Eating disorders are extremely complex and it can be difficult for people to recognise some of the more subtle signs and symptoms.
Subtle signs and symptoms of eating disorders
There are eating disorder behaviours that are more noticeable, such as a rapid weight loss or weight gain, refusal to eat, being sick, or eating large amounts of food in a short space of time. But the illness doesn’t always present physically and there are subtle signs of eating disorders to look out for:
Showing a large amount of interest in food and excessively talking about food
When someone is struggling with an eating disorder, they may become preoccupied with food. They may start to watch more cooking programmes, read more recipes or prepare a lot of food without consuming it.
The Ancel Keys Minnesota Study showed that following a period of starvation, people can become heavily preoccupied by cooking and food, despite having no prior interest in it.
Regimented eating habits
The compulsive nature of many eating disorders can lead to a person developing rigid eating habits, where they become particularly meticulous in their eating routine.
Behaviours to look out for include eating at specific times of day, becoming inflexible around mealtimes and only using certain bowls and plates. This behaviour can sometimes be caused when a person is also experiencing obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).
Adding lots of condiments to food
A person may choose to use condiments that have flavour but few calories. These can include vinegar, hot sauce, salsa, chilli, gravy, tabasco, salt and pepper. They may add copious amounts to mask the taste of their food, to deliberately spoil their food or to add volume to the plate.
Wearing clothes that don’t fit
An eating disorder tends to be paired with a distorted body image and very little self-care. Hiding behind clothes that don’t fit, or being attached to clothes that are too small with the hope that they ‘will fit’ can be subtle signs of an eating disorder. Individuals struggling with anorexia will also have extremely low body fat, so will be sensitive to the cold and need to layer up.
Eating food in a particular way
Many people with eating disorders will have a particular routine when it comes to eating food, especially if they're suffering from bulimia. For example, they may eat their salad first, leave carbohydrates until last or cut their food up into very small pieces.
Constantly fidgeting or moving around can be a subtle sign of an eating disorder. A person may try to use every occasion to move so that they can try and burn calories. They may even be unable to sit down or sit still for long periods of time.
While chewing gum may seem like a relatively normal behaviour, it can be used to try and reduce energy intake or to prevent the feeling of hunger. The frequency and the amount of gum chewed can be an indicator of distorted behaviour.
Generally eating the same foods
While it may appear that a person consumes a limited variety of foods a day due to their likes and dislikes, this can be a subtle sign of an eating disorder. The person may only feel ‘safe’ eating certain things, as they know that food’s calories or nutrition content. This can even go as far as a person only eating certain brands of food.
Over informed with nutrition
There is a huge amount of ‘diet culture’ shown in the news and in magazines. This can cause a person to hyper-focus or fixate on trying the latest trend, such as going gluten-free, which can lead to restrictive behaviour and an abundance of dietary rules.
Skipping social situations
A slightly more noticeable sign of an eating disorder can be a person’s changing routine, where they no longer want to go out or be around other people. This withdrawal and reduction in social engagement can be caused by a number of different mental illnesses, such as anxiety or depression, but it can also be closely linked to a person struggling with an eating disorder.
While it’s relatively normal to have mood swings throughout the day, if a person is experiencing the extreme ends of the scale, this can be a sign of an eating disorder. When a person changes what they eat and when they eat, this can impact their hormones and lead to changes related to stress, anxiety and depression.
It is important to remember that a person with an eating disorder is unlikely to display every sign or symptom. However, if you are concerned about a person and have observed a number of behaviours that could be signs of an eating disorder, it is important to look out for the person and support them at this time. Remind them that you care and will be there to listen, support and help them with tasks such as driving them to their doctors or sitting in with them during appointments.