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Eating Disorders: Warning Signs and What to Do

Updated: Dec 8, 2021

As we come to the end of NEDAwareness Week (if you missed it, check out their inspiring blog post series!), now is a great time to dig deeper into the warning signs of eating disorders or disordered eating and also look at what steps to take in order to get help for yourself or a loved one.

Before we jump in, let’s first define the term "eating disorder". According to the National Institute of Mental Health, “there is a commonly held misconception that eating disorders are a lifestyle choice.” In truth, they are serious and often fatal illnesses that involve interruptions in regular eating behaviors as well as associated thoughts and emotions. Common eating disorders include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder.

Eating disorders usually don’t just “occur.” Rather, they stem from a variety of — and often a combination of — root causes, such as a history of trauma, personality and perfectionism, the effects of the diet industry and cultural thin ideals, and/or other mental health difficulties, such as anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or depression. Usually, it takes a long time for disordered eating thoughts and behaviors to fully become recognizable as problematic and/or diagnosable as an eating disorder — which is why it’s so important to be aware of the typical warning signs and the next steps to take.

Warning Signs of Eating Disorders

The signs and symptoms of eating disorders are as varied and individualized as the eating disorders themselves. However, some common behaviors to look for include a preoccupation with food, often through either food avoidance, food restrictions, or food refusal. Another sign is the use of compensatory behaviors, such as purging, over-exercising, and/or fasting. An obsession with weight, body size or shape, and/or thinness is often seen in individuals who are struggling. Strange food rituals, such as eating in secret or binge eating, are another frequent warning sign.

Other symptoms are specific to the type of eating disorder. For patients struggling with anorexia nervosa, common warning signs include:

  • A distorted self-image (i.e. seeing themselves as overweight when they are dangerously underweight)

  • Repeated weigh-ins

  • A relentless pursuit of thinness and unwillingness to maintain a healthy weight

  • A fear of gaining weight

Symptoms of people with bulimia nervosa include:

  • Chronically inflamed and sore throat

  • Swollen salivary glands

  • Increasing sensitivity and decay of teeth (due to repeated exposure to stomach acid)

  • Acid reflux disorder and other gastrointestinal problems

  • Electrolyte imbalance, which can lead to a stroke or heart attack

What Comes Next

You’ve identified some warning signs of an eating disorder in yourself or a loved one — now what? It’s important to seek treatment early for eating disorders, as people struggling with them are at higher risk for suicide and medical complications. Treatment plans are specific to individual needs but often include one or more of the following approaches:

  • Individual, group, and/or family therapy

  • Medical care and monitoring

  • Nutritional counseling

  • Medications

It’s important to seek professional help from qualified providers. The International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals provides eating disorder specialist credentials (CEDS, CEDRD, CEDRN, and CEDAT) to clinicians who meet a rigorous set of criteria and have extensive experience in the treatment of eating disorders (myself included!). Additionally, the Alliance for Eating Disorder Awareness has a search engine for finding specialized providers and treatment programs.

Remember that full recovery is possible. In fact, my favorite part of my job is seeing people through to the end and being a guiding light for them as they break free from their disordered eating behaviors.

For more information about eating disorder treatment and recovery, click here.

If you or a loved one is struggling with an eating disorder, reach out to Dr. Kelli Malkasian, PsyD, C.E.D.S. at Coral Reef Counseling, and schedule a free consultation or telehealth appointment today.


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