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Warning Signs of an Eating Disorder

Updated: Feb 11

Written and medically reviewed by Serena Benali, Registered Dietitian. Published September 6, 2022. Updated February 11, 2024.


You may be concerned about a friend, loved one or your child that they have developed an eating disorder. Or perhaps you’re here because you feel you may have an eating disorder. You may be wondering what are the warning signs of an eating disorder? What should I be looking out for?


In this blog article, we go over the different kinds of eating disorders and what the warning signs are, what you should look out for and how to start the journey to recovery.


two women sitting down a kitchen table, each women has a plate of food in front them. One women looks happy the other one looks concerned to eat because she has an eating disorder




What Are Eating Disorders?


Eating disorders are mental health illnesses that seriously impact the life of those enduring them. They can become life threatening mental illnesses. Eating disorders are behavioural conditions that affect how someone relates to food and their body, affecting them psychologically, physically and socially.


Eating disorders can consume one's thoughts and behaviours. This can include how one thinks about food and their body, eats food, socializes and interacts with food.


No one chooses to have an eating disorder. Eating disorders are complex and multifaceted. Eating disorders affect people of all genders, races, ethnic backgrounds, body shapes, ages and socioeconomic class.


Eating disorders are classified under the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) criteria (1). Common eating disorders include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder. It’s important to know that people with eating disorders may appear to be healthy so knowing what signs to look for is crucial.





What is Binge Eating Disorder?


Binge eating disorder is a condition characterized by eating large amounts of food in a short amount of time with feelings of loss of control. The person may eat rapidly and eat past feeling uncomfortably full. These episodes may occur in secret and when they’re alone. Afterwards the person can feel flooded with emotional distress and feelings of guilt, embarrassment and disgust.


Binge eating disorder is recognized with occurrences of at least once a week over three months.


Warning Signs of Binge Eating Disorder

  • Large amounts of food disappearing in a short period of time, lots of empty wrappers and containers

  • Hides or hoards food in strange places (bedroom closet)

  • Not eating around others or appears uncomfortable eating around others

  • Shows concern or distress over body weight and shape

  • Dental issues: enamel erosion, cavities, tooth sensitivity

  • Social changes: making rituals or scheduled times for binge sessions

  • Changes in eating patterns: skipping meals, eating small amounts around others, no regular meal times, cutting out food groups (carbs, dairy etc.)

  • Frequent dieting

  • Withdrawal from social life

  • Fluctuations in weight


Binge eating disorder is the most commonly occurring eating disorder. It is a treatable eating disorder. We offer a unique one-on-one all-encompassing binge eating program that addresses the psychological, behavioural and food relationship issues to provide full recovery.


If you or someone you care about is ready to start the healing journey with binge eating, we’ve got you covered with our dietitian picked best binge eating books.





What is Bulimia Nervosa?


Bulimia nervosa is a condition characterized by cycles of bingeing and purging. Similarly to binge eating disorder, large amounts of food are consumed in a short period of time with feelings of a lack of control over food consumed. Eating continues regardless of feeling uncomfortably full. With bulimia there is compensatory behaviour to compensate or “undo” the effects of the binge by purging. Purging is done by: vomiting, laxatives, diuretics or by non-purging ways: fasting or excessive exercising.


Bulimia can be difficult to identify as most individuals with bulimia nervosa are within normal weight or may be overweight. There is an intense preoccupation with body shape and weight. There is also extreme secrecy and isolation from this illness.


Bulimia nervosa is recognized with occurrences of binge eating and compensatory behaviour occurs once a week for three months or more.


Warning Signs of Bulimia Nervosa

  • Weight fluctuations: body weight can be within a normal range or may be overweight

  • Avoids eating with others or in public, appears uncomfortable eating with others

  • Skipping meals or eating small amounts of food

  • Frequent trips to the washroom after eating

  • Empty wrappers and containers

  • Packages of laxative or diuretics

  • Hiding and hoarding large amounts of food (ex: bedroom closet)

  • Hidden purging container (vomiting may occur in bedroom to reduce suspicion of others, when no one is around the contents are discarded in the washroom)

  • Signs or smells of vomiting

  • Lots of money spent on food especially food for planned binges and purges

  • An excessively rigid exercise program

  • Withdrawal from friends and social activities

  • Sensitive teeth, enamel erosion

  • Chronically sore throat

  • Swollen neck and jaw area

  • Thinning of hair

  • Loss of menstruation

  • Cold intolerance/feeling cold all the time

  • Dizziness

  • Extreme mood swings

  • Cuts or calluses across top of hands (from induced vomiting)


Bingeing and purging can lead to a range of serious medical complications including electrolyte imbalance, arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat), esophageal tears, gastric disruptions and problems with fertility.


Those with bulimia nervosa can also struggle with co-occurring conditions such as substance use, self-harm and impulsivity (risky sexual behaviours, shoplifting). There is also a high incidence of psychiatric disorders such as mood and anxiety disorders.


