There is no shortage of myths about eating disorders out there that continue to prevail – but the truth is that people of all ages, genders, and body types can develop an eating disorder.
With recent research showing that a third of adults are unable to recognise common eating disorder symptoms, as well as our cultural fixation with disordered habits like fad diets, weight loss transformations, and beauty treatments designed to fix perceived “flaws,” it can be alarmingly easy to develop an eating disorder without even realising it.
INSIDER spoke with three mental health experts who told us how seemingly harmless (or healthy) habits can turn into a full-blown eating disorder.
Exercise becomes rigid, regimented, or punishing.
Exercising can certainly be a healthy habit that benefits both your body and brain, helping you feel stronger both physically and mentally, and even better able to tackle stress in your daily life. But plenty of seemingly harmless exercise habits can be missed signs of an eating disorder, especially in an era where gym selfies and fitness goals are lauded by friends, family, and even doctors.
“It gets tricky to know when you might be developing an eating disorder because we live in a culture where discipline with food and exercise are applauded, and it can seem like there’s a fine line between what’s considered normal and what’s actually disordered,” explains Carla Korn, LMFT, a licensed psychotherapist.
Licensed psychologist Dr. Ashley Hampton agreed, adding that each person’s relationship to exercise will vary and that while having a workout routine in and of itself isn’t disordered, “an individual exercising for multiple hours in the morning, again at lunch, and then again at night would be problematic.”
Any sort of extremes around exercise can be a “sign” of disordered habits, with Dr. Hampton adding that “another possibility could be someone with bulimia bingeing on food and then using exercise to try to ‘work off’ the binge.”
Not listening to one’s body and working out through fatigue, illness, or past the point of injury is another signal. “The important thing to consider here is the rigidness of the exercise,” Dr. Neeru Bakshi, the medical director of Eating Recovery Center Washington told INSIDER. “The person is engaging in exercise at the expense of all other things, including their own health. The need to exercise is so great, that the person is unwilling to let injuries heal, thereby further injuring themselves.”
Researching fad diets or new ways to lose weight becomes more common.
There are always trendy diets on the horizon – from “clean eating” to the keto diet – that most people won’t bat an eye at someone trying them. But aside from avoiding certain foods due to allergy or intolerance, these diets often become a slippery slope to an eating disorder.
“For many people who are developing an eating disorder, they might find themselves constantly researching the next fad diet and trying new ways to lose weight,” explains Korn.
If you’re becoming preoccupied with weight loss treatments, products, or regimens, you might be verging into disordered territory.
You’re experimenting with diet pills, medications, laxatives, or weight loss supplements.
If you’re not simply researching new (and potentially dangerous) ways to lose weight but actually trying them, you might be delving into disordered patterns.
As Dr. Hampton points out, “While this is typically an advanced technique that is indicative of an active eating disorder, one may be experimenting with diet pills or laxatives to attempt initial weight loss at the beginning.”
You’re experiencing physical symptoms that seemingly have little to do with weight.
Restricting, bingeing, and purging can cause a host of physical side effects, but many of them don’t appear to be intrinsically linked to one’s eating habits.
“Oftentimes, individuals might not be aware that potentially serious physical symptoms they experience, such as digestive issues, difficulty regulating their body temperature, or loss of their period, might actually be due to an eating disorder,” explained Korn, adding, “Unfortunately, even doctors might not even be identifying or screening for these symptoms.”
Still, Dr. Hampton noted that the presence of these physical symptoms often mean you’re already experiencing an eating disorder and “are not likely to be seen at the beginning of the development of an eating disorder.” She adds, “Physical changes are generally due to excessive weight loss or excessive bingeing back-and-forth, which takes time to accumulate.”
“One of the key diagnostic features of anorexia is continuing to engage in the eating disorder despite the risks and negative impacts on their physical health,” explains Dr. Bakshi. “Often times, someone with an eating disorder will minimise the physical impacts on their health because they are so consumed with the goals that they have with their disorder,” she adds, noting that not everyone with an eating disorder will stop menstruating, or experience the same physical effects.
Tracking numbers become a main focus and priority.
Wearing a device to track your workouts or weighing yourself regularly might not seem like a big deal, but it’s easy to slip into disordered habits by tracking calories eaten/burned, steps walked, heart rate fluctuations, macros, and weight.
“Often in our society, talk about weight, calories, and dieting seem commonplace,” Dr. Bakshi explained. “When these conversations move from general conversation to obsession and cause psychological distress, it could be a warning sign of something more serious.”
Korn agreed, adding, “People often find themselves increasingly preoccupied with counting and logging calories, or weighing themselves daily or even multiple times a day.” If you’re focusing too heavily on sticking to certain numbers, you might be dealing with disordered thinking.
You’re wearing baggy or large clothing to hide your body or changing shape.
If you’re suddenly gravitating toward baggy clothing or remaining fully covered even in the summer heat, or your clothes become too large and you’re still wearing them, you might be struggling with body dysmorphia related to an eating disorder.
