Some eating disorder signs are obvious: dramatic weight loss, a refusal to eat, retreating to the bathroom for long periods after meals. But anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder also reveal themselves in more subtle ways.
We’d like them to be easy to diagnose, but eating disorders are often much more complicated than that. Any given person may suffer from more than one at a time, and one list of symptoms doesn’t necessarily equal the same verdict for everyone. It’s important to keep in mind that many of the signals are less obvious than we might think. Not everyone suffering is skin and bones, haggard, and clearly starving. Because there are so many stereotypes around mental illnesses that deal with food, people who wrestle with them will do everything they can to keep it under wraps.
Changes in mood and behaviour, increased isolation and avoidance of social events and gatherings
Changes in mood and behaviour become noticeable quite early on. In an attempt to keep the eating disorder secret, the person may become more isolated and easily irritated; especially when questioned. Anxiety and Depression are very common among those with eating disorders. The person may avoid interaction with friends, especially if gatherings involve food. Hunger can make a person irritable and tired, which drastically impacts the person’s overall mood.
Increase in exercise or exercising excessively
Over-the-top workout habits—sometimes referred to as “exercise anorexia”—can go hand in hand with disordered eating and appear to be on the rise. The person may not participate in social events but will be seen running, walking or exercising. A person with an eating disorder who did not exercise before may now start to increase physical activity. A person who did partake in exercise beforehand may spend hours exercising or talking about it. Does the person panic if they miss a day of exercise? And does he or she work out even when injured or sick? These are indicators that things are going too far.
Obsession with food, diet talk, food or weight documentaries or forums about weight
This sign in adults can be tricky to spot, because internet usage is usually private. However, the person may talk about food and diet, or be the opposite and want to avoid all talk about it. Weight loss documentaries or documentaries about food can become an obsession as the person with an eating disorder becomes fixated. The person’s internet use will often involve forums or videos related to weight and food, so keep a watchful eye out.
Not consuming food around other people
Many people with eating disorders do not like eating around other people. The anticipation of eating with a bunch of friends can be extremely anxiety-provoking for someone dealing with anorexia, BED, or any other related illness. They may not want others to watch what they’re eating or think that they are being judged on what they are eating. Does the person go out for food with you and consume very little, or order food and take it back home with them?
People with eating disorders, especially those who restrict intake, will often experience a lowered body temperature. Frequently complaining about being cold or wearing sweaters and other heavy clothing even in mild weather are common tip-offs in people with eating disorders. This is usually a result of malnutrition and the breakdown of fat in the body. Is the person cold whilst everyone is warm? Common signs in those with eating disorders are cold hands and blue nails, a blue discoloration to the nose (cyanosis) and pale skin.
Strange eating rituals
Compulsive behaviours similar to those seen in obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) can also appear with eating disorders. These so-called rituals can take the form of cutting food into tiny morsels, or arranging food in certain patterns. They are mainly associated with anorexia (which often occurs alongside OCD), but they are sometimes an early sign of binge eating disorder as well. The person may revert back to ‘child like’ cutlery and plates to organise food, and food may be sectioned off so that it is not touching. When eating disorders are starting, people will try to make it look like they are eating by cutting things up and shifting food around on the plate so as not to draw attention to how little they are eating.