Recognizing Eating Disorders

Imagine your greatest fear in the world. For some, its clowns, or snakes, or heights, or public speaking, if you are me, its werewolves. Most of us know that we are not going to encounter a werewolf or a clown on our commute home or in the office, the only way I would ever encounter my fear is if I flipped on the TV to find Twilight playing, and yet the fear remains. Real or imagined, these sources of fear have the ability to spark a remarkable amount of terror within us. Now, imagine being expected to sit down and face your biggest fear up to 3 times per day. That would be absolutely terrifying! I am not sure I could handle that many werewolves. Unfortunately, this is the daily reality of individuals struggling with eating disorders (ED). While it may not be the fear of the food itself, there is an intense fear of losing control that applies to most eating disorders. Whether it is fear of gaining weight or fear of not being able to stop eating, there is an element of control vs loss of control that can cause fear and anxiety in an individual struggling with ED.

In addition to the control element of ED, eating disorders can be extremely secretive and private, which can make them difficult to detect from the outside. Additionally, eating disorders notoriously distort thoughts and behaviors, which can also be a challenge in recognizing and treating ED from the perspective of the individual struggling. Another obstacle in recognizing ED lies in the wide spectrum and variety of eating disorders that exist. Different eating disorders will display different symptoms; however, there are similar elements to all ED that provide us with some guidelines as far as defining disordered eating versus normal eating. So, how to we recognize ED given all of these challenges and why is it important? First and foremost, recognizing ED early on is important because the chance for recovery increases the earlier it is detected. As with anything, the more ingrained thought patterns and behaviors become, the more difficult they are to break. Secondly, we can recognize ED by looking for changes in an individual’s emotional, behavioral, and physical health. The below changes in an individual could be signs of an ED.


Behavioral and Emotional Signs

  • Ritualistic food behaviors: cutting food into small pieces, eating extremely slowly, chewing food for much longer than physically necessary, drinking large amounts of liquid with eat meal, using inappropriate condiments such as putting mustard in yogurt.
  • Frequent trips to the restroom immediately after eating
  • Extreme mood swings
  • Over preoccupation with dieting, weight loss, fad diets, cutting out food groups (e.g. veganism), or healthy eating. This includes intense concern about calorie, fat, and/or carbohydrate content.
  • Skipping meals, eating extremely small portions, or eating extremely large portions because of skipped meals.
  • Intense concern about body shape and weight. This may include obsessive checking behaviors such as looking at one’s stomach in the mirror.
  • Discomfort with eating around others and general withdrawal.
  • Hiding or hoarding food. Noticing extremely large amounts of food are missing from the home with no alternative explanation.
  • Extreme emotional attachment to food either positive or negative


Physical Signs

  • Fluctuations in weight, gaining and losing.
  • Weak hair and nails
  • Puffy cheeks (swollen salivary glands)
  • Menstrual irregularities
  • Dizziness/fainting
  • Dental problems, enamel erosion, cavities, etc.
  • Feeling cold all the time
  • Impaired immunity
  • Abnormal laboratory results from a doctor’s office such as anemia or low red blood cell count
  • Gastrointestinal abnormalities, such as acid reflux or constipation


It is important to note that just because a person shows 1 or 2 of these signs on this list does not mean they have ED. Similarly, a person need not show every single one of these symptoms to have ED. It is important to ask yourself whether or not these changes in the individual have been impairing their overall mental health and physical functioning. If you think that you or someone you know may be struggling with ED, it is important to seek professional help. Eating disorders are progressive and extremely dangerous to a person’s physical health and emotional well-being. Fortunately, they are treatable. Call us at Olive Branch Counseling Associates Inc. (708-633-8000), to consult a professional counselor about ED and to discuss treatment options. Eating Disorders can be shameful and lonely, but you or your loved one do not have to weather the storm alone.


By: Hayley Nelson




Warning signs and symptoms. (n.d.). Retrieved November 29, 2018, from NEDA website:   

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