By Lauren Smolar, Director of Helpline Services at the National Eating Disorders Association
Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, and the longer they go undiagnosed, the more difficult they are to treat.¹
Early intervention, at the first sign of disordered behaviors or attitudes, offers the best hope for recovery.
Although eating disorders are often dismissed as a condition of vanity, that couldn’t be further from the truth. They are complex conditions that impact every organ system in the body, including cognition, and they Eating disorders are commonly comorbid with other disorders—such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)—and addictions like alcoholism. In a nationally representative study, 56.2% of those with anorexia nervosa, 78.9% of those with binge eating disorder, and 94.5% of those with bulimia nervosa had a co-occurring anxiety, mood, impulse-control, or substance use disorder.2
It is vitally important to understand early signs of disordered behaviors and attitudes, in order to create the best possible conditions for recovery. While most individuals won’t display all of the following signs and symptoms of an eating disorder at once, certain patterns of behavior may indicate that one is present. In general, behaviors and attitudes of those struggling with eating disorders indicate that weight loss, dieting, and control of food are becoming primary concerns.
Someone who is struggling with an eating disorder may experience dramatic weight loss, dress in layers to stay warm, refuse to eat certain foods, deny feeling hungry, or appear uncomfortable eating in front of others. They may also follow an excessive exercise regimen, disappear after eating, or drink excessive amounts of water. Physical symptoms may include noticeable fluctuations in weight, difficulties concentrating, dizziness or fainting, dental problems, thinning of the hair, and impaired immune functioning.
Even if someone isn’t exhibiting overt eating disordered behaviors, they may still be at risk of developing an eating disorder. Risk factors involve a range of biological, psychological, and sociocultural issues. For example, having a close relative with an eating disorder, being female, having a history of dieting, being diagnosed with Type One diabetes, having an anxiety disorder, or being a self-oriented perfectionist are all common risk factors.
Due to the number of people at risk or displaying signs of eating disordered behavior, it is vital for everyone to be aware of the warning signs of an eating disorder. Though not diagnostic, this video outlines more of the basic warning signs and symptoms and will give you an idea of what to look out for:
Once you’re aware of the general signs, there are simple steps you can take to create a supportive community for yourself or those who may be struggling.
- Become aware of your community resources (treatment centers, self-help groups, etc.). You can also contact the NEDA Helpline for support, resources, and treatment options for yourself or a loved one by calling (800) 931-2237.
- Never emphasize body size or shape as an indication of a person’s worth or identity. Value the person on the inside, instead of complimenting or commenting on physical traits.
- If possible, gently confront others who say problematic things about size, weight, and food.
- Listen carefully to the thoughts and feelings of those around you. If you are concerned about a loved one, express your thoughts without judgment.
To take and share NEDA’s confidential online eating disorders screening, visit nationaleatingdisorders.org/screening. If you have concerns about yourself or a loved one, please seek professional help.
1. Arcelus J, Mitchell AJ, Wales J, Nielsen S. Mortality Rates in Patients With Anorexia Nervosa and Other Eating DisordersA Meta-analysis of 36 Studies. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2011;68(7):724-731. doi:10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2011.74
2. Hudson, J. I., Hiripi, E., Pope, H. G., & Kessler, R. C. (2007). The Prevalence and Correlates of Eating Disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication. Biological Psychiatry, 61(3), 348–358. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.biopsych.2006.03.040