How Do You Tell if Someone Has an Eating Disorder?

We have a serious problem on our hands.

It’s an issue we don’t often raise. It’s an issue that’s awkward and uncomfortable to address. But we need to talk about eating disorders. The statistics are frightening. Up to 70 million people worldwide suffer from an eating disorder. According to Eating Disorders Victoria, eating disorders are on the increase in both younger and older age groups, with Anorexia Nervosa being the third most common chronic illness in young females. The key to reducing these statistics and saving the lives of thousands of men and women is to intervene early when symptoms are first exhibited.

If you notice any of the following physical, behavioural or social signs in a loved one, I strongly advise you contact a health care professional or psychologist immediately.

Physical Symptoms Of Eating Disorders

Although eating disorders are a psychiatric illness the disease does have physical symptoms.

Girl With Eating Disorder
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1. Rapid weight loss

Substantial and rapid weight loss is a serious red flag. The weight loss may seem “healthy” at first but will, more often than not, deteriorate quickly which can have significant impacts on that person’s short and long term health.

2. Old clothes not fitting

A result of rapid or substantial weight loss is that person’s clothes, that used to fit perfectly, falling off their frame. We don’t mean this is in a healthy way.

3. Feeling tired/exhausted

When my eating disorder started to take hold and my starvation intensified, I was constantly exhausted. I felt like my body had been completely sapped of energy. Simple activities as basic as getting out of bed or walking up stairs required extra effort and left me irritable and weak. If your loved one is deteriorating physically and is constantly tired this is a strong indication that they are not receiving the required energy and nutrition to function.

4. Absence of Periods

It is common for people suffering with eating disorders to lose their period. I lost my period quickly after I started dieting and it didn’t return until I had restored the weight I had lost.

5. Pale complexion/sunken eyes

Dull, dropping and sunken eyes are common physical signs of anorexia and bulimia. The skin under the sufferer’s eyelids may droop and the eye sockets become more prominent, making the eyes bulge and creating a “sunken” look.

6. Fainting or dizziness

Increased dizzy spells and fainting are a dangerous combination and should be taken very seriously. This could be an indication that the person you’re concerned about is being deprived of energy.

7. Feeling cold

People suffering from eating disorders will often voice feeling cold. They may wear clothes that are inconsistent with the weather to stay warm. This is due to malnutrition impacting body temperature regulation.

8. Bruising Easily

Starvation and lack of nutrition impact iron levels in the blood which can cause the sufferer to bruise easily and often.

Psychological Symptoms Of Eating Disorders

1. Change in attitude to food

People suffering from eating disorders will often display a change in attitude toward food which can include avoiding foods they once loved and enjoyed. They may also start criticising and dissecting the nutritional value of foods.

2. Increased irritability around meal times

People developing eating dysfunctions will often develop a need for control over the types of foods they eat and when they eat. If their routine is compromised this can result in the person turning irritable, upset and irrational.

3. Obsession about food and exercise

Eating disorders are not solely food orientated, they are often complimented by a compulsion to exercise. This may result in the sufferer exercising almost every day, often at the same times of the day, for an abnormal and unreasonable amount of time.

4. Mood swings

In the early stages of my eating disorder and beyond, my mood was highly unpredictable. My family stepped on egg shells to avoid an outburst or a crying fit. A sufferer can go from a relatively stable state to inconsolable sadness and rage almost instantaneously.

Behavioural Symptoms Of Eating Disorders

1. Counting calories and dieting

What may seem like the start of a “healthy” lifestyle can quickly deteriorate into an obsession with dieting and weight loss. Counting calories, in my opinion, should never be encouraged. This endorses the idea that food is purely for energy which discounts the variety of other roles food plays in our lives. If your friend or family member is weighing food into portions or researching the calorific value of everything they are eating, intervention at this stage is crucial.

2. Restricting entire food groups and specific foods

Sufferers will often attempt to justify their restrictive behaviours by claiming they have developed an intolerance or aversion to certain food groups such as carbohydrates. Turning vegetarian and vegan is also a warning sign as it can be used as an excuse to avoid an array of foods.

