How Do I Know If My Loved One Has an Eating Disorder? 

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Many people have heard of eating disorders, but they don’t necessarily know the signs of one. This is because someone who is struggling with an eating disorder may look perfectly healthy – but under this facade, they could be flailing. 

Others may have more outward signs of a possible eating disorder – they could be gaining or losing a lot of weight in a relatively short amount of time. 

In any of these cases, it’s important to know what to look for if you think a family member or friend may be struggling with an eating disorder. If left unchecked, an eating disorder can wreak havoc on the body, creating long-lasting damage that can sometimes be permanent. 

Let’s outline some of the most common eating disorders, as well as the signs and symptoms to look out for. 

Binge eating disorder 

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When many people think of eating disorders, they think of dangerously underweight people. However, the most common eating disorder in the United States is binge eating disorder, where someone can either gain weight or not show any noticeable signs of weight fluctuation. 

Binge eating disorder is defined as eating an unhealthily large amount of food in a very short span of time, often consuming food to the point of extreme fullness and discomfort. Another characteristic of binge eating is that the person feels like they lack control over their eating – they may be eating food they don’t even like or eating when they’re already quite full. 

Like most eating disorders, there is a feeling of shame after a binge. The person may hate themselves for eating so much, which then creates a vicious cycle; they want to get away from the shame, so they revert to the coping mechanism they’ve created: binge eating. This continues over and over, and it is very difficult to break this cycle on their own.

If you suspect someone may be struggling with a binge eating disorder, there are some signs you can look out for: 

  • If you notice there is a large amount of food gone from the pantry or fridge in a short amount of time
  • If your loved one seems to be hoarding food in secret places
  • If they frequently diet or change their dietary preferences (maybe one week they’ll eat no red meat, and the next week they’ll cut out dairy)
  • If they’re eating very small amounts at meal times (this means they could be binge eating at other times throughout the day)
  • If they don’t want to eat around you or others
  • If they develop a new habit around their food, for example, maybe they chew each bite for an excessively long time
  • If they seem to have more stomach issues or discomfort 

Anorexia

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Another common eating disorder is anorexia nervosa, commonly known as anorexia. For people struggling with anorexia, they’ve developed a deep-seated fear about gaining weight. They often have body dysmorphia issues, meaning even though they may be at a healthy weight, or even critically underweight, they still see themselves as weighing too much.

Due to this fear, people suffering from anorexia restrict the number of calories they put into their bodies. They may become obsessed with dieting and calorie-counting, to the point where they’re putting critically low amounts of nutrients into their body. 

Some people may clue you in on their diet practices, as they cope with their anorexia by projecting pride about their behavior. However, most people struggling with anorexia will try to hide their behavior, as they’re ashamed of what they’re doing.

If you think a loved one may have anorexia, look for the following signs: 

  • They seem to have a lack of energy and overall lethargy
  • They comment about being cold often; they wear warm layers even when it’s quite warm 
  • They make comments of being fat or ugly or generally displeased with their appearance
  • They begin to exercise to an extreme level (this can be particularly dangerous because they don’t have the energy coming into their bodies to compensate)
  • They isolate more and start ignoring their friends and favorite hobbies
  • They develop issues with their teeth
  • They’re getting sick a lot or wounded are taking a long time to heal

Bulimia

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Bulimia nervosa, or bulimia, can inhabit aspects of both binge eating disorder and anorexia. For example, the person may have a chronic fear of gaining weight, like people who suffer from anorexia. 

At its core, bulimia is characterized by bouts of binge eating, followed by various means to rid themselves of the food they just consumed. This often takes the form of purging, or vomiting, their food, but they can also take laxatives to discharge the food. They can also combine these purging methods, so they may exercise excessively, and then take some diet medications.

Like other eating disorders, look for if there’s been a shift of focus on dieting, losing weight, or extreme exercising. There are some additional signs you can look for if you think a loved one may be struggling with bulimia:

  • They drink copious amounts of water or beverages with no calories
  • They go to the bathroom during or immediately after a meal
  • They have swelling in their cheeks and jaw area
  • They look bloated from fluid retention
  • They often check their reflection in the mirror, seemingly looking for flaws
  • Cuts or calluses on their fingers (from inducing vomiting)

How to get help

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Maybe you’ve determined that you think your loved one may have an eating disorder. The most important thing to keep in mind is to not make them feel more ashamed of their behavior. They’re already feeling very uncomfortable with themselves and their actions, and if they think you’re judging or admonishing them, they will likely shut down.

Before you talk with them about their potential eating disorder, look into treatment options. For many people struggling with eating disorders, it’s best they go to a more in-depth program, rather than simply seeing a therapist for a few times a week. They need fully-inclusive care to make sure their physical and mental health get back up to healthy levels. 

When looking into eating disorder treatment centers, try to find one that balances independence, safety, and holistic therapeutic activities, like The Exclusive Hawaii. At programs like this, your loved one will learn healthy ways to take charge of their lives and create healthy coping mechanisms to replace their unhealthy ones. 

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