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How to spot an eating disorder

How to spot an eating disorder

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This week is the start of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week (25th February to 3 March 2019).
Eating Disorders can be a serious and devastating illness, but like many illnesses chances of recovery are far better if they are caught early. So knowing how to spot an eating disorder could not only save a lot of pain and heartache, but could actually save a life too.

And I should know, I suffered from severe Anorexia Nervosa from my late teens until early 20’s…

But looking back the warning signs were there from much younger. It took six years, three inpatient hospital admissions, and every talking therapy and drug under the sun before I finally found the strength to fight my demons.

Anorexia is thought to affect up to 2% of the population and bulimia as many as 8%*. Teenage girls are the most commonly affected, but boys and people both older and younger can also have an eating disorder.

That means it’s vital that parents know the signs and can get help as soon as possible, to have the best chances of a quick and full recovery.

Eating disorders can also manifest in other ways: binge eating, over exercising, and laxative use, or a person may have a combination of ways to control their food.

The ironic thing about eating disorders is that they’re not about the food at all. It’s about controlling your feelings, with food being the drug of choice. Over or undereating, or using other methods to manipulate your weight, are a way of numbing or distracting from distressing emotions.

Eating disorders are not about the food

Image via Pollyanna Hale
Image via Pollyanna Hale

These feelings could be due to immediate stresses in a person’s life – divorce or exam anxiety for example, or from past experiences such as family separation as a child or being bullied at school.

But regardless of any external factors, people with eating disorders usually have personality types which make them more susceptible. Perfectionism, being driven and a high achiever in combination with being sensitive and having low self-esteem are very common traits in people with eating disorders.

It’s one of my goals in life to help others fight these terrible illnesses. I want to inspire others that they too can recover. Early detection and intervention are key. You might be suspicious that you or someone you know is having food issues, so here are some of the signs of an eating disorder to look out for.

Warning signs for eating disorders

Behavioural Warning Signs of eating disorders:

  • Repetitive dieting, counting calories, following diet plans, buying diet books, following fad diets and avoidance of certain foods.
  • An obsession with size, weight and body image; reading magazine articles about them etc.
  • Evidence of binge eating – wrappers in bins, spontaneous trips to shops, hoarding food in cupboards or hidden to eat later.
  • Hiding food to be got rid of – in bins, pockets, under tables, in handbags.
  • Develop obsessive rituals, for example using the same cup, plate or knife every time.
  • Weighing food, taking control of family meals, reading cookbooks.
  • Eating slowly or with small cutlery.
  • A preoccupation with food.
  • Frequent weighing and measuring the body, keeping ‘progress’ charts and food diaries.
  • Size comparing to celebrities and other people. A preoccupation with size and weight. Dissatisfaction with body and an intense fear of gaining weight.
  • Avoidance of meals, making excuses such as having already eaten. Avoidance of social situations that involve food.
  • Social isolation, withdrawal from friends and family. No longer enjoying activities previously enjoyed. Low mood, or fluctuating emotional state.
  • Wearing baggy clothes. Distorted body image. Very sensitive to any comments made about their weight or body.
  • Signs of vomiting or laxative use – laxatives in drawers and cupboards, visiting the loo frequently after eating.
  • Sudden changes in eating patterns such as refusing to eat certain foods previously enjoyed, or creating new food rules.
  • Making lists of foods – good, bad, to eat, not to eat etc.
  • Feeling (or being) out of control, especially around food. Anxiety around mealtimes.
  • Compulsive exercise patterns, which are strictly adhered to down to the exact number of reps, regardless of the weather, injury, or other circumstance which might stop others from exercising.

Physical Warning Signs of eating disorders:

  • Weight loss or gain (not always the case, especially in bulimia where sufferers may remain at the same weight), especially if rapid. Or frequent changes in weight.
  • Feels cold easily, may wrap up in layers or drink many hot drinks.
  • Low energy, lethargy, dizziness, fainting.
  • Soft downy hair over the body (a physiological response to keep warm)
  • Loss or disturbance to menstrual cycle in women
  • Impotence in men
  • Signs of vomiting; rotten teeth, bad breath, red knuckles, swollen cheeks, kidney or bladder infections brought on by dehydration
  • Slow, fast, or irregular heartbeat


How does exercise affect eating disorders?

An exercise addiction can be easily disguised as healthy lifestyle changes, and because exercise is generally good for you, a sufferer may appear very fit and healthy from the outside. But where does being fit, healthy and strong end, and an unhealthy attachment to exercise begin?

But the mindset of someone with an exercise addiction is very different to someone who does it out of choice for health or career reasons. An addiction is a compulsion that takes priority over every other area of life. An addict won’t miss a workout for anything in the world.

People with an exercise addiction won’t miss their workout for anything, and will cancel social events, and schoolwork might suffer. Being ill or tired are no barriers, as an unhealthy willpower (and sometimes caffeine too) will drive the person to carry on regardless. An exercise addict will strive to push themselves harder and harder, sometimes resulting in injuries or signs of overtraining such as periods stopping, or hair falling out, as the body struggles to keep up with basic bodily functions.

When I was ill with my eating disorder I would also take any opportunity to exercise, such as walking everywhere (even if it took hours) or dancing without stopping all night at a club. If I was away with my family, I would have a strict regime of strength exercises to do. My motives were all wrong. I wasn’t exercising to feel good or stay healthy but to stay thin, and I would get overwhelming feelings of guilt and failure if I couldn’t exercise. I lost the ability to listen to my body and pushed on through, even when I was exhausted and undernourished.

The triggers are often the same as with eating disorders – stress, low self-esteem, or going through a difficult time in life such as moving home, being bullied, or parents going through marriage problems.

Where to get help with eating disorders

The first and often the hardest step is admitting to yourself that you have a problem, so talk to your child about how they’re feeling and see if they open up. Then you can accompany them to see a professional, though if they resist then it’s worth parents getting advice on how to manage the situation before it escalates.

You can see your GP, who can refer you to an appropriate service. You could even see a personal trainer who has experience in eating disorders, who may be able to help devise a healthier schedule and set positive goals, rather than exercising for exercise’s sake. CBT and other forms of psychotherapy are common, and can help the sufferer deal with negative emotions rather than take it out on their body.

As you can see there are plenty of signs of an eating disorder. Like all mental illnesses eating disorders are complex and difficult to treat, which is why it’s important to be able to recognise the signs and intervene early.

If you or someone you know has any concerns at all contact a medical professional or eating disorder charity as soon as possible such as

Further reading:

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About Pollyanna Hale

Pollyanna Hale helps Mums lose weight, get fit, and have more energy and body confidence with online coaching and programmes, books and a free Facebook community group. A Mum of two young girls, Polly understands how hard it is for us Mums to make ourselves a priority when all our energy and willpower gets drained before we’ve even done the school run! Everything she teaches is designed to be compatible with crazy busy Mum-life, because you matter too, Mum.