11 Signs of an Eating Disorder You Shouldn't Ignore

Worried your loved one may be at risk for anorexia or bulimia? These subtle warning signs of an eating disorder can help you spot a problem.

They can affect a person's physical and mental health. In some cases, they can be life-threatening.

Eating disorders are not a choice. They are not an occasional concern about health, weight, or appearance. They are serious, biologically influenced medical illnesses marked by severe disturbances to one's eating behaviors, says the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Someone with an eating disorder may become fixated or obsessed with weight loss, body weight or shape, and controlling their food intake.

With treatment, people can recover from eating disorders, which is why it's important to know the signs and symptoms of one.

01 of 12

Know the Symptoms

Some eating disorder symptoms are obvious: dramatic weight loss, a refusal to eat, retreating to the bathroom for long periods after meals. But anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder also reveal themselves in more subtle ways.

How can you tell if a friend or family member is at risk? There's no surefire way, since people with eating disorders display a wide range of symptoms. And eating disorders affect a wide range of people. According to NIMH, eating disorders can affect people of all ages, racial/ethnic backgrounds, body weights, and genders. Eating disorders often appear during the teen years or young adulthood, but they may also develop during childhood or later in life (40 years and older).

That said, these easy-to-overlook symptoms can help you spot an eating disorder—or disorder in the making—sooner.

02 of 12

Poor Body Image

Negative or obsessive thoughts about body size, a key factor in all eating disorders, can occur very early on in the disease, said Cynthia Bulik, PhD, an eating disorders specialist at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill.

Warning signs of poor body image include negative self-talk ("I'm so fat," "I have no self-control") and misinterpreting other people's remarks. "Comments like, 'My, you have filled out nicely' can be received as 'You look fat,'" said Dr. Bulik. This body insecurity, she added, sometimes emerges—or gets worse—when young girls compare themselves to idealized figures such as Disney princesses and rail-thin actresses.

03 of 12

Excessive Exercise

Over-the-top workout habits—sometimes referred to as "exercise anorexia"—can go hand in hand with disordered eating and appear to be on the rise, said Dr. Bulik.

Defining "excessive" exercise can be tricky, however, especially when dealing with athletes or highly active young people. A 2013 study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found a higher rate of eating disorders among female athletes than non-athletes (14% versus 3%) in high school students.

Here are two red flags: Does the person panic if they miss a day of exercise? And does he or she work out even when injured or sick? "These are pretty good indices that things have gone too far," said Dr. Bulik.

04 of 12

Fear of Eating in Public

Feeling shy or self-conscious about eating in public can be related to body image issues—a person may feel that others are watching and judging, for instance. But it can also be an indication that eating, period, has become nerve-wracking. "Eating can be enormously anxiety-provoking for someone with an eating disorder," said Dr. Bulik. "Doing it in public just compounds the enormity of the task."

Although not wanting to eat around other people is a hallmark of anorexia, it can occur with all eating disorders. "Even people with binge eating disorder will eat very small amounts when in public, then binge when alone," said Dr. Bulik.

05 of 12

Fine Body Hair

People who have been depriving their bodies of nutrition for extended periods of time often develop soft, downy body hair—almost a thin film of fur—on their arms and other parts of the body. This hair, known as lanugo, is a physical adaptation to the perilously low weight and loss of body fat seen in some people with anorexia.

"It is a symptom of starvation and [an] attempt by the body to keep itself warm," said Dr. Bulik, the author of The Woman in the Mirror: How to Stop Confusing What You Look Like with Who You Are.

06 of 12

Cooking Elaborate Meals for Others

Although people with anorexia may refuse food themselves, they are often eager to see others eat, sometimes going so far as to prepare elaborate meals for friends and family, according to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA). This may be a form of vicarious pleasure, or eating "through" others.

Similar behavior was observed in the famous Minnesota Starving Experiment, conducted in the mid-1940s. Volunteers who were semi-starved and lost more than 25% of their body weight became obsessed with food and eating. Several of the men became collectors of cookbooks and recipes, a behavior that has been noted in people with anorexia as well.

07 of 12

Dry Skin

Dry and blotchy skin, stemming from dehydration, sometimes signals ongoing anorexia or bulimia. "Frequent purging and laxatives can seriously dehydrate you," said Dr. Bulik.

Dry skin isn't the only mark of dehydration in people with eating disorders. Dry mouth, sunken cheeks and eyes, and severe electrolyte imbalances also can occur.

Another skin change that's a telltale sign of bulimia, specifically, is the appearance of calluses on the knuckles. Known as Russell's sign (after the psychiatrist who first described it), these lesions are caused by repeatedly scraping the back of the hand against one's teeth while inducing vomiting.

08 of 12

Feeling Cold

A result of malnutrition and low body fat, feeling cold is a symptom more often associated with anorexia than with bulimia or binge eating disorder says the NIMH. Frequently complaining about being cold or wearing sweaters and other heavy clothing even in mild weather are common tip-offs in people with eating disorders.

Body fat stores energy and helps the body withstand cold. People with too little body fat can therefore have difficulty maintaining their body temperature, and in some cases may even develop hypothermia.

09 of 12

Swollen Cheeks

Swelling along the jawline is primarily associated with bulimia but can occur with any eating disorder in which purging is present, said Dr. Bulik. (Some people with anorexia purge to stay thin. Unlike people with anorexia, people with bulimia are often of normal weight, or even above-normal weight.)

The puffy cheeks are a result of swollen salivary glands (parotid glands). The swelling can happen at any stage of the illness and depends on the person and how often they purge, said Dr. Bulik.

10 of 12

Fixating on 'Safe' Foods

A preoccupation with foods deemed to be "safe" or "healthy" is the hallmark of a condition that has come to be known as orthorexia. A June 2019 Journal of Eating Disorders study noted that orthorexia is an approach to eating that "reflects a clinically meaningful, pathological obsession with eating only healthy, 'pure' foods."

Although not an official diagnosis, orthorexia can sometimes be a stepping-stone to full-blown anorexia nervosa, said Dr. Bulik.

Although people with orthorexia tend to focus on the quality of food and people with anorexia tend to focus on quantity, the two conditions sometimes overlap. Some people with anorexia, for instance, have a very limited diet and prefer to eat the same foods over and over. "When people are going down the path toward an eating disorder, one of the early symptoms is cutting out foods they used to like, or even entire food groups," said Dr. Bulik.

11 of 12

Eating Rituals

Compulsive behaviors similar to those seen in obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) can also appear with eating disorders. These so-called rituals can take the form of cutting food into tiny morsels, or arranging food in certain patterns. They are mainly associated with anorexia (which often occurs alongside OCD), but they are sometimes an early symptom of binge eating disorder as well.

Rituals are "both a tactic not to eat and also a piece of the obsessionality associated with anorexia nervosa," explained Dr. Bulik. "When eating disorders are starting, people will try to make it look like they are eating by cutting things up and shifting food around on the plate so as not to draw attention to how little they are eating."

12 of 12

Strange Food Combinations

Binge eaters are known to prepare dishes using an odd mixture of ingredients, such as mashed potatoes and Oreo cookies, or potato chips with lemon, pork rinds, Italian dressing, and salt. A 2013 study published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders found that people who create their own food concoctions are more likely to binge than people who simply overeat.

Often, though, this behavior takes place in private and becomes yet another thing for the person with the disorder to feel ashamed about. That shame and disgust can aggravate the disorder, the study authors wrote.

To get our top stories delivered to your inbox, sign up for the Healthy Living newsletter

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles