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Physical and Behavioral Warning Signs of Eating Disorders

Do I Have an Eating Disorder?

According to statistics, 9% of the U.S. population, or 28.8 million people, will develop an eating disorder at some point in their lifetime. An eating disorder is defined as a persistent disturbance of eating behavior or behavior intended to control weight, which strongly disrupts a person’s psychological and physical functioning.

In fact, eating disorders are not just about food. As complex mental health conditions, eating disorders often require a well-structured treatment plan with help from healthcare professionals. Eating disorders can affect a person’s general health and wellbeing, but it is important to be proactive. Scroll down to see how to determine whether you or someone you know has an eating disorder.

Common Eating Disorders

The most common eating disorders are listed below.

Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia is one of the most well-known eating disorders. The life-threatening disorder is indicated by self-starvation and excessive weight loss. Anorexia usually develops during adolescence or young adulthood, and women are more likely to develop it than men. A person with anorexia usually thinks they are overweight even when they are underweight.

Bulimia Nervosa

Bulimia is a serious and potentially life-threatening disorder characterized by a cycle of binge eating followed by compensatory behaviors such as self-induced vomiting. Like anorexia, bulimia is more common in women, and it usually develops in adolescence or young adulthood.

Binge Eating Disorder (BED)

Binge eating disorder is one of the most common eating disorders in the United States. BED involves recurrent binge eating, but unlike bulimia, it doesn't include compensatory behaviors. People with BED tend to develop problems with excess weight, such as overweight and obesity.

Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID)

This eating disorder is characterized by eating and feeding disturbances that result in significant weight loss and health complications. While ARFID usually develops in infancy or childhood, it may persist in adulthood too. This eating disorder is equally common in men and women.

Other Eating Disorders

Besides the above-mentioned eating disorders, other conditions include:

  • Other specified feeding or eating disorder (OSFED): feeding or eating behaviors that cause clinically significant distress and impairment in areas of functioning but don't meet the criteria for other eating disorders. These conditions include atypical anorexia, low-frequency BED, low-frequency bulimia, purging disorder, and night eating syndrome.
  • Unspecified feeding or eating disorder (UFED): behaviors that cause clinically significant distress or impairment of functioning but do not meet criteria for any specified eating disorder

Symptoms of Eating Disorders

Signs and symptoms are specific to each eating disorder. Depending on the condition, the most prominent symptom may be eating too much, too little, or purging (vomiting). However, other symptoms and warning signs are also present. Eating disorders manifest themselves through behavioral changes, too.

The most common emotional and behavioral symptoms of eating disorders include:

  • Behaviors suggesting that weight loss, dieting, and control of food intake are the primary concern
  • Extreme and unhealthy concern with weight and body shape
  • Extreme mood swings
  • Feeling uncomfortable eating with others
  • Food rituals, e.g., not allowing foods to touch, excessive chewing, etc.
  • Frequent checking in the mirror to identify flaws in appearance
  • Frequent dieting
  • Preoccupation with weight, food, calories, and dieting
  • Refusal to eat certain foods, avoiding whole categories of food
  • Skipping meals or taking portions that are too small

Physical symptoms of eating disorders may include:

  • Weight fluctuations (up and down)
  • Stomach cramps
  • Nonspecific gastrointestinal complaints
  • Dizziness and/or fainting
  • Irregular menstruations
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Feeling cold all the time
  • Sleep problems
  • Dental problems
  • Swelling around salivary glands
  • Weakened immune system
  • Slow wound healing
  • Muscle weakness
  • Fine and thin hair
  • Brittle nails, dry skin

Do I Have an Eating Disorder?

The easiest way to determine whether you could have an eating disorder is to read the list of symptoms thoroughly. Do most symptoms apply to you? If so, chances are high you could have some form of an eating disorder. You may also want to answer these questions honestly and truthfully:

  • Are your eating habits different from those of your friends and family?
  • Do you constantly worry about your weight?
  • Do you think you’ll gain weight as soon as you finish eating a meal?
  • Can you go through a day without worrying about what you will or will not eat?
  • Do you have an uncontrollable urge to eat as much as you can but proceed to make yourself vomit later?
  • Do you have the list of foods that you believe are “okay” to eat and avoid foods that are “bad”?
  • Do you strive to eat as little as possible even when you’re hungry?
  • Do you get angry when people show interest in what you eat and pressure you to eat more or less?
  • Is your weight fluctuating?
  • Do you believe you’ll be unattractive unless you look a certain way body-wise?
  • Has your immune system weakened?
  • Did your health deteriorate?
  • Do you have an overwhelming fear of gaining weight?
  • Do you have the urge to eat as much as possible?
  • Is your menstruation irregular?

Remember, be honest with yourself and answer each of these questions. If your answers indicate behaviors that promote purging, overeating, starvation, and other unhealthy eating behaviors, you are likely to have an eating disorder.

When to See a Doctor

You should see a doctor if you experience symptoms of any of the eating disorders mentioned above. Men and women concerned about their relationships with food and body image may also want to schedule an appointment to see their doctor. The sooner you see the doctor, the better. If you do have an eating disorder, your doctor can immediately recommend the most suitable treatment approach.

I Think My Friend/Family Member Has an Eating Disorder — What Do I Do?

If you suspect your friend or a family member has an eating disorder, there is a lot you can do to help them. You may want to:

  • Encourage them to seek professional help
  • Be supportive, not judgmental
  • Avoid criticizing their appearance or eating habits (an eating disorder is a serious mental health problem, they cannot simply stop eating a certain way out of the blue)
  • Show compassion and care
  • Remind them that eating disorders can be treated successfully
  • Offer your help
  • Be patient

How Are Eating Disorders Treated?

Even though eating disorders are serious and potentially life-threatening, patients can recover and improve their health. The specific treatment depends on the type of eating disorder and symptoms a person experiences.

In most cases, the treatment includes a combination of psychotherapy, nutrition education, medical monitoring, and sometimes medications. If eating disorders caused other medical conditions, the treatment would include addressing those health problems too.

Hospitalization or other forms of inpatient programs may be necessary if standard treatments are ineffective or harmful to a patient’s health.

In Conclusion

Eating disorders are common, dangerous, but treatable with the proper approach. These conditions have many signs and symptoms which you can identify in yourself or others. Be proactive and patient. With adherence to the recommended treatment, it’s possible to overcome an eating disorder and improve general health.

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