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  • Sara

The Anatomy of Eating Disorders: Signs, Symptoms & Treatment

Updated: Sep 12, 2022

Eating disorders (EDs) are an incredibly tricky form of mental illness. This is because those who suffer from one tend to feel significant shame and, thus, feel as if they have to be very private about what they’re doing, often isolating from others or becoming extremely good at hiding these behaviors. It can be difficult to spot whether a loved one is engaging in disordered eating, and if you decide to confront them directly, they'll likely deny it and downplay any symptoms.

Those who have EDs also frequently develop comorbidly with other mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression, and the disordered eating can be masked by symptoms of these disorders. Those who have both are sometimes not aware that their eating patterns are becoming dangerously unhealthy, believing that this is just one symptoms of another mental health condition. Even when they're in therapy, an ED can easily be misdiagnosed as another disorder, and it can take some time to identify and treat problematic eating.

The chances of recovering from an eating disorder increase when caught early on, which is why it is helpful to know the common signs and symptoms that someone may be experiencing an ED. Being aware of these signs can be helpful for checking in with yourself and/or someone you love should you notice your habits and behaviors around food have changed. Awareness can also help you engage in conversations about disordered eating with others and express any concerns over changing behaviors. Just remember, you can control your reaction to what's happening but not the reaction of the person you're concerned about. This can be hard to come to terms with but it's important to protect yourself in the process.

Unless you are a licensed professional, however, you should not be diagnosing yourself or anyone else with an eating disorder. However, it is always a good idea to look out for yourself and for your loved ones, saying something if you notice something.

Just like any other mental illness, eating disorders can be caused by a mixture of genetic predispositions and environmental factors. It is usually an unhealthy way to cope with uncomfortable mental health symptoms. Because these symptoms may make someone feel out of control, they may try to regain some control by determining how much they'll eat, when they'll eat and whether they'll purge after eating. It may feel as if eating is the only controllable circumstance in the middle of a mental health crisis.

Again, there is a lot of stigma and shame around eating disorders that often prevents people from getting the help that they need to recover. The good news is that recovery from an eating disorder is very possible! With the right help, guidance, and support, an individual can recover from an eating disorder and establish a healthy relationship with food, learning to love themselves again.

This commonly starts with opening up about what's happening with a therapist and addressing the comorbid condition that led to disordered eating, which will help one understand what an ED developed in the first place and how to best manage symptoms to break harmful patterns. Taking the first step and opening up can be life-changing.

Most of the common signs of an eating disorder revolve around an unhealthy obsession with food, exercise, and weight. Some ways that a person will fixate on weight is if they show a sudden interest in weight loss diets or specialty diets, cycling through one to the next and/or start taking laxatives, diuretics, or diet pills. An individual may also begin to excessively exercise and start to feel stressed or overwhelmed about making sure to go to the gym multiple times a day. They could become very agitated if they are unable to exercise and might come up with less-conventional ways to get a workout in that seem “off” to others. Another hallmark of an eating disorder is a preoccupation with food cleanliness, impulsive or irregular eating habits, binge eating, self-induced vomiting and noticeable distress or guilty feelings when around food. While this is not a comprehensive list of all signs and symptoms of an eating disorder, they are some of the most common ones (anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder, or combinations of each).

There are other, lesser known, eating disorders as well. These can be just as destructive to the individual who is suffering from an ED. A professional therapist can help you work through your symptoms so you can live a happier, more fulling, life. Licensed counselors can also work alongside licensed dietitians to help you get back on track, addressing the root cause of the symptoms, and establishing a treatment plan. Our bodies deserve sufficient nourishment, and we all deserve to have a positive relationship with food. If you or a loved one is experiencing an ED, take that first step and reach out for help.


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