What Are the Signs and Symptoms of an Eating Disorder?

By Lauren Krouse 

Many of us have complicated feelings about food and our bodies. It’s an understandable reaction to a diet- and weight-obsessed culture that constantly sends the message that we need to look or eat a certain way in order to be attractive or healthy. 

The topic has probably come up in your social circles, both in person and online, but it can be hard to know when you or someone you know is struggling with disordered eating. It can be easy to shrug it off as “normal.” 

Eating disorders are serious medical conditions that tend to get worse over time, and they can become life-threatening. You deserve to get the right support to feel better and take care of your body, so it’s important to pay attention to that little voice inside you that tells you something is not right and look for signs of an eating disorder. 

Below are warning signs of an eating disorder that you should pay attention to.

Changes in Relationships to Food, Eating, or Exercise

  • A hyper focus on weight, food, “clean” or healthy eating, calories, carbs, fat, or dieting.
  • Repeatedly eating a large quantity of food, often in secret.
  • Frequently trying new weight-loss plans or apps.
  • Making excuses, such as “I just ate” or “I’m just not hungry,” to avoid eating together.
  • Eating only small portions.
  • Preparing separate meals instead of eating with family or at restaurants. 
  • Increasingly strict eating rules, cutting out specific foods or entire food groups. 
  • Cooking or baking for others without eating the food yourself.
  • Following social-media accounts dedicated to eating, diets, or fitness.  
  • Forcing yourself to throw up.
  • Misusing laxatives or other medications to make up for food eaten.
  • Exercising multiple times a day, even through bad weather, injury, or illness. 

Negative Body Image

  • Excessive focus on becoming or staying thin.
  • Frequent complaints or comments about feeling fat. 
  • Covering up in oversize or bulky clothes.
  • Not going out due to worries about not looking good or not having anything to wear.
  • Feeling the need to check your weight multiple times a day.
  • Obsessively body-checking or mirror-checking

Changes in Emotional Well-Being

  • Feeling extremely concerned about your body size, shape, or weight.
  • Becoming defensive or feeling overwhelmed when asked about eating habits or weight changes.
  • Mood swings.
  • Trying to hide or hold in emotions.
  • Talking down about yourself and your appearance.
  • Feelings of guilt, shame, or hopelessness.
  • Spending less time with friends and activities you typically enjoy.
  • Difficulty concentrating.

Many people with eating disorders also have other mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety, or obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Changes in Physical Health

  • Weight loss or weight gain.
  • Gastrointestinal problems such as stomach cramps, constipation, or acid reflux.
  • Missing periods or having them only while on hormonal contraceptives or birth control.
  • Dental problems such as damaged enamel, excessive cavities, or sensitive teeth.
  • Fainting or dizziness when you stand up.
  • Constantly feeling cold.
  • Trouble sleeping, sometimes due to hunger or fullness pains.
  • Dry skin and hair.
  • Brittle nails.
  • The new growth of fuzzy, fine hair on your body, which is the body’s attempt to stay warm.
  • Muscle loss or weakness.
  • Increased susceptibility to injury during exercise or daily activities.

How Do I Know If It’s Time for Help?

If you’re seeing any signs of an eating disorder in yourself or a loved one, it’s time to reach out for professional help. Opening up and asking for support can be scary and takes a lot of bravery, but it is 100 percent worth it for your health and well-being. 

You can contact the National Alliance for Eating Disorders helpline, which is run by licensed therapists who specialize in eating disorders and can connect you to the right support. 

Call 866-662-1235 or email info@allianceforeatingdisorders.com. The helpline is open from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. EST Monday through Friday. If help is not immediately available, your call will be returned as soon as possible.

If you need help right now:

  • Text HEALING to 741-741 for a free, confidential conversation with a trained counselor any time.
  • Text or call 988 or use the chat function at 988lifeline.org.
  • If this is a medical emergency or there is immediate danger of harm, call 911 and explain that you need support for a mental health crisis. 

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If you or someone you know needs to talk to someone right now, text, call, or chat 988 for a free confidential conversation with a trained counselor 24/7. 

You can also contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741-741.

If this is a medical emergency or if there is immediate danger of harm, call 911 and explain that you need support for a mental health crisis.