Eating disorders – Would you recognize one if you saw it?

Recognizing an eating disorder may not be as easy as you think.  Individuals with an eating disorder can become very good at hiding their condition and individuals close to them may not be attuned to know what to look for or realize what’s going on. 

An eating disorder is any range of psychological disorders characterized by abnormal or disturbed eating habits such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder.  They involve having an obsession with food and weight that harms a person’s physical and emotional well-being.  All eating disorders are to be taken seriously with the appropriate skilled medical attention sought out to help them.


Possible causes of eating disorders

The cause of an eating disorder is very complex with the root cause ranging from a combination of behavioral, biological, emotional, psychological, interpersonal and social factors.  What may precipitate an eating disorder in one person can be quite different for another.  Here are some factors that may play a role in their development:

·         Low self-esteem

·         Feeling inadequate or a lack of control in their life

·         Depression, anxiety, anger, stress or loneliness

·         History of physical or sexual abuse

·         Troubled personal relationships

·         Difficulty expressing emotions and feelings

·         Ridiculed or teased for their weight

·         Cultural pressures that put an emphasis on thinness and appearance

·         Possible biochemical or biological causes

·         Genetic possibility – eating disorders can run in families

·         Athletes, particularly female, who feel pressure to “make weight” for sports such as gymnastics, dance, swimming, etc.


Let’s take a look at the three most well-known eating disorders and what the signs of each may be:

Anorexia Nervosa  - The word “anorexia” means without appetite and “nervosa” means of nervous origin.  People with anorexia eat very little food even though they are usually already quite thin.  They have an intense fear of body fat and weight gain.  Anorexia also has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.

Symptoms and signs of anorexia:

·         Dramatic weight loss – may wear baggy clothing to hide thinness.

·         Continues to diet even though already very thin.

·         Still feels fat even after losing weight – will make comments about feeling “fat”.

·         Intense fear of weight gain.

·         Preoccupation with food, calories, fat content and dieting.

·         Strange eating rituals – may pretend to eat food or hide food.

·         Will lie about eating food or denies they are hungry.

·         Excuses made avoiding mealtimes or situations involving food.

·         Withdrawal from friends and activities.

·         May experience hair loss, dry skin, weakness, feeling cold all the time.


Bulimia Nervosa – The word “bulimia” means oxlike hunger.  People with bulimia will binge and purge.  They “binge” by eating a huge amount of food in a short period of time.  Usually its food that is easy to consume quickly such as ice cream, chips, or cookies.  After doing this they feel very guilty about what they did so then they will “purge” or get rid of the food by various methods: self-induced vomiting, taking laxatives or excessive exercising.  Bulimics also have a fear of body fat but someone with bulimia is harder to recognize as they may be of normal weight, overweight or obese.

Signs and symptoms of bulimia

·         Frequent episodes of bingeing of food followed by some method of purging at least once a week for 3 months.

·         The amount of food eaten is much larger than most people would eat during the same time.

·         They feel out of control during the binge-eating situation.

·         Self-esteem overly related to body image.

·         Makes excuses to go to the bathroom right after eating.

·         Look for signs or smells of vomiting, presence of food wrappers/packages or laxative/diuretic use.

·         Excessive exercise regimen.

·         Unusual swelling of the cheeks or jaw area.

·         Often a dentist may suspect bulimia if the patient has noticeable dental decay or discoloration of the teeth.

·         Blood shot eyes or indigestion from self-induced vomiting.

·         May exhibit wide mood swings/depression or withdraws from friends and activities.

Binge Eating – Binge eating resembles bulimia as it also involves uncontrolled eating of a large amount of food in a short period of time, but without purging the food.  Therefore, they are often obese and have much difficulty in losing weight or keeping it off.

Signs and symptoms of binge eating

·         Frequent episodes of consuming very large amounts of food but without purging at least once a week for 3 months.

·         Feels out of control during the binge eating episode.

·         Feels extremely guilty or shameful after binge eating.

·         Eats extremely fast.

·         Eating beyond feeling full.

·         Eating large amounts of food when not hungry.

·         They don’t purge of get rid of the food they’ve eaten by throwing up or over-exercising.

Treatment for eating disorders

Eating disorders, as hard as it is for most of us to understand why or how a person develops them, can harm a person both emotionally and physically.  Eating disorders usually do not go away by themselves – they are not “just a fad” or a phase someone is going through.  Ignoring the signs of an eating disorder can lead to a chronic condition that is debilitating and possibly life-threatening. 

If you or someone you know is suffering from an eating disorder, seek help right away.  The earlier they are diagnosed and treated, the greater the chance of a full recovery.   Treatment usually involves some form of psychotherapy or psychological counseling along with tailored and individualized medical and nutritional needs. 

For more information and advice on recognizing and treating eating disorders, go to the websites below:

· – National Eating Disorders Association

· – National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders

· – Eating Disorder Hope

· – Binge Eating Disorder Association




Cheryl Mussatto has over 30 years of experience as a Registered Dietitian and has worked in a variety of settings that cover a wide span of nutrition experience.  Currently she works as an adjunct professor for two community colleges, Allen Community College in Burlingame and Butler Community College in Council Grove, Kansas teaching two courses, Basic Nutrition and Therapeutic Nutrition. Cheryl also is a contributing author for, an online newspaper and Edietitians, a global free nutritional and health magazine. Her articles for both publications pertain to nutrition topics that cover a diversity of health and nutrition interests for the general public.  She is also certified as a health and wellness coach.