There are various physical, psychological, and behavioural warning signs that can signal the onset or the presence of an eating disorder.
People experiencing an eating disorder may display a combination of symptoms or they may show only one symptom. In some cases, they may not show any obvious symptoms at all. Some people may make significant efforts to conceal their behaviours associated with the eating disorder or may not recognise that there is anything wrong. For a support person, this can make the warning signs more difficult to identify.
Below are some of the most common warning signs and symptoms of an eating disorder.
Physical warning signs
• Sudden weight loss, frequent weight changes, persistent low weight
• Inability to maintain normal body weight for age and height, failure to grow as expected
• Loss or disturbance of menstruation
• Fainting or dizziness
• Sensitivity to the cold
• Bloating, constipation, or the development of food intolerances
• Fatigue or lethargy
• Fine hair appearing on face and body
• Loss or thinning of hair
• Signs of vomiting such as swollen cheeks or jawline, calluses on knuckles or damaged teeth
• Stress fractures, bone pain, muscle cramps
• Compromised immune system (e.g., getting sick more often)
• Sleep disturbances
Behavioural warning signs
• Repetitive dieting behaviour such as counting calories, skipping meals, fasting or avoidance of certain foods or food groups
• Frequent trips to the bathroom during or shortly after meals
• Patterns or obsessive rituals around food, food preparation and eating
• Change in food preferences
• Avoidance of, or change in behaviour in social situations involving food
• Social withdrawal or isolation from friends and family
• Secretive behaviour around eating
• Patterns or obsessive behaviours relating to body shape and weight
• Compulsive or excessive exercising
• Substance misuse
• Continual denial of hunger
• Drinking too much or too little
• Change in clothing such as wearing baggy clothes or more layers than appropriate for the weather
• Evidence of vomiting or misuse of laxatives, appetite suppressants, enemas and/or diuretics
Psychological warning signs
• Preoccupation with eating, food, body shape or weight
• Intense fear of gaining weight
• Preoccupation with food or activities relating to food
• Heightened anxiety or irritability around mealtimes
• Heightened sensitivity to comments or criticism (real or perceived) about body shape or weight, eating or exercise habits
• Low self-esteem and feelings of shame, self-loathing or guilt
• Body dissatisfaction or negative body image
• Difficulty concentrating
• Obsession with food and need for control
• ‘Black and white’ thinking - rigid thoughts about food being ‘good’ or ‘bad
• Depression, anxiety, self-harm or suicidality
It is never advised to ‘watch and wait’. If you or someone you know is experiencing an eating disorder or beginning to show signs of developing an eating disorder, accessing support and treatment is important. Early intervention is key to improved health and quality of life outcomes.
It is possible to recover from an eating disorder, even if a person has been living with the illness for many years. The path to recovery can be long and challenging, however, with the right team and support, recovery is possible.
If you have recognised one or more of the above signs or symptoms in someone you care about, you should seek help immediately. You may wish to consult your local GP or you can contact the Butterfly Foundation Helpline on 1800 ED HOPE.