Signs Your Loved One Has an Eating Disorder

According to a recent study, about 10% of people will develop an eating disorder at some point in their life. Eating disorders are commonly associated with teens, particularly young women, due to stereotypes and media representations. While eating disorders frequently develop during young adulthood, anyone can develop these conditions. However, specific symptoms and comorbidities often vary.

Eating disorders are considered mental illnesses by themselves, but they can also exist with co-occurring conditions. In fact, 95% of people with an eating disorder have at least one psychiatric illness. These nuances can make it challenging to spot the warning signs in someone you love. We're here to show you how to identify symptoms of an eating disorder and talk to your loved one about getting help.

Types of Eating Disorders

Before you can determine whether your loved one is displaying symptoms of an eating disorder, it's important to be able to identify them appropriately. Below are the most common types of eating disorders.

1. Anorexia Nervosa

People with this eating disorder struggle to maintain an appropriate body weight for their height and age. Many people with anorexia suffer from a distorted body image, often driven by a fear of becoming overweight. This may cause individuals to heavily restrict the amount of food or calories they eat, exercise compulsively or misuse laxatives to lose weight.

Some may also participate in binge eating and purge by vomiting. Anorexia has an extremely high death rate compared to other eating and mental health disorders due to the effects of starvation and suicidality. Research shows that anorexia increases suicidal thoughts by 10%, resulting in one in five deaths associated with this eating disorder.

2. Bulimia Nervosa

Individuals with bulimia nervosa eat high-calorie or large amounts of food and then try to get rid of it by purging. Some people with bulimia switch between only eating low-calorie foods or binge eating high-calorie foods, followed by compensatory behaviors to prevent gaining weight. These behaviors include vomiting, laxative misuse, fasting or excessive exercise. A person with bulimia nervosa may be underweight, average weight or overweight.

3. Binge Eating Disorder (BED)

Binge eating disorder (BED) refers to an eating disorder where individuals repeatedly eat large amounts of food in a short period until they are uncomfortably full. They may also eat when they're not hungry, hide their eating from others or feel guilty or ashamed after eating. Some people with BED may use purging methods to counter binge eating, but not all.

4. Other Specified Feeding and Eating Disorders (OSFED)

It's possible for an individual to struggle with disturbances of eating behavior that do not meet the diagnostic threshold of the categories listed above. In this case, an individual may be diagnosed with other specific feeding and eating disorders (OSFED). This diagnosis may occur if the individual's behavior does not meet the frequency or weight criteria of other known eating disorders.

Some examples of OSFED include:

  • Purging disorder, without the presence of binge eating
  • Night eating syndrome
  • Low-frequency or limited-duration binge eating disorder
  • Low-frequency or limited-duration bulimia nervosa
  • Atypical anorexia nervosa, without the presence of significant weight loss

What Triggers an Eating Disorder?

As with any mental health disorder, there is no one cause of an eating disorder. Various elements can trigger disordered eating, including a combination of biological, behavioral, psychological, social and genetic factors. These factors can appear differently in each person.

A study identified nine different categories that can increase an individual's likelihood of developing an eating disorder, which include:

  1. Genetics
  2. Gut microbiome and autoimmune reactions
  3. Childhood and early adolescent exposure
  4. Personality traits and co-occurring mental health conditions
  5. Gender
  6. Socio-economic status
  7. Ethnic minority
  8. Body image and social influence
  9. Elite sports

The study found that abuse, childhood obesity and trauma are also strongly associated with eating disorders. Meanwhile, personality and mood disorders were linked to increased severity of eating disorder symptoms. Body-image-related factors, higher education attainment and use of social media were linked to increased risk of eating disorder symptoms.

Research has also reflected that social media usage has a significant effect on body image and eating disorders, particularly among young adults, due to the ease of access to harmful eating disorder-promoting content and weight loss trends.

Symptoms and Warning Signs of Eating Disorders

If symptoms of eating disorders appear differently in each person, how can you tell if your loved one has an eating disorder? We've compiled a list of the common behavioral and emotional signs of eating disorders:

  • Dramatic weight gain or weight loss
  • Inappropriate body weight for age, height and build
  • Drinking an excessive amount of water or low-calorie beverages
  • Often makes comments about needing to “burn off” calories
  • Frequent trips to the bathroom after meals
  • Chronic sore throat
  • Constant negative comments about body image, weight, dieting or self-esteem
  • Comments about feeling disgust or guilt for eating too much
  • Excessive exercise, even when injured or ill
  • Fainting or dizziness from dehydration or malnutrition
  • Heartburn and acid reflux
  • Brittle hair or nails
  • Limited range of preferred foods
  • Lack of control or inability to stop eating
  • Stealing or hoarding food in inappropriate places
  • Recurrent unexplained bowel problems, such as diarrhea or constipation
  • Irregular menstrual periods
  • Excessive fatigue
  • Evidence of purging, such as vomiting or using diuretics or laxatives
  • Evidence of binge eating, including lots of empty wrappers or disappearance of food
  • Muscle weakness
  • Dental issues from self-induced vomiting, such as bad breath, enamel erosion, tooth discoloration and cavities
  • Cold intolerance, often dressing in layers to stay warm
  • Mental health changes, including depression, anxiety, irritability or poor concentration

Please note that these symptoms are not related to one specific eating disorder. Rather, they are a generalized list of symptoms and behaviors that are commonly linked to eating and weight control behaviors.

How to Support Someone With an Eating Disorder

Eating disorders are complex mental and medical illnesses that are not just about food and weight. Proper mental health care is an essential aspect of recovering from an eating disorder. Here are some tips to initiate a conversation with your loved one and show your support:

  • Communicate that you care and want to understand.
  • Discuss only the facts and behaviors you have observed.
  • Acknowledge that they are not to blame for their eating disorder.
  • Ask your loved one what they're thinking and feeling.
  • Avoid mentioning food, weight shape or diets.
  • Remind them that recovery is possible.
  • Avoid any urges to control your loved one or their eating habits.
  • Show your support by offering kind words of encouragement.
  • Focus on positive change and solutions, not the cause of the disorder.
  • Avoid offering uninformed or simple solutions that are unrealistic or insensitive.
  • Approach your loved one in a private, safe space.
  • Express your concerns for their health and safety in a calm and direct manner.
  • Focus on using “I” statements to avoid making your loved one feel shamed or attacked.
  • Let your loved one know you do not judge them.
  • Ask what you can do to help.
  • Research treatment options and share them with your loved one.

Why Trust Us for Eating Disorder Support?

Asking for help for yourself or encouraging a loved one to seek treatment for an eating disorder can be daunting. At Diamond House, we provide judgment-free, supportive mental health treatment for a variety of conditions. We understand that eating disorders can affect every aspect of your life, including your physical health and relationships.

Our compassionate, experienced therapists will work with you to address the root of your negative thoughts and behaviors and implement healthy coping mechanisms. It's our ultimate goal to create a safe and comfortable environment for every individual to heal and recover on their own time.

Reach Out for Yourself or Your Loved One

If you or your loved one are experiencing symptoms of an eating disorder, know that recovery is possible. At Diamond House, we'll be by your side every step of the way. Your recovery and healing path is our priority, which is why we offer individualized treatment and therapeutic approaches for every client.

We want to help you improve your quality of life by providing educational resources and flexible programs to meet your unique needs. We encourage you to contact us to learn more about our outpatient and partial hospitalization programs!