“Clothing tends to be a way individuals can use to control what others see, or what they try to allow others to see,” explained Dr. Hampton. “This is often one of the first things that changes that others may notice. Those that are starting to develop anorexia will start to see their clothes become too large for their frame. Those that are starting to develop bulimia will start to expand their closet with multiple sizes of clothing” to account for weight fluctuations due to bingeing and purging.
Of course, buying new clothes or changing your style from day to day isn’t inherently unhealthy. But wearing heavy sweaters in the summer or dressing to hide your frame might signify that an eating disorder is developing.
Rituals around food, including restricting certain food groups, portion control, excessive chewing, and more, become increasingly common.
There are a lot of “food rituals” that those with disordered habits will engage in that, on their own, might not seem like a big deal.
Restricting certain foods, eating foods in a particular order, portion control, excessive chewing or cutting food into tiny pieces, and arranging food on a plate serve as “red flags,” explains Korn.
“It is crucial when looking at eating disorders to look at the individual’s ‘rules’ around eating, food, fitness, health, and wellness,” said Dr. Hampton. She added that “it can be portioning out food, eating only a certain type of food (like low-calorie, low-fat, and so forth), eating on a diet before bingeing on food in the cabinets or in the refrigerator, and refusing to eat food in public at a restaurant.”
She says it can become “important for individuals to hide their obsession with food as long as possible, and this includes moving food around on the plate, trying to hide food in a napkin or giving food to a pet under the table, or trying to avoid dinner all together in order to study or complete some other activity.”
You cook or bake elaborate meals for others without actually eating yourself.
If you’re pulling up recipes, looking at food photos on social media, and cooking or baking for others without enjoying it yourself, you might be forming an eating disorder.
“This can be fairly common for people with eating disorders,” explained Dr. Bakshi. “Cooking for others keeps them connected to something that they wish they could eat. This could also include someone looking at recipes online and cataloging different foods that they want to cook or wish they could eat.”
Korn added that “another potential red flag is bringing their own food to parties or out to dinner because of their strict diet, or avoid eating with others entirely.”
Withdrawing socially from friends, work, or other activities can be a sign of problems lurking beneath the surface.
Eating disorders are just as much a mental illness as they are a physical one, so withdrawing from daily life activities, from work, school, or social engagements could be a sign of something serious.
“In today’s society, many social events revolve around a meal or eating, and if someone avoids social activities that involve food, it could be that they are avoiding having to refuse to eat in front of others,” Dr. Bakshi says.”If someone typically has been social and outgoing and turns to being more withdrawn, that is something to pay attention to. This could also be a sign of increasing depression and anxiety.”
Korn added that “people who are at risk [for developing an ED] often find themselves doing things like regularly skipping out of social time with friends because they have a rigid or extreme workout schedule,” noting that “it’s definitely a concern when the need to exercise or interferes with work, school, or family obligations.”
Your personality starts to change.
If you find yourself not only withdrawing from daily life but also experiencing changes in mood or temperament, you might be struggling with an eating disorder. “These often come together and also come with changes in personality,” said Dr. Hampton.
“In addition to clothing, personality becomes the initial tipping point for most people to investigate their friends or their children in terms of possibly needing help with their behaviours. When an eating disorder is starting to develop, the habits around food and exercise, along with the need to control things, causes individuals to withdraw from those they know and those that would recognise what was happening.”
You’re increasingly making concerning comments about weight, body image, and eating — and not just your own.
“An individual’s language is an early indicator of the development of an eating disorder,” Dr. Hampton told INSIDER. “Comments generally include things like being fat even when the individual is average size or skinny, weighing multiple times a day and making disparaging comments about the number on the scale, or even commenting about others’ weight as an attempt to deflect attention from what is going on with them.”
Still, keeping the focus inward is what occurs most often, explained Dr. Bakshi. She says, “Oftentimes, someone will be much more self-deprecating about their own weight or body image rather than comment on anyone else. They may comment on certain parts of their body that they want to change or a weight that they want to reach. They may also talk about changing their diet to be more restrictive or eliminating certain foods or food groups.”
There’s an uneasy situation happening in your life that is totally unrelated to eating or weight loss.
Eating disorders rarely form solely from a desire to change one’s body or be thinner and are often a result of a loss of control from a totally unrelated aspect to your life.
Dr. Hampton said, “Control will also be excessive, including control over food and exercise, as it is not likely [the sufferer can] control other things in their life. Sometimes the beginning of eating disorders can begin because the remainder of their life is chaotic.”
She adds, “In my experience, this happens in teenagers when their home life is chaotic. In adults, sometimes this chaos can be in a job environment, sometimes at home in a relationship, and sometimes it is related to needing to control feelings about past trauma. There is not one specific pattern or characteristic that can predict an eating disorder. However, it is important to reach out when one sees any of these behaviours” start to develop.
If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call NEDA’s Helpline(1-800-931-2237) on weekdays for support, resources, and information about treatment options. In crisis situations, NEDA offers 24/7 support – just text “NEDA” to 741-741.
For additional information about Eating Recovery Center, call 877-789-5758, email [email protected], or visit eatingrecoverycenter.com to speak with a Masters-level clinician.
And if you or someone you know has thought about harming themselves or taking their own life, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255).
Visit INSIDER’s homepage for more.
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