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Eating disorders are chronic illnesses that impact nearly every area of your life negatively. Someone who has an eating disorder may exhibit a range of signs and symptoms. While some of these symptoms may be hidden, others will be visible to friends and family members.

If you notice any of the signs or symptoms of an eating disorder in yourself or someone else, it is important to take action as soon as you can. Below is some basic information about eating disorders, the signs you may see when these disorders are present, and what you should do next.

What Is an Eating Disorder?

An eating disorder is a condition characterized by an abnormal relationship with food. Several different types of eating disorders exist, including binge eating disorder, anorexia nervosa, and bulimia nervosa. Each of these disorders presents with different signs and symptoms. In general, anorexia nervosa occurs when someone severely restricts their intake of food. Bulimia nervosa involves a cycle of bingeing and purging, and binge eating disorder appears with periods of bingeing only.

All eating disorders can lead to serious complications if left untreated. For this reason, it is important to be able to identify the signs of an eating disorder in yourself and your loved ones.

Signs of Anorexia Nervosa

People with anorexia nervosa typically restrict the number of calories and/or the type of food they eat. They are typically preoccupied with their body weight and general appearance. Some of the most common signs of this disorder in others include:

  • Preoccupation with weight, calories and/or fat content in food.
  • Being underweight.
  • Obsessions with diets.
  • Refusing to eat specific foods or specific categories of foods.
  • Dressing in layers to conceal weight loss or body shape.
  • Intolerance to cold.
  • Lethargy.
  • Food rituals, such as the need to arrange food in a specific pattern before eating.
  • Lack of normal menstrual cycles in women.
  • Intense fear of weight gain.
  • Rigid exercise regimens.
  • Social withdrawal.

If you are suffering from anorexia nervosa, you may notice symptoms in yourself as well. Aside from a preoccupation with your weight and a strong urge to restrict your intake of food, you may 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 involves a preoccupation with weight and body shape. However, rather than restricting food intake, people with bulimia attempt to avoid weight gain or lose weight by purging food after they eat. In most cases, purging involves extreme behavior, such as self-induced vomiting, laxative abuse or excessive exercise. Some of the signs of bulimia nervosa you may notice in others include:

  • Preoccupation 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.
  • Skipping meals.
  • Unusual rituals involving food.
  • Hoarding and hiding of food.
  • Signs of discomfort when eating in front of other people.
  • Evidence of purging, such as disappearing after meals, spending too much time in the bathroom, and laxative packages.

Some people who purge through induced vomiting may also develop tooth decay and/or sores on the hands and knuckles.

If you are struggling with bulimia yourself, you may notice other symptoms as well, including thinning hair, dry skin, muscle weakness, and a range of other issues related to your disordered eating behaviors.

Signs of Binge Eating Disorder

Binge eating disorder is closely related to bulimia nervosa. However, people who have binge eating disorder do not purge following episodes of binging. They may engage in dieting behaviors, but they will not resort to more extreme measures, such as vomiting.

If you suspect that your loved one may have binge eating disorder, some of the signs to look for include:

  • Episodes of eating larger than normal quantities of food at one time.
  • Frequent dieting.
  • Large amounts of food disappearing without explanation.
  • Extreme concern with weight and/or body shape.
  • Social withdrawal.
  • Hoarding or hiding of food.
  • Feeling uncomfortable eating in front of other people.

If you are suffering from binge eating disorder yourself, you are likely to notice other symptoms as well. For example, you may feel out of control during episodes of binge eating, and you may find yourself altering your schedule or creating rituals to revolve around your bingeing sessions. You may also notice trouble concentrating, gastrointestinal disturbances, and frequent fluctuations in your weight.

Causes of Eating Disorders

Researchers don’t know exactly what causes eating disorders to develop. In most cases, it is believed to be a combination of different factors. Some of the possible causes of eating disorders include:

  • Genetics – Some studies have shown that having a family history of eating disorders may raise your risk of developing a similar problem.
  • Trauma – Experiencing trauma may make the development of an eating disorder more likely.
  • Emotional and psychological health – People with eating disorders typically have emotional and/or psychological problems that contribute to their issues with food. Examples include dysfunctional relationships, perfectionism, low self-esteem, and body dysmorphic disorder.
  • Stress – High stress levels increase the risk of eating disorders and may cause an existing disorder to worsen.
  • Dieting – Research has shown that extreme dieting can change the way the brain functions. In some cases, this may lead to the development of an eating disorder.

