Spotting the Signs of an Eating Disorder 

 February 20, 2021

By  counselingwithnatalie

Do you know someone who always seems to be on a diet or struggles with body image or has an unhealthy relationship with food and exercise? Maybe that person is a coworker, a family member, a close friend, or even you. According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD), a clinically significant eating disorder will affect 9% of Americans, which is almost 30 million people. Disordered eating is even more common, and studies show that up to 75% of American women aged 25-45 have an unhealthy relationship with food.

Today, it is hard not to feel insecure. The media reinforces the idea that only certain types of bodies are worthy and beautiful. It normalizes these “perfect” bodies, and many women feel pressured to go on diets to attempt to conform and 53% of dieters trying to lose weight are already at a medically healthy weight. The organization DoSomething states that 91% of women are dissatisfied with their bodies and that 58% of college-aged women feel that they should be a certain weight. Research shows that dieting is often a precursor to an eating disorder and that 25% of frequent dieters will develop an eating disorder.

There are many different types of eating disorders with different symptoms and behaviors as well as ones that cross over. Anorexia Nervosa is defined by a clinically low weight, fear of weight gain, and can include calorie restriction, excessive exercising, frequent body checking, and/or bingeing and purging. Bulimia Nervosa is defined by frequent episodes of bingeing on large quantities of food in a short time span and then purging either by self-induced vomiting, laxatives, excessive exercise, and/or fasting. Binge Eating Disorder (BED) is recurrent and frequent binge episodes with the absence of purging. Other Specified Feeding/Eating Disorder (OSFED) occurs when someone experiences a clinically significant eating disorder but does not meet the strict criteria for anorexia, bulimia, or BED.

The earlier an eating disorder is treated, the better chance there is of making a full recovery. Listed here are some common symptoms you may notice in yourself or others. Keep in mind that this list does not entail every eating disorder symptom and that it is not necessary to experience all of these to meet the criteria for an eating disorder.


•weight fluctuations (up and/or down)

•lightheadedness while standing



•feeling cold

•irregularity or absence of period in actively mensurating people not on a hormonal contraceptive

•constipation and/or diarrhea

•stomach cramps

•acid reflux

•dry skin

•brittle hair

•chapped lips

•sensitive teeth and erosion of enamels

•lanugo (soft, fine hair on the body and/or face)

•weak immune system (getting viruses often)


•nutrient deficiencies

•lack of concentration

•heart palpitations

•bradycardia (slow heartbeat)


•fascination with dieting, weight loss, exercise, and/or nutrition

•weighing/measuring food and counting calories

•refusal to eat in public or in front of others

•disappearing to the bathroom, bedroom, or other private space shortly after eating

•food disappearing quickly overnight or empty wrappers (evidence of bingeing)

•eating slower than normal

•eating small portions

•skipping meals

•cutting food into tiny pieces

•cutting out foods or food groups previously enjoyed

•frequently looking at or feeling different body parts (body checking)

•fascination with others’ bodies and diets

•excessive exercise

•measuring body parts and/or calculating BMI

•looking at food-related content (cookbooks, mukbangs, etc)

•expressing a desire to lose weight

•feeling guilty after eating or needing to “earn calories” or “work calories off”

•chewing food and spitting it out

•vomiting after eating or having the desire to

•taking laxatives

•feeling out of control when eating

If you recognize any of these symptoms in yourself, it is important to reach out for help. This can be to a close friend or family member or to a professional such as a GP, therapist, or school counselor. You can also reach out to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) helpline either through a phone call, text message, or online chat. If you recognize these symptoms in a loved one, it is important to have a private conversation with them to express your concerns and encourage them to reach out for help. Offer them a chance to open lines of communication with you without forcing anything out of them. It is so important for you to not make comments on their physical appearance or weight or compare yourself to them.

There are many treatment options ranging from outpatient appointments for therapy and nutrition counseling, group therapy, intensive outpatient programs, partial hospitalization programs, residential treatment, and inpatient hospitalization. The best level of care for an individual will depend on medical and mental stability. Eating disorders are often treated by a team of providers including a medical doctor, dietitian, and therapist. It is never too early or too late to seek help.

Eating disorder resources:

NEDA helpline


NEDA eating disorders screening tool



Eating Disorder Statistics. (2021). ANAD.


University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (2008). Three Out Of Four American Women Have Disordered Eating, Survey Suggests. ScienceDaily.


Disordered Eating is Widespread Among US Women (2008). ABC News.


11 Facts About Body Image. DoSomething.


6 Common Types of Eating Disorders (and Their Symptoms). (2019). Healthline.


Warning Signs and Symtpoms. (2018). NEDA.


Levels of Care (2018). NEDA.



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