Those struggling with bulimia experience a great deal of shame and embarrassment about their eating and go to great lengths to be as inconspicuous as possible. The shame and secrecy can delay detection and treatment. Family and loved ones play a crucial role in offering support.





What is Anorexia Nervosa?


Anorexia nervosa is a condition characterized by a profound and irrational fear of weight gain and a distorted body image. People suffering with anorexia avoid and restrict food to very small amounts by means of excessive dieting, avoiding complete food groups and self-monitoring calorie intake.


Of all the eating disorders, anorexia has the highest mortality rate, death may result due to suicide, starvation, or electrolyte imbalance. Denial of a problem or illness is common. This illness can lead to severe mental health issues, social isolation and major depression.


Anorexia nervosa is recognized with the criteria of: restricting food intake leading to significantly low body weight, an intense fear of weight gain although underweight, distorted image in how on sees their body or denial or current low body weight.


Warning Signs of Anorexia

  • Extreme weight loss in a short amount of time

  • Only eating certain foods (foods deemed “safe”)

  • Severely restricting food

  • Makes excuses to avoid eating in public or with others

  • Preoccupation with food, calories, fat, sugar

  • Cooks or bakes food for others but doesn’t eat it

  • Frequent mirror checking or body-checking

  • Excessive exercise: maintains regimen despite weather, sickness

  • Loss of menstrual cycles

  • Digestive issues: abdominal pain, constipation

  • Dizziness or fainting

  • Thin hair that breaks or falls out

  • Low blood pressure

  • Fatigue and lethargy

  • Cold intolerance/feeling cold all the time

  • Covering up body with layers of clothing (to hide body and/or to stay warm)

  • Social isolation or withdrawal

  • Irritability

  • Depression

  • Use of laxatives or purging


The human body is extremely resilient with its will to survive. With anorexia the body does not receive the nutrition and calories it needs and overtime this manifests physically by the body beginning to slow down what it deems non-essential functions like hair growth, nail growth and cell turnover. Blood tests often do not reflect the level of inadequate food intake and starvation. Laboratory results can seem normal. Someone may present as healthy but be very ill.


The incidences of anorexia nervosa are increasing in younger people (less than 15 years old). Those who suffer with anorexia are often reluctant to seek treatment, in spite of the detrimental effects of the illness. The experience of this illness is diverse, therefore it is important to understand how this illness affects one’s physical, mental and behavioural aspects.





Other Eating Disorders


Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID)

Similar to anorexia nervosa ARFID involves restricting food intake however it does not involve a fear of weight gain or a distorted body image. ARFID presents as a lack of interest in food, avoidance based on sensory characteristics of food.


Pica

Pica involves eating items that would not be considered food or typically thought of as food such as: chalk, paint, clay, paper, soil or charcoal. Diagnosis for Pica is made from a clinical history of the patient.


Rumination Disorder

Rumination disorder involves regurgitating (spitting up) undigested food from the stomach and re-chewing it then either re-swallowing it or spitting it out.


Atypical Anorexia Nervosa

Similar to anorexia nervosa, atypical anorexia involves restricting food intake that results in significant weight loss, an intense fear of weight gain and distorted image in how one sees their body. With atypical anorexia however the individual's weight is within or above normal range.


Purging Disorder

Recurrent purging behaviour (vomiting, laxatives, diuretics, exercise) to influence weight or shape in the absence of binge eating


Night Eating Syndrome

Recurrent episodes of night eating. Eating after awakening from sleep or by excessive food consumption in the evening (after the evening meal). With this behaviour comes significant mental distress.





The Truth about Eating Disorders


The Academy of Eating Disorders took common myths about eating disorders and reframed them into truths. The 9 truths about eating disorders depicted below can help you understand more about the complex nature of eating disorders.


text- the 9 truths about eating disorders from the Academy of Eating Disorders

Whether you or someone you care about is enduring an eating disorder, educating yourself on the nature of eating disorders can help with recovery for yourself or for someone you care about.


With any eating disorder, the person may look healthy yet be extremely ill. When looking for the warning signs of eating disorders the biggest thing to look for is change. Change in eating habits, change in attitudes towards body, change in behaviour around food, change in social activities. Change.



Eating Disorder Treatment


Recovery from any eating disorder is possible. Treatment generally involves a comprehensive approach including individual therapy and nutritional rehabilitation. Here at In Good Nutrition, we specialize in care for eating disorders. We offer tele-health appointments (via video or phone). Appointments by phone can be most comfortable for individuals struggling with an eating disorder and the secrecy and shame they may feel surrounding it.


Embarking on the journey to eating disorder recovery can be scary. Seeking help is often avoided or delayed, for reasons of denial (particularly in anorexia) or stigma and shame (particularly in bulimia). Sometimes individuals may not know where to go for help. Finding a registered dietitian and registered psychologist that you feel safe and connect with is paramount to begin your journey to recovery.


Our team of registered dietitians. We simplify the process, especially for eating disorder recovery, with our direct billing service.


We’d love to show you that there is another way with food… a way that allows you to make peace with food and your body.


Book a FREE 15 minute call with a dietitian and learn how we can help you recovery from your eating disorder.






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