What are the Signs of an Eating Disorder?

First things first, eating disorders are not a choice.

Among the biggest and most pervasive myths around these disorders is that people actively choose them. It’s just not the case.

To that end, the first thing that the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) notes before describing eating disorders is that very fact.

They add that “eating disorders are actually serious and often fatal illnesses that are associated with severe disturbances in people’s eating behaviors and related thoughts and emotions. Preoccupation with food, body weight, and shape may also signal an eating disorder”.

But what are the signs of an eating disorder? What can you look out for in yourself or a loved one? We’ll get to that in a moment, before that though, some definitions.

What Is an Eating Disorder?

As mentioned above, eating disorders are essentially unhealthy eating habits due to perceptions a person has of their own body, weight and health in general.

There are a number of different types of eating disorders but the most common are according to NIMH are:

Anorexia Nervosa 

“A significant and persistent reduction in food intake leading to extremely low body weight in the context of age, sex, and physical health; a relentless pursuit of thinness; a distortion of body image and intense fear of gaining weight; and extremely disturbed eating behavior. Many people with anorexia see themselves as overweight, even when they are starved or severely malnourished”

Binge Eating

“Recurrent binge eating episodes during which a person feels a loss of control and marked distress over his or her eating”

Bulimia Nervosa

“Binge eating followed by a type of behavior that compensates for the binge, such as purging (e.g., vomiting, excessive use of laxatives or diuretics), fasting, and/or excessive exercise”

It’s uncommon for an eating disorder to be co-occurring with another mental disorder. In the majority of instances, it’s an anxiety disorder of some kind, however, there is a notable prevalence of co-morbid substance use disorder; 27% for anorexia nervosa, 36.8% for bulimia nervosa and 23.3% for binge-eating disorder.

Troublingly, it’s very much worth noting that anorexia nervosa is the most fatal mental disorder with an estimated mortality rate of around 10%.

What Are the Signs of an Eating Disorder?

Signs and symptoms depend on which disorder you or a loved one are struggling with. In brief, here’s a breakdown.

Anorexia Nervosa

  • Extremely thin
  • Severely restrictive eating habits
  • Fear of gaining weight
  • Exercising persistently
  • Denial of being underweight  
  • Distorted body image
  • Constipation and abdominal pain
  • Brittle bones, hair and nails
  • Dry, yellowing skin
  • Organ failure and brain damage
  • Lethargic

Bulimia Nervosa

  • Constantly sore throat
  • Eating much more than usual
  • Swollen salivary glands
  • Tooth decay and issues with enamel
  • Fear of weight gain
  • Acid reflux
  • Dehydration

Binge Eating Disorder

  • Eating massive amounts of food in a short period
  • Lack of control while bingeing
  • Eating alone
  • Feelings of guilt and shame associated with eating
  • Eating when full
  • Dieting regularly

Anorexia nervosa may be the most straightforward to spot given the dramatic weight loss that accompanies it. Bulimia nervosa and binge eating on the other hand are a bit tougher to see because a person often maintains a normal weight and can appear healthy.

How to Get Help With an Eating Disorder

Seeking help with an eating disorder increases your odds of overcoming it significantly.

More importantly, if you or a family member or friend are dealing with a co-occurring substance use disorder along with that eating disorder, getting outside assistance from addiction specialists like our team at Safe Harbor goes a very long way. Addiction and mental disorders that are treated together set you up for long-term success much more effectively than just tackling one issue.

Get in touch with us today to learn more about how we can help.

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