Eating disorders are more likely to be present in people who have certain mental health disorders, such as depression, an anxiety disorder or obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Recognizing Eating Disorders in Others

Many people who have an eating disorder are unaware of the severity of the problem and/or unable to acknowledge that it exists. However, without proper treatment, eating disorders can lead to grave complications. In some cases, an untreated eating disorder can even be fatal. For this reason, family members and friends need to take action when they suspect a loved one may have an eating disorder.

If you believe your loved one may have an eating disorder, spend some time paying close attention to the individual’s behavior before you confront them. One of the best ways to determine whether an eating disorder exists is to pay attention to your loved one’s behavior at gatherings involving food. In fact, many people discover eating disorders during the holidays, when family gatherings are common. If you notice your loved one behaving strangely during or shortly after meals, an eating disorder may be the cause. Even if you aren’t sure exactly which eating disorder is causing your loved one’s problems, it is still a good idea to talk to the individual about your concerns.

If you suspect the existence of an eating disorder, the first thing you need to do is approach the individual about the issue. Be sure to approach your loved one as non-threateningly and privately as possible. Do not be confrontational, but express your concerns clearly and lovingly. Encourage your loved one to seek help for the problem from a respectable eating disorder treatment program. If your loved one is resistant to the idea of treatment, continue to provide support and encourage the individual to change their mind. In cases where eating disorders become severe, more intensive interventions may be necessary.

Eating Disorder Recovery

For most people, eating disorders are difficult to overcome. For this reason, professional treatment is usually necessary. Without treatment, the individual is at risk of developing a variety of different complications. Some of these complications may include:

  • Depression and/or anxiety – People who have depression or anxiety are more likely to develop eating disorders, but an untreated eating disorder can also cause these issues to develop in someone who was previously unaffected.
  • Interpersonal issues – Eating disorders typically cause people to withdraw socially. Someone with an eating disorder may become isolated, causing the loss of friends, and damage to family relationships.
  • Serious medical problems – Eating disorders tend to get worse over time. All eating disorders can cause medical complications, but anorexia and bulimia are the hardest on the body. People who don’t get the treatment they need may experience problems with almost any organ system.
  • Substance use disorders – Someone who has an eating disorder is more likely to develop a substance use disorder as well.
  • Problems at work or school – Eating disorders cause trouble concentrating, social withdrawal, and other issues that are likely to affect the individual’s ability to perform at work or in school.
  • Suicidal thoughts – Some people with eating disorders suffer from suicidal thoughts and may even attempt suicide.
  • Death – In the worst cases, eating disorders can lead to death. Someone with an eating disorder may die from physical complications, or they may die by suicide.

Getting Treatment for Eating Disorders

Treatment for eating disorders is available in a variety of forms. However, for most patients with a severe eating disorder, the best treatment option is residential treatmentResidential treatment programs are conducted in inpatient facilities that provide all the resources patients need to recover successfully.

The goal of residential eating disorder treatment is to help patients understand their disorder and the underlying issues that caused it to develop. In these programs, patients work to build a better, healthier relationship with food. In most cases, residential treatment programs will also work to improve the patient’s physical condition, as most people with eating disorders are suffering from more than one physical complication. Also, eating disorder treatment programs seek to help patients develop healthy food choices and exercise habits.

Many patients who enter residential treatment programs for eating disorders will be dealing with comorbid psychological disorders, such as depression. Many programs provide treatment for these issues as well.

Eating Disorder Treatment at Clementine

If you have noticed the signs of an eating disorder in yourself or a loved one, you need to seek professional help as soon as possible. At Clementine, we provide holistic treatment to adolescents and young women who have eating disorders. Not only do we seek to help the patient overcome her disorder, but we also provide supportive services to the rest of the family. Our program includes a wide variety of services, such as life skills development, exposure therapy, psychotherapy, and group therapy.

Clementine offers individualized treatment to every patient in the facility, including those who have been diagnosed with one or more co-occurring disorders. Our program is based on a system of levels, which rewards patients for the progress they make in their recovery. Before discharging patients, we pay special attention to aftercare planning to reduce the risk of relapse outside of treatment.

Recovering from an eating disorder is a challenge, but the right treatment program can provide the needed support. Please contact Clementine today to learn more about our programs.


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.