How to Detect the Signs of an Eating Disorder

How to Detect the Signs of an Eating Disorder
Elena Sanz

Written and verified by the psychologist Elena Sanz.

Last update: 18 January, 2023

Eating disorders are important medical-psychological problems. Recently, their incidence has increased. Moreover, they’re often not detected on time. Given that these are the kinds of conditions that tend to become chronic and have a high risk of morbidity and mortality, it’s crucial that interventions are made as soon as possible. In this article, we give you four questions to answer that could help detect signs of an eating disorder.

These types of conditions mainly affect adolescents and young adults. That said, cases are increasing in older people and children under 12 years of age. They’re more frequent in women, but men also aren’t exempt from suffering from them.

It’s estimated that about six percent of the population suffers from eating disorders. A much higher number are at risk of developing them or already present problem behaviors. For this reason, and although the diagnosis can only be made by a professional, it’s advisable that those in the sufferer’s environment are able to identify the first signs.

woman with meter in hand
More than 70 million people suffer from eating disorders.

How to detect the signs of an eating disorder

First of all, it’s worth mentioning that, in the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) they’ve made certain changes in the classification of eating disorders.  The traditional diagnoses are maintained, but other lesser-known ones are also included. They’re as follows:

  • Anorexia nervosa.
  • Bulimia nervosa.
  • Binge eating disorder.
  • Pica.
  • Rumination disorder.
  • Restriction/avoidance disorder of food intake.
  • Night eating syndrome.
  • Other eating disorders that don’t meet the criteria for any of the above.

Therefore, eating disorders accommodate a multitude of different manifestations and problems. In fact, even behaviors that you might not associate with an eating disorder can be an indication of one.

There are certain key questions to answer in identifying if an individual is suffering from an eating disorder.

What do they eat?

The choice of food is one of the great indications that can be an indication of an eating disorder. For example:

  • People with pica eat chalk, soap, ice, and other inedible and non-nutritive substances.
  • If their intake is limited to an exceptionally pure and healthy diet that’s organic, natural, and free of any type of substance and processing, there could be underlying orthorexia.
  • If they avoid or restrict themselves to an extremely small variety of foodstuffs, they could be suffering from a selective or restrictive eating disorder.
  • Those who opt for foods that are low in fat and calories, and avoid, at all costs, those that don’t meet these guidelines, could be suffering from anorexia.
  • Those who choose highly caloric foods that are rich in sugars and fats, the ‘forbidden foods’ that are normally not allowed in a weight loss regime, could be suffering from bulimia or binge eating disorder.

How much do they eat?

Quantity is another fundamental point. In fact, the individual’s energy requirements (depending on their age and constitution) and their previous history must be taken into account. It’s not only an abnormally excessive or insufficient amount of food that should act as a warning sign but the fact that they’ve suddenly changed their intake.

For example, sufferers of avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder eat very little and have often adopted this pattern from childhood. Those who suffer from anorexia also significantly restrict and limit their food intake. In this case, it’s motivated by the fear of gaining weight.

In contrast, people suffering from binge eating disorder tend to eat unusually large amounts of food (especially during certain periods) and continue eating even when they feel full. On the other hand, bulimia sufferers alternate periods of food restriction with others of binge eating and purging.

When do they eat?

The two previous factors are the most striking and important ones to pay attention to when looking for signs of an eating disorder. However, observing when the individual eats can also provide important clues. Obviously, the logical and healthy thing would be for them to eat when they feel hungry. However, in eating disorders, this natural pattern is altered.

In fact, sufferers might eat when their emotions such as anxiety, fear, stress, or disappointment are overwhelming., In effect, they use food to emotionally regulate themselves. Or, they may eat only when they allow themselves to, which could be only once or twice a day.

How do they eat?

Finally, the way in which they eat should be examined. Ideally, they should eat calmly, consciously, and with pleasure. Therefore, if they eat guiltily and show signs of anguish and concern, this could be an important sign of an eating disorder. Moreover, if they appear to feel satisfied and rewarded by having an empty stomach.

On the other hand, if they experience cravings and eat uncontrollably, tend to hide or isolate themselves to eat, or feel embarrassed when others see them eating, these should also act as alarm signals.

woman eating at night
Prolonged and deliberate fasting, emotional hunger, or binge eating at night can be warning signs of eating disorders.

Acting at the first signs of an eating disorder

Unfortunately, a large percentage of people with eating disorders don’t receive proper diagnoses or help. This could be due to a lack of awareness of their disease, perhaps due to having normalized diets, fasting, or binge eating and not knowing that they’re warning signs of a disorder. It can also happen because they’re afraid or ashamed to express what they’re going through. Alternatively, they may simply refuse to accept that they need help.

For this reason, the support of their environment is essential. It can help them become aware of their problem and allow them to place themselves in the hands of professionals. Therefore, if you detect any of the above signs in someone close to you, don’t hesitate to talk about it with them. Ask them how they are, how they feel about their self-image and any concerns they might have. Finally, make sure you recommend that they seek help.

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  • Asociación TCA Aragón. (2020). Estadísticas sobre los TCA. Disponible en: https://www.tca-aragon.org/2020/06/01/estadisticas-sobre-los-tca/
  • Behar, R., & Arancibia, M. (2014). DSM-V y los trastornos de la conducta alimentaria. Revista Chilena de neuro-psiquiatría52(1), 22-33.
  • Losada, A.V., & Marmo, J. (2013) Herramientas de Evaluación En Trastornos de La Conducta Alimentaria. Madrid: Editorial Académica Española.

The contents of Exploring Your Mind are for informational and educational purposes only. They don't replace the diagnosis, advice, or treatment of a professional. In the case of any doubt, it's best to consult a trusted specialist.