There are various physical, psychological and behavioural warning signs that can signal the onset or the presence of an eating disorder.

People who suffer from an eating disorder may display a combination of symptoms or they can show only one symptom. In some cases, they may not show any signs or symptoms at all.

They may also make significant efforts to conceal their behaviour or they may not even recognise that there is anything wrong or that their eating habits have become 'disordered'. For a carer, this can make the warning signs more difficult to identify.

Below are some of the most common warning signs and symptoms that you should be aware of in regards to eating disorders. However, it should be noted that not all of these symptoms will be indicative of an eating disorder and that someone suffering from an eating disorder may not display all, or even any, of these signs.

Physical warning signs

  • Rapid weight loss or frequent weight changes

  • Loss or disturbance of menstruation in girls and women and decreased libido in men

  • Fainting or dizziness

  • Feeling tired and not sleeping well

  • Lethargy and low energy

  • Signs of damage due to vomiting including swelling around the cheeks or jaw, calluses on knuckles, damage to teeth and bad breath

  • Feeling cold most of the time, even in warm weather

Psychological warning signs

Psychological warning signs can be difficult to detect in anyone suffering from an eating disorder. They usually only come to light through changes in behaviour or through discussion and conversation.

  • Preoccupation with eating, food, body shape and weight

  • Feeling anxious and or irritable around meal times

  • Feeling ‘out of control’ around food

  • 'Black and white’ thinking (e.g. rigid thoughts about food being ‘good’ or ‘bad’)

  • A distorted body image

  • Using food as a source of comfort (e.g. eating as a way to deal with boredom, stress or depression)

  • Using food as self-punishment (e.g. refusing to eat due to depression, stress or other emotional reasons)

Behavioural warning signs

Behavioural symptoms are commonly present in those with eating disorders. While you may recognise some of these symptoms in someone you care about, these signs can still be concealed and may be difficult to detect.

  • Dieting behaviour (e.g. fasting, counting calories/kilojoules, avoiding food groups such as fats and carbohydrates)

  • Eating in private and avoiding meals with other people

  • Evidence of binge eating (e.g. disappearance and/or hoarding of food)

  • Frequent trips to the bathroom during or shortly after meals

  • Vomiting or using laxatives, enemas, appetite suppressants or diuretics

  • Changes in clothing style (e.g. wearing baggy clothes)

  • Compulsive or excessive exercising (e.g. exercising in bad weather, continuing to exercise when sick or injured, and experiencing distress if exercise is not possible)

  • Changes in food preferences (e.g. claiming to dislike foods previously enjoyed, sudden preoccupation with ‘healthy eating’, or replacing meals with fluids)

  • Obsessive rituals around food preparation and eating (e.g. eating very slowly, cutting food into very small pieces, insisting that meals are served at exactly the same time every day)

  • Extreme sensitivity to comments about body shape, weight, eating and exercise habits

  • Secretive behaviour around food (e.g. saying they have eaten when they haven’t, hiding uneaten food in their rooms)

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 Support Line on 1800 ED HOPE.

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