An eating disorder is a mental illness considered to be abnormal eating habits associated with a psychological disorder. There are several different types of eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder. Any one of these can seriously impact our physical, emotional, mental and spiritual health.
It’s not always easy to tell if someone you love is battling an eating disorder. Most people try to hide these symptoms and behaviors from their friends and family because they feel ashamed, but if you are able to recognize signs of an eating disorder in someone you care about, you may be able to help them address the issue and overcome it.
Eating disorder symptoms can vary from person to person, and certain eating disorders have specific symptoms, but there are a number of common symptoms you can watch out for in your friends and family if you suspect they might be struggling with an eating disorder.
Sudden, dramatic weight loss
Sudden, dramatic weight loss is one of the most common signs of eating disorders, particularly so in anorexia nervosa. Anorexia is characterized by the extreme restriction of food out of fear or shame over gaining weight. When we go too long without eating, or when we try to sustain ourselves on the bare minimum amount of calories every day, our bodies quickly become malnourished. Sudden weight loss in your loved one may be an indication that they are struggling with their body image, in turn leading them to restrict their food intake.
Obsesses over food, dieting and their weight
Eating disorders rewire our brains such that we can become obsessive about our weight and our food intake. This can lead to self-imposed unhealthy dietary restrictions and a constant preoccupation with dieting. Eating disorders and dieting, however, should not be conflated. Eating disorders are mental illnesses whereas dieting is typically a lifestyle choice. It is important to recognize when your loved one is truly dieting, and when they are using dieting to mask their eating disorder.
Experiences changes in appearance
An eating disorder typically leads to changes in appearance over time. Some of the most common physical changes include:
- Thinning of hair on the head;
- Calluses or cuts across the joints at the tops of the fingers due to inducing vomiting;
- Brittle, dry nails;
- Swelling of the feet;
- Cold, mottled hands;
- Discoloration of teeth or cavities due to vomiting;
- Rapid weight loss or weight gain;
- Dizziness and fainting spells.
Individuals with eating disorders are also commonly sick, due to the impaired immune function caused by insufficient calorie and nutrient intake.
Cooks for others but doesn’t eat
If your friend or family member is struggling with an eating disorder, you may notice that they enjoy cooking for their loved ones but rarely eat the food they make. If your loved one has a habit of sitting back and watching while others at the table are heating, it may be an indication that they are dealing with some type of eating disorder.
A hallmark symptom of bulimia nervosa is bingeing on food, followed closely by purging in order to prevent digestion or absorption of that food. While the most common type of purging comes in the form of vomiting, excessive exercise is another prevalent method. The mindset behind excessive exercise is that it will quickly burn off any calories that have been consumed. Like dieting, when your loved one is exercising to an excessive degree it may be a sign of an eating disorder rather than an activity they enjoy.
Withdraws from loved ones
Your loved one withdrawing from their friends, family and social activities is likely indicative of a larger issue. Eating disorders can make us feel like we have to hide our bodies from the world. In some cases, we feel guilt or shame over our eating habits which makes us want to avoid social situations altogether. If you have noticed that someone you care about is becoming more isolated and withdrawn, check in on them to ask how they are doing.
How you can help
If you recognize any of these signs of an eating disorder in someone you love, there are things you can do to help. Approach your friend or family member with honesty about your concerns and assure them that you are there to support them through the healing process.
Because eating disorders are mental health conditions, the most recommended course of action is helping your loved one pursue professional help for their condition. Seeds of Hope offers effective treatment programs to help individuals combat the effects of eating disorders. Give us a call at (610) 644-6464 to learn more and to schedule an appointment for a loved one.