Noticing the Signs of an Eating Disorder

It’s National Eating Disorder Awareness Week - let’s talk about the warning signs of an eating disorder. Eating disorders continue to be on the rise - knowing the warning signs can help you or your family member, friend or loved one, get support and get to feeling better around food. Eating disorders start as disordered eating patterns and may include subtle changes in food preferences, eating behaviors and exercise - before becoming alarming symptoms. 6 Warning Signs of an Eating Disorder Sudden desire to eat healthier and/or cutting out certain food groups like carbohydrates, dairy, meat or desserts. While changes in diet can be positive in many circumstances, drastic changes like cutting out whole food groups could indicate a stressful relationship with food. Difficulty or avoiding eating in front of other people stems from worry or anxiety that others will judge what you’re eating or how much you eat. This can result in eating a large amount of foods when alone or only wanting to eat in private. Developing rigid rules or rituals around eating may include eating foods in a certain order, not eating certain foods, using excessive condiments, cutting food into small pieces, pushing food around plate at meals - are used to mitigate the anxiety, guilt or shame felt around foods. Ambiguous stomach problems mentioned often, especially as an excuse to avoid eating, may sound like “my stomach hurts” or “my stomach is upset” - may be a sign of disordered eating, especially if there is no well defined cause. Headaches, feeling dizzy, and constipation are common symptoms of malnutrition or not getting enough calories daily. Talking about food as a reward for doing things or mentioning food needs to be burned off with exercise, may indicate a transactional relationship with food (calories in vs. calories out) or concern with how many calories are being eaten throughout the day. Obsessive thoughts about food or body may sound like “how many calories is in this”, “if this has more than X calories I shouldn’t eat it”. It may look like engaging in diets, avoiding social outings that involve food, checking how body looks in mirror, wearing loose or baggy clothing majority of the time. Eating disorder diagnoses increased 15% in 2020 among people under 30 compared to previous years A recent study showed diagnosed eating disorders increased by 15% during the COVID-19 pandemic (2020) among people under 30, compared to years prior. The peak age of onset is 15-25 years old, but someone can develop an eating disorder at any age. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. The sooner signs are noticed, and the sooner treatment starts, the less likely it is for severe complications to occur. While there are several formal diagnoses for eating disorders, you do not need an eating disorder diagnosis to seek support via therapy or nutrition counseling. 

Types of Eating Disorders

  • Anorexia nervosa (AN)
  • Bulimia nervosa (BN)
  • Binge eating disorder (BED)
  • Other specified feeding or eating disorder (OSFED)
  • Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID)

If you have any questions or know someone who is struggling with their relationship with food, feel free to reach out to our team of dietitians for support. Further resources:

  • National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA)
  • Carolina Resource Center for Eating Disorders (CRC for ED)
  • Alliance for Eating Disorders
  • ANAD

By: Sarah Stroup, MS, RD, LDN