved one is less interested in activities that were once important to them, considering talking to them about it.

8. Poor Body Image: Many people wish their body was a little bit different than it is, but persistent poor body image is also a hallmark of many eating disorders. You may notice that your loved one seems preoccupied with their body, and their appearance has become one of the most important things to them. They may express dissatisfaction with the way they look, or express a strong desire to lose weight. Frequently inspecting themselves in the mirror, measuring body parts, and taking a long time to get dressed can signal an unhealthy obsession with shape or weight.

If you suspect that someone you care about is suffering, reach out to them. Feeding and eating disorders rarely get better without treatment. For additional information to ready yourself for a conversation with your loved one and resources for treatment local to your area contact the National Eating Disorders Association. To learn about opportunities to receive treatment and participate in research in the New York area, give us a call at 646-774-8063 or email us at edru@nyspi.columbia.edu.

Photo Credit: Creative Commons by Pixabay (mojzagrebinfo)

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3 thoughts on “Tips for Spotting a Feeding or Eating Disorder

  1. I have always had an eating disorder or, at least, my adopted parents say so. Now, a lot of people think of anorexia when they think of these types of disorders and they don’t really count being obsessed about food one. Food is probably the number one thing on my mind. I love cooking shows, reading cookbooks, cooking for myself and others, and just thinking about cooking as well. Yet, I am definitely not underweight, but this is a product of my being neglected and not having much food when I was little. Today, I get anxiety whenever I participate in a religious fast or feel like I am being kept from eating food. Would you classify my circumstance as being an eating disorder and, if so, how would you go about calming that anxiety when it comes to food? http://centerforchange.com/residential-treatment/

    • Thank you for your thoughtful comment. You are correct – there are many types of eating disorders in addition to anorexia nervosa. If you would like to learn more about some of the other forms an eating disorder can take, please see this related post on ‘other’ serious feeding and eating disorders. If you are seeking to learn more about what diagnosis is most appropriate for your particular symptoms, it is important to meet face-to-face with a clinician – perhaps your physician, or a mental health specialist. In addition to providing a diagnosis, and perhaps more importantly, a clinician will also be able to help you figure out which anxiety reduction strategies work best for you. There are lots of options – relaxation techniques like deep breathing or meditation, challenging anxious thoughts, learning to sit with uncomfortable anxiety until it decreases on its own, to name a few – and your clinician can help you pick the most appropriate one, and even practice it with you a time or two.

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