8 Signs That You Might Need Help with an Eating Disorder

April 18, 2024

It’s Ok to not know

When I was in my eating disorder, I was in complete denial. 

Yeah, I didn’t like my body. Sure, regardless of my weight, I always felt “fat”. And true, my days were bombarded by intrusive thoughts about exercise and weight loss. But, it took a long time for me to finally ask the big question, “Do I have an eating disorder?”. In my mind, my obsession with food and my body was normal. And eating disorders, especially eating disorder treatment, weren’t something I needed or wanted. But, I was wrong. The signs were there. I just couldn’t see them. 

But, before we dive into the warning signs that you, or someone you know, may need help with an eating disorder, let’s cover a few bases:

One. What is an eating disorder? 

Eating disorders are serious but treatable mental and physical illnesses that can affect people of all genders, ages, races, religions, ethnicities, sexual orientations, body shapes, and weights. In the United States, almost 30 million Americans will suffer from an eating disorder at some point in their lives. 

Two. What’s diet culture and what does it have to do with eating disorders?

Like many “Western” societies, we exist within a “diet culture”, meaning a society that tells us that in order to be “healthy” we have to be thin and that our value and happiness are tied to what we eat and what we look like. This diet culture is fueled by a billion-dollar industry that profits from individuals' desire to lose weight. This in itself, is a personal decision that is not in itself harmful or indicative of an eating disorder; but can have a negative effect on a society that is inundated with “thin is better” messaging and fatphobia. In fact, many people with eating disorders report having at one time been on a diet.

Three. If I suspect, but am not sure, that I or someone I know has an eating disorder, should I ask for help? Yes! And here’s what you should look for, and how you can get the support you or your loved one needs.

Eating Disorder Warning Signs

Frequent/excessive dieting. Many people have a desire to lose weight, for a variety of reasons. But when weight loss becomes a greater priority than a person’s overall health and wellness, and it begins to feel obsessive or impacts their life in negative ways, it may be time to reach out to a mental health professional.

Noticeable fluctuations in weight (gain and loss). This is similar to the above sign in that weight loss or gain, on their own, are not necessarily ‘unhealthy’ or indications of an eating disorder. But noticeable fluctuations or changes in weight, in combination with other factors, such as dieting and obsessive thoughts about food or your body, can be a warning sign of a greater challenge.

Challenges eating around others/other people. Wanting privacy to enjoy your meal, without scrutiny or judgment makes sense. Many people, particularly those living in large or fat bodies, have had the experience of being policed by others for what or how much they eat. However, when eating with or around others becomes a genuine fear, due to internalized shame, guilt or other negative emotions, it can be a cause for concern. Particularly, if the fear results in eating less or more than usual. 

Have a list of fear foods or very strict rules around what you can/will eat. As mentioned, we live in a diet culture. Therefore, it sometimes appears that everyone is on a diet. Whether it’s carbs or fat; limiting or restricting specific foods or food groups, has become normalized. However, having strict food rules that limit your ability to eat according to your physical needs or that influence how you view yourself and your worth can be an indicator of more than just dietary preferences.

Feeling a lack of control/blanking out when eating. We have all heard the term, “binge-watching”. A phrase popularized during the global pandemic as millions of us, homebound, sat through endless hours of television, seeking escape and entertainment. But what if we applied this concept to eating? Binge-eating disorder, though not spoken of as much as Anorexia Nervosa, is the most common eating disorder in America, affecting, an estimated, 2.8 million people. It can be characterized as, unconsciously or uncontrollably, consuming larger than normal amounts of food, in a single sitting, followed by intense feelings of guilt or shame. Again, in isolation, this is not a definitive sign that one has an eating disorder; however, if this behavior becomes a pattern, it may be time to speak with a mental health professional.

Obsessive thoughts/preoccupation with how you look, what you eat, or exercise. Taking pride in one’s appearance and wanting to look your best can be a healthy display of positive self-esteem and a form of self-expression. But at what point does the desire to “look good” become concerning? What if your life begins to revolve around achieving or maintaining a certain look, weight, or size? What if this pursuit begins to negatively impact your life socially, physically, or emotionally? If you or someone you know is living with obsessive thoughts or a preoccupation with physical appearance that is causing recurring stress, this is a good time to seek professional guidance and support.

What or how much you eat/ate dictates how you feel about yourself and your value. In the movie, “Eat, Pray, Love”, Julia Roberts’ character, Liz, describes letting go of the shame and guilt she once carried for what or how much she eats. Stating “I am so tired of saying no, waking up in the morning and recalling every single thing I ate the day before, counting every calorie I consumed so I know just how much self-loathing to take into the shower…. I'm just through with the guilt.” This quote summarizes what many people experience on a regular basis, guilt and/or shame for what or how much they eat. For some, this is an occasional and fleeting moment; but for others, it is a regular occurrence. If you or someone you care for is struggling with separating your value from your food choices, this may be a sign to speak with a support provider or a mental health professional.

Low self-esteem and poor body image. This is a hard one, because the media’s embracement of diet culture, inundates us with messaging that tells us that “our bodies need improvement”. And it has a billion-dollar industry behind it, convincing us that we are just one diet, exercise class or weight loss pill away from “fixing” ourselves. It can be hard to escape, let alone ignore. It’s estimated that roughly 85% of people worldwide (adults and adolescents) have low self-esteem. And the belief that one’s body is flawed can have a negative effect on a person’s self-esteem. Combating this can be a challenge, but you do not have to do it alone. If you need support, there are professionals available to help.

Again, these signs on their own are not a clear indication of an eating disorder. However, in combination, they can be a sign of a serious issue. The important thing is that we recognize the signs and seek professional help when they have been identified. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. Therefore, it’s important to take them seriously and seek out the support you need and deserve. If you suspect you or someone you know may be living with an eating disorder, visit wearise.com for more information and to speak with a mental health professional. We are here to help.