Common symptoms of eating disorders

January 6, 2021

Eating disorders are a significant problem across the globe. Studies published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition and in the journal Current Opinion in Psychiatry estimate that eating disorders affect at least 9 percent of the population worldwide. Though such numbers are troubling, the National Eating Disorders Association notes that eating disorders are treatable.
Chances for recovery from eating disorders increases the earlier a disorder is detected. That underscores the importance of learning to recognize some of the common symptoms of eating disorders. The NEDA breaks such symptoms down into two categories: emotional/behavioral and physical. While familiarizing oneself with these categories and the symptoms within them is a useful first step toward learning about eating disorders, the NEDA points out that the list should not be mistaken for a checklist. Warning signs vary depending on the disorder, and some symptoms may not fit neatly into either category. In addition, people with eating disorders generally do not have all of these symptoms at once.

Emotional and behavioral
Emotional and behavioral symptoms of eating disorders are generally behaviors and attitudes that indicate that weight loss, dieting and control of food are becoming primary concerns. Such behaviors and attitudes may include:
• A preoccupation with weight, food, calories, carbohydrates, fat grams, and dieting
• Refusal to eat certain foods: A refusal to eat certain foods may progress to restrictions against whole categories of foods, such as carbohydrates.
• Appears uncomfortable eating around others
• Adherence to certain food rituals: For example, someone with an eating disorder may eat only a particular food or food group, including condiments, or chew excessively. Others may not allow foods to touch.
• Skipping meals or taking small portions of food at regular meals
• Adherence to new practices with food or fad diets, including cutting out entire food groups (no sugar, no carbs, no dairy, vegetarianism/veganism)
• Withdrawal from usual friends and activities
• Frequent dieting
• Extreme concern with body size and shape
• Frequent checking in the mirror for perceived flaws in appearance
• Extreme mood swings

Some physical symptoms of eating disorders may be hard for loved ones to recognize. For example, NEDA notes fluctuations in weight, both up and down, are a physical symptom of eating disorders. However, someone with an eating disorder may begin wearing clothing to cover up such fluctuations. That’s why it’s so important that loved ones, such as parents and siblings, learn to recognize the other physical symptoms of eating disorders, some of which may be subtle.
• Stomach cramps or other non-specific gastrointestinal complaints: For example, someone with an eating disorder may complain about being constipated or indicate they’re experiencing acid reflux.
• Menstrual irregularities: Adolescents and women may miss periods or only have a period while on hormonal contraceptives (the NEDA notes this is not considered a “true” period).
• Difficulties concentrating
• Abnormal laboratory findings: Blood tests during doctor’s appointments may reveal anemia, low thyroid and hormone levels, low potassium, or low white and red blood cell counts.
• Dizziness, especially upon standing
• Fainting spells or syncope, a condition marked by a temporary loss of consciousness caused by a fall in blood pressure.
• Feeling cold all the time
• Sleep problems
• Cuts and calluses across the top of finger joints: These cuts and calluses suggest a person is inducing vomiting, a behavior associated with the eating disorder bulimia.
• Dental problems, such as enamel erosion, cavities, and tooth sensitivity
• Dry skin and hair, and brittle nails
• Swelling around area of salivary glands
• Fine hair on body
• Cavities, or discoloration of teeth, typically resulting from vomiting
• Muscle weakness
• Yellow skin (in context of eating large amounts of carrots)
• Cold, mottled hands and feet or swelling of feet
• Wounds that heal poorly
• Impaired immune functioning