Eating disorder symptoms: what to look out for and when to ask for help?

It’s important to recognise that there is no “one way” to have an eating disorder. They come in all shapes and sizes, and anyone can struggle with one at any point in their life.

They are not a choice, nor a “diet gone wrong”. In fact, for many there is no simple explanation for why they would develop an eating disorder. Because of this, it can be hard to identify that there is a problem until it is very much out of our control.

When it comes to symptoms, whilst there’s no “one way” to have an eating disorder, but there are shared characteristics or symptoms to look out for that can help diagnose the illness and begin a journey toward receiving specialist support.

Shared symptoms and characteristics of eating disorders

Preoccupation with food

You may be extremely concerned about the caloric or nutritional content of food. You might be planning food ahead of time, calculating calories or macronutrients in a very controlled way. It may be that you’ve cut certain food groups out of your diet, or that you follow a very restrictive diet that prevents you from fully nourishing or enjoying food.

Isolating Yourself

It might feel harder and harder to be around people, especially for social meals and celebrations. You might find that you want to keep people at arms length, especially those that have shown concern for you. You might be spending much more time alone in your bedroom and communicating less with your loved ones.

Anxiety at meals

You might be finding mealtimes extremely anxiety provoking, especially shared meals with family or friends. You may be finding it hard to eat, particularly in front of people and when the meal has been prepared and cooked by someone else.

Preoccupation with body image

You may have developed a very negative body image. Perhaps you take photographs or “progress” pictures, or constantly check yourself in the mirror. There might be certain parts of your body that you’re preoccupied (or obsessed) with. The negative body image may be so powerful that it’s overwhelming and you may struggle to go outside and be seen by others.

Desire for thinness or pursuit of weight loss

Similar to above, you may be engaging in a very restrictive diet or one that cuts out important food groups. Perhaps you weigh yourself on a regular basis and the number on the scale determines what your day is going to be like. You may compensate for any food eaten, engaging in vigorous exercise or other “purging” activities.

Self-critical, low self-esteem

You might be incredibly self-critical, seeing yourself through a lens of worthlessness. You might find it hard to value yourself in relationships and perhaps see yourself as lesser than others. This perspective may be dictating how you live your life, attend school and make important choices about your future.

Associated mental health problems, such as anxiety or depression

Eating disorders are not about food, often there are much more complex, underlying emotional causes underneath that are prompting someone to look outside of themselves as a means of coping. These may include anxiety, depression, OCD or personality disorders.

When to ask for help

It is vitally important to reach out for help as soon as you feel that something isn’t right.

Perhaps you’ve noticed certain behaviours or compulsions creeping in over the past few weeks (or months or even years), and it might feel like you’re losing yourself in the midst of those experiences. It may be getting harder and harder to feel like yourself, and friends and family might be very concerned.

Eating disorders develop as a coping mechanism to help us to feel safe and in control when otherwise we’d feel out of control and unsafe. As such, it can be incredibly daunting to think about letting go of something that technically “helps” us in the short term.

What’s more, unhelpful myths and misconceptions about eating disorders can prevent individuals from reaching out for help for fear that they do not “fit” a certain diagnostic criteria.

But know there is no shame in admitting you need support. There are people who understand and who want to help you. Take a deep breath and trust that it is the right thing to do.

Many people mistakenly associate “weakness” with vulnerability, when in fact, vulnerability is a huge strength. To quote Brene Brown, a research professor and author studying courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy:

“Vulnerability is not winning or losing; it’s having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome. Vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our greatest measure of courage.”

And another one for good measure:

“Loving ourselves through the process of owning our story is the bravest thing we’ll ever do.”

Recovery may seem like a long and difficult road, but you won’t be alone. You can get support from your GP, family and friends, and there are lots of resources, tips and inspirational stories on Beat www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk or Orri https://www.orri-uk.com to support you on your own path to recovery.


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