Eating disorder symptoms

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Page clinically reviewed by Charlie Carroll, CBT Therapist at Priory Wellbeing Centre Manchester in March 2024.

If you're concerned that someone close to you has started to develop an unhealthy relationship with food or exercise, we understand that alongside your worry, you may also be confused about how you can support them.

Here, we'll provide you with trusted advice and information around the following:

  • The early signs and symptoms of an eating disorder
  • How to talk about your concerns with someone who has an eating disorder
  • The support and treatment available to people with eating disorders

What are the early signs of an eating disorder?

A preoccupation with food

One of the most common early signs of an eating disorder is a preoccupation with food and/or exercise. A person may spend more time speaking about food, looking for recipes online, and cooking and baking for others.

You may also notice:

  • Precise tracking of energy intake or steps
  • A sudden disinterest in certain food groups
  • An increased interest in different diets or health foods

As an eating disorder progresses, you may also pick up on certain food rituals and behaviours around meal times, such as:

  • Eating foods in a certain order
  • Cutting food into tiny pieces
  • Having very specific portion sizes
  • Only using certain crockery and cutlery
  • Excessively chewing

When someone has an eating disorder, they'll often continue to add more rules and rituals as time goes on.

A regimented exercise routine

A person struggling with an eating disorder will often have a disordered relationship with exercise too. If you're concerned that someone is showing the early signs of an eating disorder, you may have started to become aware of the following:

  • Their exercise routines are often very strict and inflexible
  • They display distress if their routine is disrupted or if they can’t train
  • Exercising takes precedence over other elements of their life including health, work and relationships
  • Despite evident tiredness and fatigue, they continue to exercise, even if they’re unwell
  • Exercise is used to work off calories, lose weight or offset an eating binge

An obsession with tracking

A person who's developing an unhealthy relationship with food is likely to keep track of their food and fitness. This tracking will be strict and regimented, where they monitor some or all of the following:

  • The number of calories consumed and burned
  • The number of steps taken
  • Changes in body weight and body measurements

Over time, tracking food and fitness can prevent people from being able to listen to signals from their body. Rather than focusing on what their body wants and needs, they come to rely on rules and restrictions outlined in tracking apps and devices to dictate how they should eat, drink and exercise.

Starting to use diet pills or laxatives

Studies have shown that using diet pills and laxatives increases the risk of someone developing an eating disorder. The products disrupt the normal functioning of the body and prevent a person from paying attention to their bodily cues.

Low body confidence

You may notice that the person is dissatisfied with how they look. They may express this to close family and friends, and they believe other people see them in the distorted way in which they see themselves.

Discussing this dissatisfaction is one of the early signs of an eating disorder. However, that can disappear as a person becomes more unwell and tries to hide their thoughts, feelings and behaviours from people who have expressed concern.


When someone has an eating disorder, they'll often start to lie to other people about their eating and their exercise in an attempt to maintain control.

Some comments and behaviours that you may have started to notice include:

  • They've already eaten
  • They're too full and will eat later
  • They feel poorly more often or have a stomach ache
  • They want to eat elsewhere, such as in their room
  • They say they don’t like the food that's been prepared
  • They eat much slower than usual

This deception is something that typically worsens over time, as the person attempts to hide what's going on from other people.

Changes in mood

When someone is struggling with an eating disorder, this can impact their mood. They may become irritable and angry more quickly than usual, and they may also seem sad and reserved.

These mood changes can happen for a number of reasons. If the person is restricting the amount of food they eat, nutritional deficiencies may mean they have less control over their emotional regulation. They may also become more irritable or angry when conversation turns to their food intake and exercise, as they're likely to feel criticised.

Someone who has an eating disorder is also likely to struggle with their self-esteem and body confidence. This in turn can cause them to feel upset and low in mood.

Free, same-day therapy assessments

At Life Works, we’re pleased to be able to offer free, same-day therapy assessments for potential eating disorder clients.

The eating disorder therapy assessments will take place over the phone or via video call with a member of our specialist therapy team. The assessment will consist of:

  • A discussion around the issues you’re currently facing
  • Exploring how you’re feeling on a daily basis
  • Exploring whether you have any additional mental or physical health concerns
  • An assessment of whether our residential programme would be suitable for you, based on your individual needs
  • A chance for you to ask any questions you might have on our treatment programme

Common symptoms of an eating disorder

The signs of eating disorders can differ from one person to another and are influenced by the specific disorder. However, spotting a mix of the following symptoms could indicate they're beginning to, or have already developed, an eating disorder.

  • Being fixated on their looks and how others view their body
  • Expressing guilt after eating
  • Experiencing anxiety during meal times
  • Struggling with low self-worth
  • Depression
  • Irritability
  • Experiencing severe emotional fluctuations
  • Having trouble sleeping
  • Panic attacks
  • Engaging in self-harm
  • Contemplating or having thoughts of suicide
  • Unusually low or high body weight
  • Persistent weight plateau (adolescents usually gain weight until around 20 years old)
  • Heart palpitations, or saying that they can hear their own heart beating
  • Persistent fatigue
  • Sensitivity to cold
  • Abdominal discomfort
  • Experiencing dizziness or light-headedness
  • Oral health issues
  • Teeth sensitivity or damage
  • Marks on their fingers, knuckles, or back of the hand from self-induced vomiting
  • Bad breath
  • Overdoing exercise or feeling compelled to exercise excessively
  • Odd habits with food, such as needing specific utensils, or chopping food into very small bits
  • Developing extreme tastes when it comes to food, for example, only eating excessively salty/spicy/sweet foods
  • Developing a keen interest in preparing food, yet not eating any of it
  • Preferring to eat in solitude or secretly
  • Choosing to wear loose-fitting clothing
  • Wearing an excessive amount of clothing in mild and warmer weather
  • Immediately going to the bathroom after meals
  • Consuming vast amounts of food without visible weight gain
  • Frequently checking their weight
  • Struggling to speak/focus on people during meal times, due to being so preoccupied with the food
  • Withdrawing from social interactions

Support and treatment available for the early signs of an eating disorder

There are a number of treatment options available for people displaying the early signs of an eating disorder. This may include psychotherapy, nutrition education and medication if appropriate.

Common treatment paths include:

  • A day treatment programme is often recommended for people in the earlier stages of an eating disorder. These provide psychiatric, therapeutic, nutritional and dietetic support, along with the option of returning home in the evenings, if appropriate
  • A residential treatment programme is most commonly used for people who need more intensive treatment, as this provides them with 24/7 care and monitoring within a live-in facility or hospital
  • Weekly therapy sessions can be used by people in the earlier stages of an eating disorder. They allow people to meet with a therapist, dietitian and/or nutritionist and begin addressing their unhealthy relationship with food, drink and exercise, while continuing with their responsibilities (such as attending work)

If you'd like to find out about the treatment options that are available at Priory, please visit our eating disorder treatment page for further information.

Additional support groups and resources to help people with eating disorders

  • BEAT – this eating disorder charity offers telephone and online support as well as message boards and forums where people are able to receive peer-to-peer support
  • Anorexia and Bulimia Care – this charity has regional support groups and telephone support lines for people with eating disorders as well as their worried family and friends
  • Young Minds – this charity offers support to young people who are struggling with conditions such as eating disorders, and also provides support to their parents
  • SEED – this voluntary organisation has a diary of different support groups for both sufferers and carers

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