Eating disorders can be a bit tricky to identify at times because everyone has their own eating habits and patterns. In addition, eating disorders don't have just one "look." There is no one shape or size, as individuals of normal weight or who are overweight can suffer from an eating disorder, in addition to thin individuals.
What's often hard for people to understand, though—family and friends, but even someone suffering him or herself—is that having an eating disorder is not a choice. People can be predisposed to inheriting an eating disorder, but sociological factors can also play a role, such as traumatic events, significant life changes, or diets. The choice is whether or not to seek and/or accept treatment.
In addition, many don't realize that eating disorders are not simply just about the food. They are complex mental illnesses rooted in biological, psychological, and sociological issues. While eating disorder behaviors may originate around a fixation on calories and weight, they generally stem from issues beyond food and body size and often signify an attempt to control some aspect of one's life. This is why it's not helpful when family and friends try to encourage a loved one suffering from an eating disorder to "just eat."
Warning signs of anorexia:
If you feel that someone you know may have signs of disordered eating, there are a variety of warning signs to be on the lookout for—based on the eating disorder. Warning signs of anorexia can include dramatic weight loss; a preoccupation with weight, food, calories, etc.; development of food rituals; denying hunger; or an excessive and rigid exercise regime. They also may make comments about feeling "fat" or overweight and withdraw from usual social events with friends.
Warning signs of bulimia:
Warning signs of bulimia are different. Evidence of binge-eating, include disappearance of large amounts of food in short periods of time and purging behaviors, such as frequent trips to the bathroom after eating. It is important to be aware of signs of vomiting or indication of laxative use. Many people develop complex schedules to make time for binge-and-purge rituals, and also develop physical signs, like unusual swelling of the cheeks or jaw area are common side effects of self-induced purging.
In addition, because our society and culture today continues to be more and more focused on living a healthy life—eating clean or "good" versus "bad" foods, orthorexia is on the rise. People are taking "healthy eating" to the extreme by eliminating so many foods from their diet that they are causing serious health consequences for themselves.
At times, people who may meet the criteria for one of these eating disorders may not feel the need to seek treatment. If you have concern that your loved one or friend may have an eating disorder, urging them to see a doctor or qualified eating disorder specialist, such as at the Eating Recovery Center, and be honest about their eating habits is the first step, as eating disorders affect the whole body and can cause significant medical issues.
People may complain of heart palpitations, feeling cold, dizziness or lightheadedness, chest pain, nausea, early fullness, difficulty with sleep, and depression or anxiety. There are also certain risk factors as well for eating disorders including being female, family history, a history of dieting, stress, and competitive sports.
It's never too late to get help, and there is support out there. For example, Eating Recovery Center offers a free confidential chat option through the website where individuals who are either concerned about themselves or a friend or loved one can talk with a master's-level therapist, get their questions answered, and learn what the next steps should be, specific to their situation.