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Eating disorders are serious mental health disorders that can affect people of every age, race, ethnicity, and gender. Someone who has an eating disorder may exhibit a range of signs and symptoms that range from obvious to subtle. People close to someone with an eating disorder may not be prepared to recognize the more subtle signs; this can prevent them from reaching out to help the person who’s struggling with the eating disorder

For this reason, we’ve listed some basic information about eating disorders, the signs you may see when these disorders are present, and what steps you can take to get help for yourself or a loved one. Treatment by professionals is necessary for recovery from eating disorders – sometimes a therapist can help, and sometimes a day treatment or even a residential program is warranted. If you observe any of the warning signs in yourself or a loved one, please contact your mental health professional right away.

Signs of Binge Eating Disorder

Binge eating disorder is the most common form of eating disorder in the United States, although it doesn’t get as much recognition as others. People with binge eating disorder engage in binge eating episodes, where they compulsively eat large amounts of food in a short time. They may engage in dieting behaviors, but they do not engage in purging behaviors, such as vomiting.

If you suspect that your loved one may have binge eating disorder, keep an eye out for:

  • Episodes of eating large quantities of food in secret.
  • Frequent dieting.
  • Extreme concern with weight and/or body shape.
  • Unexplained weight gain.
  • Keeping stashes of junk food, or hiding food.
  • Discomfort about eating in a public setting.

People with binge eating disorder may feel out of control during episodes of binge eating, and they might begin to organize their schedules to accommodate these binge eating episodes. Binge eating disorder can lead to many of the negative symptoms of obesity such as heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure.

Signs of Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia is a well-known restrictive kind of eating disorder where people severely restrict their caloric intake, leading to extreme weight loss. They are typically preoccupied with their body weight and may experience a distorted body image. Some of the most common signs of this disorderand behavioral symptoms include:

  • Obsession with body weight, appearance, and avoiding weight gain
  • Prolonged or extreme weight loss.
  • Frequent dieting and counting calories.
  • Chewing and spitting.
  • Wearing baggy clothes to hide body shape.
  • Always feeling cold
  • Lethargy.
  • Lack of normal menstrual cycles in women.
  • Intense fear of weight gain.
  • Extreme or compulsive exercise
  • Becoming isolated or withdrawing from social engagements.

People with anorexia nervosa face a long list of negative symptoms. It is the most dangerous form of mental health disorder, with the highest death rate and suicide rate of them all. People with anorexia nervosa might also experience gastrointestinal problems, anemia, dizziness, thinning hair, muscle weakness, and a variety of other physical problems.

Signs of Bulimia Nervosa

Bulimia nervosa is similar to anorexia nervosa in that it often includes body image distortions and a fear of gaining weight. However, rather than restricting food intake, people with bulimia try to prevent weight gain by purging the food they eat, often during binge eating episodes similar to those of binge eating disorder. The most common way to purge is self-induced vomiting, but other methods like laxative abuse or excessive exercise are also common. Sometimes, the person will use several purging methods. Some of the signs of bulimia nervosa include:

  • Obsession with weight and body shape.
  • Evidence of binge eating episodes, such as large amounts of food disappearing or watching the individual eating large amounts of food at one time.
  • Discomfort at mealtimes.
  • Unusual rituals involving food.
  • Keeping breath mints on themselves at all times, and other ways to hide the smell of vomit.
  • Calluses on the fingers and knuckles.
  • Evidence of purging, such as disappearing after meals, spending too much time in the bathroom, and laxative packages.
  • Rapid or sudden tooth decay.

Bulimia nervosa can have many negative health effects, including thinning hair, dry skin, muscle weakness, and a range of other issues.

Recognizing Eating Disorders in a Friend or Family Member

If you believe your loved one may have an eating disorder, make sure you research their symptoms and maybe even talk to a professional before raising the issue with them.Many eating disorders cause the person great stress at mealtimes, especially when others are present, so keep your eye out during shared meals. In fact, many people discover eating disorders during the holidays, when family gatherings are common. Make sure you don’t jump the gun – a conversation about a person’s potential eating disorder is not an easy one.

For parents, this can be even more difficult. Adolescence is the most prominent time for eating disorders to begin developing, to the point where specialized adolescent eating disorder treatment programs are necessary. The changes in their bodies, raging hormones, and shifting roles in society all require sensitive approaches when interacting with teens in mental health discussions. Thankfully, psychologists, therapists, and eating disorder treatment specialists with experience helping children are all available.

Types of Treatment

While each form of eating disorder has specific treatment methodologies, some basics have become universal. Taken as part of a personal treatment plan, these methodologies have proven successful in thousands of cases over time. Some of these treatment types can include:

  • Talk therapy – Similar to the kind of therapy most people expect for depression, anxiety, and other common mental health disorders, talk therapy is the foundation of recovery. People will discuss their recovery journey, underlying root causes, and recovery exercise in both individual and group settings.
  • Cognitive retraining – Disordered thinking and emotions can be rehabilitated, but it takes focused activity and training. Techniques such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Dialectic Behavioral Therapy (DBT) are evidence-based techniques (so named because they have been proven effective in clinical settings) that lay out a clear road map to recovery. Individuals learn to understand and accept their flawed thinking and behavioral patterns, and gradually work to replace them with healthier ones.
  • Nutritional education –The amount and type of nutrition we take in can have drastic effects on our brain functions as well as physical health. At eating disorder treatment centers, training about the importance of nutrition is paramount; both education about how nutrition and meal prep/nutritional planning are taught as part of virtually every eating disorder treatment program.
  • Mindful movement – Disordering eating behaviors are often part and parcel with excessive or compulsive exercise. Eating disorder recovery programs usually include mindful movement classes that help clients reconnect with their bodies without resorting to harmful exercise patterns. This may include low-impact movement activities that allow for meditative thought. Yoga, tai chi, and similar activities are the most frequently included mindful movement activities.

Getting Treatment for Eating Disorders

Treatment for eating disorders is available in a variety of forms, including residential treatment, outpatient day treatment, and partial hospitalization programs. Residential treatment programs are conducted in inpatient facilities that provide all the resources people with eating disorders need to get better, with 24/7 medical, psychiatric, and therapeutic care.

Reach out to an expert such as an eating disorder counselor or the admissions staff at an eating disorder treatment center if you want to help yourself or your loved one attain a full recovery. They can help you diagnose the disorder, arrange treatment, and enter an eating disorder treatment facility, as well as arrange transportation and financial considerations.


Melissa Spann, PhD, LMHC, CEDS-S

Melissa Orshan Spann, PhD, LMHC, RTY 200, is Chief Clinical Officer at Monte Nido & Affiliates, overseeing the clinical operations and programming for over 50 programs across the U.S. Dr. Spann is a Certified Eating Disorder Specialist and clinical supervisor as well as an accomplished presenter and passionate clinician who has spent her career working in the eating disorder field in higher levels of care. She is a member of the Academy for Eating Disorders and the International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals where she serves on the national certification committee, supervision faculty, and is on the board of her local chapter. She received her doctoral degree from Drexel University, master’s degree from the University of Miami, and bachelor’s degree from the University of Florida.