3. Avoiding being touched

As the sufferer continues to lose weight they will often avoid being touched by their family and friends. As my eating disorder intensified I started refusing to hug my parents and would flinch away when anyone touched me.

4. Wearing baggy clothes

As the eating disorder sufferer continues to lose weight they may start wearing long and baggy clothes. This can be a means of hiding their shrinking frame to avoid questions and concern from others about their weight. It can also be a means of staying warm as their body temperature regulation becomes compromised from malnutrition.

5. Compulsively touching and feeling their body

It is common for sufferers to adopt obsessive and compulsive behaviours around their body and their image. This can involve regularly touching an area or areas of their body.

6. Strict food regimes

Developing strict and inflexible food regimes is a strong indication that an individual’s relationship with food is compromised. This can include only eating at certain times of the day, skipping meals and only eating a limited range of foods.

7. Going to the bathroom after meals

If someone is escaping to the bathroom either throughout a meal or directly following a meal this could be an indication that the person is getting rid of the food they’ve consumed potentially by purging (throwing up).

8. Obsessing over weight/ distorted body image

Obsessing over weight can involve voicing fears about gaining weight, checking the scales every day or multiple times a day and being openly critical about parts of the body. People suffering from eating disorders can experience body dysmorphia which distorts their perception of what their body looks like.

9. Aversion to gaining weight

An aversion to gaining weight and obsession with continuing to lose weight can manifest as consistently stepping on the scales. If the sufferer gains even a few hundred grams they often dissolve into distress and may attempt to “compensate” for this change in number on the scales.

10. Claiming they have “already eaten”

This is a common excuse used by people with eating disorders to skip meals. They will claim that they “ate with friends” or “ate earlier.” This is a way of deceiving people around them to skip meals or avoid certain foods that cause them anxiety.

Eating disorders substantially impact the individual’s mental and physical health  but they also affect the sufferer’s social interactions. Here are some social signals to watch out for.

Social Signs Of Eating Disorders

1. Avoiding social situations

People developing eating disorders will often attempt to have control over social situations and when this control is compromised they tend to avoid them all together. This is a result of fearing the change in routine and what foods may be present. This social retraction can also be a result of wanting to avoid questions and concern from others.

2. Change in personality and hobbies

As my eating disorder intensified my personality became more and more distorted. I became reclusive, angry, judgemental and shy. Singing and writing music was a hobby of mine but this was replaced by my obsession with food, exercise and image. A noticeable change in personality and a disinterest in hobbies is a warning sign.

3. Anti-social behaviour and isolation

As the preoccupation with food intensifies so does social anxiety. Anti-social behaviour can include withdrawing from friends and family, staying away from parties, gatherings or other social situations and deliberately isolating oneself.

What do I do if someone I know is exhibiting symptoms of an eating disorder?

If someone you know is displaying any or all of these symptoms it’s critical to seek the advice of a health care professional such as a psychologist. Breaching your concern with the person you’re worried about is a difficult area. They may brush off your concern and claim they are “fine”. However, your intervention may be what they need to admit they are struggling and consequently seek help.

Admittedly, I was in the earlier category. I was resistant to the concerns of my family and friends. I shrugged off their support. However, that expression of support and concern from my family was eventually the key to acknowledging the fact that I was unwell and that I needed serious help.

There are various websites and supportive networks in the eating disorder space. You can contact them for more information and advice.

The Butterfly Foundation (National)

Number: 1800 ED HOPE / 1800 33 4673

Centre for Eating and Dieting Disorders (NSW)

Number: 02 9515 6040

Eating Disorders Victoria (VIC)

Number: 1300 550 236

Eating Disorders Association Inc Queensland (QLD)

Number: (07) 3394 3661




Posted by Sophia Hatzis

Sophia is a Law and Communications student at UTS and has been a passionate writer her whole life. She runs a blog called The Beauty Breakdown which aims to educate young people about the importance of positive body image. Sophia writes openly about her struggles with mental health problems having battled with an eating disorder and anxiety for most of her adolescence. Sophia is a strong advocate for a holistic approach to health and wellness which is drawn from her own experiences.