If you've ever wondered if your or a loved one's eating behavior might be a sign of a clinical, yet treatable, condition, this information can help.
Each year, the last week of February and early March, we promote education and awareness of the mental illness that has the highest mortality rate, eating disorders. According to The National Eating Disorder Association, 30 million people struggle with a diagnosable eating disorder over their lifetime, with countless others engaging in disordered eating behaviors1. Eating disorders can affect people of all genders and ages, from all ethnic and racial populations, and in every body type. Given how common eating disorders are, you likely know someone who is struggling with one. Most eating disorders cannot be visually detected, therefore being aware of possible indicators could be lifesaving. Below are just a few warning signs, so be on the lookout!
- The “Just Ate” Excuse. One sign that a loved one might be struggling with an eating disorder is that they always have an excuse not to eat. They might say that they already ate or perhaps they are planning to eat later. Skipping meals in effort to control or lose weight is a maladaptive behavior. In addition to trying to control body weight, some people who struggle with disordered eating will also skip meals in effort to “make up for” eating something that they feel guilty about. If it seems like your loved one always “just ate” and often displays high levels of discomfort simply by being around food, it may be time to seek professional help.
- Avoiding situations where food is involved. While eating disorders are about so much more than just the food, food and situations where food is involved tend to cause those who struggle with eating disorders a lot of distress. Because of the overwhelming emotions caused by food, it’s not uncommon for it to be avoided in general. Due to the anxiety and fear around gaining weight, people with eating disorders may skip out on going out to eat with friends or attending any social gathering where food is present.
- Socially withdrawn. Making efforts and plans to avoid eating, meals and food means that avoiding people is also inevitable. Binging, purging and other compensatory behaviors are often paired with feelings of guilt and shame. These emotions tend to promote secretive behaviors which only fuel isolation and withdrawal. It is also of note that over half of the individuals who are diagnosed with an eating disorder also struggle with another co-occurring mood disorder, like anxiety or depression, which can further lead to desires to isolate. If you have noticed that your loved one is no longer spending time with friends and family, or no longer engaging in their favorite activities or pastimes, this might be something to bring up with them.
- Engaging in obsessive or unbalanced exercise. Some people with eating disorders have a fear of gaining weight or have an obsession with being “healthy.” The preoccupation of their unrelenting pursuit of thinness can result in unbalanced relationship with exercise. Unbalanced or obsessive exercise may be occurring if a person is exercising more than is needed or their fitness regimen is seen as excessive. Other examples may include when a person is rigid about their workouts, dictated by their exercise plan and schedule, refusing to take a day off due to illness or inclement weather, and exercising through injuries. It is also concerning if an individual continually seems to be punishing themselves with strenuous workouts to compensate for something they ate.
- Experimenting with different diets. Persistent dieting can be an indication of an eating disorder. Being preoccupied with calories, serving sizes and food labels is a warning sign of a troubled relationship with food. People who struggle with eating disorders are especially susceptible to falling prey to chronic dieting in hopes that the newest fad diet will finally be the “fix” they have been waiting for. They will likely have tried a number of different diets, even though they don’t get the results they were hoping for (because spoiler alert: diets don’t actually work). These diets often include the elimination of entire food groups, food groups that are necessary and essential to healthy body functions. Chronic dieters often experience a lot of weight fluctuations, but almost always will eventually gain back all the weight lost and oftentimes even more weight, as the metabolism works to try to protect itself from future “famine” or restricted intake it experiences during periods of dieting. This often perpetuates the feeling that they “need” to continue dieting until they can just find the “right diet” that will finally yield the results they desire, even though that diet doesn’t exist.
It’s important to acknowledge that the presence of any one of these warning signs does not automatically qualify someone for an official eating disorder diagnosis. If you have friends or family members exhibiting any of the above behaviors, take National Eating Disorders Awareness Week as an opportunity to share your concerns with them and be curious about what is going on in their lives. It’s also important to remember that while eating disorders and disordered eating are serious and shouldn’t be taken lightly, there are a lot of reasons to be hopeful about recovery! If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder or an unbalanced relationship with food, reach out for help and know that support is available.
Two options for taking that first step of reaching out for help are to visit the McCallum Place website for more information and/or to schedule an assessment or click here to take a free, confidential online screening for eating disorders, as well as several other mental health conditions.
About the author
Veronica Delgado, LPC, is a Latinx art therapist who works with clients in residential and partial hospitalization levels of care for treatment of an eating disorder and other comorbid conditions. She holds a B.A. in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies from Georgia State University and a M.A. in Art Therapy Counseling from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. Veronica draws from feminist, psychodynamic, socio-cultural, and person-centered theoretical orientations for both group and individual psychotherapy.