17 Warning Signs of Eating Disorders

17 Warning Signs of Eating Disorders


17 Warning Signs of Eating Disorders


One person dies every 60 minutes from an ED. Not only do they have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, but 30 percent of anorexic patients and 23 percent of bulimics reported a history of suicidal attempts, according to Eating Disorders Review. Is it possible to have the condition but not realize it? “It is typical for people to engage in behaviors associated with EDs but don’t acknowledge it,” Dr. Allison K. Chase, Executive Director of the Eating Recovery Center in Austin, says. “They just don’t see it that way and don’t realize how bad it is.”

Sudden, dramatic weight loss


People with anorexia intentionally avoid eating and often starve themselves in order to lose a significant amount of weight. They see themselves in a distorted way and have an overwhelming fear of weight gain. People with a binge eating disorder are prone to binge, meaning overeat, and then purge, meaning vomit, often due to overwhelming feelings of guilt. This can lead to weight gain and a vicious cycle of continued disordered eating.

Persistent weight fluctuation


Weight fluctuation is often contributed to stress, but it is not always the culprit. Some ways to establish whether the reason is stress or an eating disorder include looking at behaviors surrounding foods and eating, Dr. Chase says. “Is the person avoiding foods? Are they changing aspects of their lives to avoid food?” One’s body weight can fluctuate on average 2 to 4 pounds per day; but people who suffer from bulimia nervosa can experience weight fluctuations beyond the normal day to day variance.

Constantly feeling cold


Feeling like you’re freezing even in warm weather may be a sign of an eating disorder. This is an indication that the body is not metabolically working like it’s supposed to, Dr. Chase says. “It is feeling cold because it is undernourished; it doesn’t have enough nutrients to function properly.”

Negative self-talk


This is especially alarming if that kind of behavior is directed at one’s body. “Any kind of negative self-talk is an indication that a person is having trouble with how they feel about themselves,” Dr. Chase says. There is no one single cause of an eating disorder, she adds. “Self-talk alone won’t do it, but talking badly about yourself can definitely be a contributing factor.” 

Social withdrawal

istockphoto.com/ KatarzynaBialasiewicz

Eating disorders, especially binge eating, are coming about as a way to manage really uncomfortable emotions, Dr. Chase says. They feel like something is wrong with them and they don’t want others to see it. Isolation becomes a logical response. The focus on the negative behavior can provide a sense of belonging, in the service of making one less thing wrong with them.

Compulsive or excessive exercising


Over exercising gets overlooked nowadays because people seem to be obsessed with losing weight and getting healthy. Intense desire to exercise in a rigid way is one possible sign of a person developing an eating disorder. Certain personal characteristics can be correlated with a risk factor. They include perfectionism and high achievement, both of which can be common among regular gym-goers.

Always engaging in conversation about food


A person with an eating disorder, especially anorexia, is likely constantly thinking about food. This will manifest itself in conversations. Some may even comment on or judge what other people are eating. Frequently talking about food, weight or calories, especially if a person has never really talked about these things before, is a warning sign, according to the Eating Recovery Center.

Avoiding foods they once loved


A person with an ED can become “disgusted” with former favorite foods even if they are generally healthy such as certain meats, according to Anorexia Nervosa and Related Eating Disorders (ANRED). He or she will may boast about how healthy the meals is; he or she will also choose primarily low-fat items with low levels of other nutrients such as lettuce.

Using the bathroom right after a meal


This can be a sign of purging. Some physical indications of this behavior include swollen cheeks, marks/scars on knuckles. Some people frequently disappear after meals to throw up and then run water for a while to disguise the sound of vomiting. The bathroom or even the person may smell like bile. He or she will usually use mouthwash, perfume, air freshener or gum to cover it up.

Hoarding food


“You have to be living with someone, really, to notice if he or she is hoarding food,” Dr. Chase says. Some signs include empty food wrappers or containers, food in the bedroom, or the disappearance of large amounts of food in a short time.

Anxiety or depression


These are some conditions that commonly co-exist with or put people at higher risk of developing an eating disorder, Dr. Chase says. “They usually go hand in hand with EDs.” People are more concerned with their body shape and get too caught up in society’s messages, she adds. EDs can be part of a larger complex mental health issue, as there can be a high tendency for the simultaneous presence of another chronic condition in a patient.

Following strict diets


Many people follow diets as part of a healthy lifestyle. But “strict” can become much or a sign of a possible problem when they cut entire food groups based on no medical reasons, Dr. Chase says. The line between following a strict healthy diet and developing an eating disorder can be thin. Also, absolute refusal to ever stray can be another sign of a problem, she adds.

Taking pills to suppress appetite


Diet pills are among the most dangerous legal drugs in the world. Studies have shown that they may increase the risk for heart attack and stroke. Appetite suppressant phentermine is a common ingredient. It is similar to amphetamine, and can cause, arrhythmia, palpitations and leaky heart valves after a lengthy use. These pills may make a person eat less but they don’t change what’s really going on beyond why one feels he or she has to lose weight, Dr. Chase says.

Counting calories


Nowadays many people are obsessed with counting calories. They constantly read the labels and use various apps to keep track of how many they consume at each meal. Some signs a person is taking this approach too far include being unwilling to engage in other behaviors and being overly obsessed, Dr. Chase says. Experts think the growth of lanugo is one of the body’s ways of insulating itself. Losing too much weight means the body doesn’t have enough fat to heat itself, so it grows lanugo. It traps heat that is lost from the body before it dissipates.

Missing periods


Malnourishment leads to not having enough fat to get the hormonal system going, Dr. Chase says. Shrinking fat stores in the body causes a reduction of thyroid levels, which results in an increase of the stress hormone cortisol and a decrease in reproductive hormones. When they are insufficient, the monthly menstrual cycle is not regulated. Not having enough estrogen can also lead to real problems with bones later in life, Dr. Chase adds. 

Lanugo covering face or back


Baby fine hair covering face and other areas of the body is a sign of anorexia nervosa, Dr. Chase says. “No one really understands why it happens but it is one of the physical consequences of malnourishment,” she adds.



Many people don’t realize that eating disorders aren’t a choice. They are highly inheritable – as inheritable as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. In fact, 40-50 percent of the risk of developing one is genetic. Individuals who have had a family member with the condition are 7 to 12 times more likely to develop it, according to the Center for Eating Disorders.