According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), eating disorders are defined as ‘illnesses in which [patients] experience severe disturbances in their eating behaviors and related thoughts and emotions.’
This entails worries over body image, weight, food intake, etc. which can severely overtake a person’s life. Frequent compulsions like calorie-counting or extreme fasts can occur, causing not only physical, but also mental harm. Worldwide, roughly 70 million people suffer from some form of an eating disorder, making up about 1% of the global population. It’s important to be perceptive and observant, noticing the slight red flags that could be the eve of a growing, dangerous condition. Here are some alerting behaviors to watch out for:
Limiting Food Intake/Extreme Dieting
Dieting or fasting can be done for many different reasons. It can be a way to observe a religious holiday, make weight for sports like gymnastics or wrestling, and even just a way to introduce a healthy change into one’s daily life. And while these all seem like innocent, valid motives―when done with an incorrect mindset, consequences may follow. When coupled with anxiety, simple diets or fasts can manifest itself into the following behaviors:
● Making excuses to avoid meals or situations involving food (e.g. "I had a big meal earlier" , "I have an upset stomach")
● Eating only tiny portions or specific low-calorie foods, and often banning entire categories of food such as carbs and dietary fat
● Obsessively counting calories, reading food labels, and weighing portions
Over time, these habits like these may dominate one's life, potentially leading them further into the hole of their eating disorder, making it more difficult to readjust. Illnesses like anorexia tend to begin with these patterns of behavior.
Bulimia nervosa is an eating disorder which is characterised by a cycle of bingeing and self-induced vomiting often designed to undo or compensate for the effects of binge eating. This type of behavior can be harder to spot, so here are a few baseline instances:
● Unexplained disappearance of large amounts of food in short periods of time
● Lots of empty food packages and wrappers, often hidden at the bottom of the trash
● Hoarding and hiding stashes of high-calorie foods such as junk food and sweets
● Secrecy and isolation; may eat normally around others, only to binge late at night or in a private spot where they won’t be discovered or disturbed
● Disappearing right after a meal or making frequent trips to the bathroom
● Showering, bathing, or running water after eating to hide the sound of purging
● Using excessive amounts of mouthwash, breath mints, or perfume to disguise the smell of vomiting
● Taking laxatives, diuretics, or enemas
● Periods of fasting or compulsive, intense exercising, especially after eating
These types of habits can be closely analyzed by those whom you live with or see very often, e.g. siblings, significant others, roommates.
Distorted Body Image/Altered Appearance
For children of Gen Z, it has become almost second nature to be self deprecative. It is instilled into the sense of humor for many teenagers all over the world. But with the rise of meta-humor, the body-positive movement has also become prevalent at all corners of the world. Loving the skin you’re born in is now encouraged; whether you are stick-thin or have curves, the movement poses the message that one is beautiful, no matter what shape they've got.
Sadly, however, many people all over still struggle with self-confidence and body image. One of the main symptoms of many eating disorders stems from distorted body image or the misconception of the body’s true appearance. What may seem like a joke, poking fun at one’s weight, can actually be a hint towards chronic low self-esteem; when done repeatedly and aggressively, it can be a crucial sign of a progressing eating disorder. Here are some examples:
● Extreme preoccupation with body or weight (e.g. constant weigh-ins, spending lots of time in front of the mirror inspecting their body)
● Frequent comments about feeling fat or overweight, or fear of gaining weight
● Wearing baggy clothes or multiple layers in an attempt to hide weight
As with any mental illness, the best thing to do is to seek a diagnosis. If you find yourself exhibiting the behavior outlined in this article, please take the step of seeing a doctor or psychiatrist. Treatment and therapy can be used to manage eating disorders and restore one’s health—both physically and mentally. On the flip side, as a loved one of someone who could possibly be struggling through an eating disorder, it’s imperative that you learn the signs. Always remember this: if you see something, say something. Even if the person you’re concerned for is in denial or becomes combative, always try to help them acknowledge the problem they are facing. The first step towards conquering an eating disorder is to recognize that there’s a problem. No matter what, there’s always hope.
As always, good luck!
- By Bunmi Omisore