How do you know if you, or someone you care about, has an eating disorder? The world of eating disorders (or EDs) is complicated and can feel very overwhelming. If you’re worried about somebody or have had others say they’re concerned about you, keep reading. We’re here to provide simple, understandable information.
What exactly is an eating disorder?
An eating disorder is a mental health condition that is marked by an obsession with body shape and food. That’s a very broad definition, but it’s also pretty accurate. The causes are many and varied, often going back to past trauma.
Almost always, the root cause or causes trigger a near-pathological need for control. That need manifests in various ways, including an obsessive desire to manage food and the physical body. Whether weight change triggers the ED or the ED triggers weight change, the end results are the same.
The physical effects of eating disorders can be severe, involving every system of the body. Other mental health disorders, especially depression and anxiety, frequently co-occur with EDs. As the illnesses develop and become more severe, the psychological and physical symptoms do too.
Importantly, these disorders can affect anyone. Just because you’re not a teenage girl, doesn’t mean you’re not vulnerable to developing an ED. Sufferers come from every race, age, gender and walk of life. The illness is equally challenging for all of them, but recovery is equally possible for all of them too.
Signs and symptoms of eating disorders
Since there are various types of EDs, the signs and symptoms that individuals show can vary. Whether someone is a bulimic, anorexic, orthorexic or a compulsive overeater, they will generally display several of these behaviours:
- Weight or body shape affecting mood, enjoyment of events or participation in an event.
- An individual constantly worries that the food they are eating will increase their weight.
- Rigid habits and rituals around food or other everyday routines, to create a sense of control and security. For example, someone might eat the food on their plate in a very specific order.
- Going for eight waking hours or longer without eating.
- Excessive discomfort when an individual sees themselves in the mirror.
- Wearing clothes to cover up or disguise body shape.
- Careful planning of meals, and severe stress if the plans go awry.
- Eating in secret, or specifically avoiding being around other people while eating.
- Eliminating specific foods completely, or carefully controlling how much is consumed.
- Feelings of guilt after eating food that is believed to cause weight gain.
- Inability to focus on work, school or social events due to intrusive thoughts about eating food or planning meals.
- Obsessively weighing oneself, often several times a day.
- Exercising excessively or compulsively.
- Laxative abuse.
- Avoiding any social gathering that involves food.
- Large fluctuations in weight.
- An increase in mood swings.
- An individual tiring quickly and being generally very lethargic.
So much more than eating is disordered
Above, it was mentioned that recovery is possible for any eating disorder sufferer, and that’s true. But what’s also true is that recovery is hard work for everyone. Eating disorders involve so much more than just disordered thoughts and behaviours about eating.
The disordered thoughts have to be faced, and established patterns have to be unlearned. And the underlying causes for the development of the ED must be addressed. Ultimately, your most important resource is your own determination to get better – but you also don’t have to do it alone. If you or someone you care about shows most of the signs and symptoms on our checklist, reach out and get help.