Warning Signs of Eating Disorders | Eating Disorders Victoria
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Warning signs

Home ~ For family and friends ~ Warning signs

This page explains the warning signs and symptoms to watch out for if you are concerned someone you love may have an eating disorder.

Warning signs

If you are reading this page, it is highly likely that you are concerned about someone you care about. It’s important to trust your instincts and not ‘watch and wait’.

Determining if someone has an eating disorder can sometimes be difficult, especially if the person is secretive about their behaviour. An eating disorder can develop gradually and you may observe personality and behaviour changes. It is most important to maintain open communication with your loved one so that you can express your concerns.

On this page we outline some of the more common behavioural, psychological and physical warning signs that may be present across the different eating disorder diagnosis. A person does not need to exhibit all these signs to be diagnosed with an eating disorder. If you notice even a few of these signs, it could be cause for concern.

For information on the physical, behavioural and psychological effects of specific eating disorders, please click on the relevant link below.

Trust your instinct

It can be difficult to know what is and isn’t cause for concern. If you are not sure and would like further help, we encourage you to use the online Feed Your Instinct (FYI) tool.

Feed Your Instinct (FYI) is an interactive tool designed to help people who are concerned about a loved one’s eating and/or body image problems.

The Feed Your Instinct Eating and Body Image Checklist outlines some behaviour changes you may have noticed in a loved one. Once the checklist is completed, FYI will generate a personalised report with a summary of the information you have provided and suggested strategies for you to implement.

This report may help you to make a decision about how to act on your concerns; however, please note that it is not safe to ‘watch and wait’ with possible eating disorders. In addition, Feed Your Instinct will generate a separate printable summary for you to take to your family doctor/GP to help communicate your concerns.

Don’t forget that when you visit the doctor, it helps to be prepared for the appointment. Follow our steps for seeing a GP here.

Go to the Feed Your Instinct website

Complete the Feed Your Instinct checklist and take the report to your GP.

Complete FYI checklist

Behavioural warning signs

Eating disorders don’t happen overnight. Behavioural signs are often the first thing that can be picked up upon, before any physical or psychological change.

If you can pick up on behavioural changes early, a person is more likely to recover faster. This is known as early intervention and is proven to be the most effective way to curb eating disorder duration and severity.

Sometimes behavioural warning signs, such as restricting certain foods and exercising more, are deemed ‘good’ or ‘healthy’ by society. While eating a balanced diet and engaging in exercise are important facets of health, it’s important to know that for some people, these behaviours can be a slippery slope into disordered eating or an eating disorder.

Common behavioural warning signs include:

  • Constant or repetitive dieting (e.g. counting calories/kilojoules, skipping meals, fasting, avoidance of certain food groups or types such as meat or dairy, replacing meals with fluids)
  • Evidence of binge eating (e.g. disappearance of large amounts of food from the cupboard or fridge, lolly wrappers appearing in bin, hoarding of food in preparation for bingeing)
  • Evidence of vomiting or laxative abuse (e.g. frequent trips to the bathroom during or shortly after meals)
  • Excessive or compulsive exercise patterns (e.g. exercising when injured or in bad weather, refusal to interrupt exercise for any reason, insistence on performing a certain number of repetitions of exercises, exhibiting distress if unable to exercise)
  • Making lists of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods
  • Changes in food preferences (e.g. refusing to eat certain foods, claiming to dislike foods previously enjoyed, sudden interest in ‘healthy eating’)
  • Development of patterns or obsessive rituals around food preparation and eating (e.g. insisting meals must always be at a certain time, only using a certain knife, only drinking out of a certain cup)
  • Avoidance of all social situations involving food
  • Frequent avoidance of eating meals by giving excuses (e.g. claiming they have already eaten or have an intolerance/allergy to particular foods)
  • Behaviours focused around food preparation and planning (e.g. shopping for food, planning, preparing and cooking meals for others but not consuming meals themselves, taking control of the family meals, reading cookbooks, recipes, nutritional guides)
  • Strong focus on body shape and weight (e.g. interest in weight-loss websites, dieting tips in books and magazines, images of thin people)
  • Development of repetitive or obsessive body checking behaviours (e.g. pinching waist or wrists, repeated weighing of self, excessive time spent looking in mirrors)
  • Social withdrawal or isolation from friends, including avoidance of previously enjoyed activities
  • Change in clothing style, such as wearing baggy clothes
  • Deceptive behaviour around food (e.g. secretly throwing food out, eating in secret (often only noticed due to many wrappers or food containers found in the bin) or lying about amount or type of food consumed)
  • Eating very slowly (e.g. eating with teaspoons, cutting food into small pieces and eating one at a time, rearranging food on plate)
  • Continual denial of hunger

Psychological warning signs

Eating disorders are mental illnesses, which means they cause significant psychological distress.

Some psychological signs to watch out for include:

  • Increased preoccupation with body shape, weight and appearance
  • Intense fear of gaining weight
  • Constant preoccupation with food or with activities relating to food
  • Extreme body dissatisfaction/ negative body image
  • Distorted body image (e.g. complaining of being, feeling or looking fat when actually a healthy weight or underweight)
  • Heightened sensitivity to comments or criticism about body shape or weight, eating or exercise habits
  • Heightened anxiety around meal times
  • Depression or anxiety
  • Moodiness or irritability
  • Low self-esteem (e.g. feeling worthless, feelings of shame, guilt or self-loathing)
  • Rigid ‘black and white’ thinking (viewing everything as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’)
  • Feelings of life being ‘out of control’
  • Feelings of being unable to control behaviours around food

Physical warning signs

It’s important to remember that eating disorders can occur in people of all body shapes and weight. Weight loss is not essential for the diagnosis of an eating disorder. In fact, most people who have eating disorders are not underweight.

However, the physical impact of eating disorders can be significant. If you notice any of the following physical signs in a loved one, please seek help.

  • Sudden or rapid weight loss
  • Frequent changes in weight
  • Sensitivity to the cold (feeling cold most of the time, even in warm environments)
  • Loss or disturbance of menstrual periods (for females)
  • Signs of frequent vomiting — swollen cheeks or jawline, calluses on knuckles, damage to teeth
  • Fainting, dizziness
  • Fatigue — always feeling tired, unable to perform normal activities

Don't watch and wait

If you are concerned that someone you care about is experiencing an eating disorder, it’s never safe to watch and wait. Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses that require treatment and support. The good news is that full recovery is possible for everyone.

For further information or to speak to someone about your concerns, please get in touch with the friendly team at EDV.

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