Eating disorders are a cluster of life-threatening mental illnesses that affect millions of women and men. 20 million American women and 10 million American men will struggle with a diagnosable eating disorder within their lifetime (Wade, Keski-Rahkonen, & Hudson, 2011). These disorders include Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, Binge Eating Disorder, and Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder (OSFED). In a country where obsession with diet and exercise trends is pervasive, it can be difficult to understand what is normal amount of attention paid to health and appearance, and what is more cause for concern. Below are five signs that you or someone you love could be struggling with not-so-normal diet and exercise behaviors.
- Discussion and plans seem to only center around diet, exercise and appearance
We live in a society that is obsessed with diet trends, food fads, and the latest fitness craze. Terms like “gluten-free”, “paleo” and “cleanse” have become the building blocks of so many of our casual conversations. For this reason, it can be difficult to assess what is abnormal obsessive food and exercise behavior in a food-and-exercise obsessed culture. A good rule of thumb is to examine how behaviors related to food, diet and exercise directly impact a person’s quality of life and overall functionality. Does a paleo diet mean that an individual can never socialize because they fear being faced with non-paleo foods? Are plans routinely cancelled in lieu of the gym? Does the conversation never seem to shift from appearance or a desire to change appearance? Inflexible behaviors, thoughts and conversations may indicate that there is a problem beyond an innocent diet or health routine.
- Certain food groups are suddenly cut
A well-rounded diet and routine physical exercise are pillars to good health, and many professionals will tell you that any type of food and exercise can be healthy in moderation. It can become worrisome when an individual begins to cut out entire food groups that they once enjoyed. For instance, suddenly cutting out bread and pasta, when the individual has historically enjoyed these foods. Conversely, it can be cause for concern if the individual begins consuming an increased amount of a certain food that they may have been indifferent to in the past.
- There is a shift in mood, energy level & social behaviors
Eating disorders are physically and mentally exhausting. Not only is the body typically depleted of nutrition that provides basic energy, but the mind is usually fixated on perpetuating eating disorder behaviors. An individual struggling with ED behaviors may be constantly thinking about the next time that they are faced with food, how they will handle a situation involving food, how they will compensate for food intake, their appearance or how they are being perceived by others. This constant internal monologue surrounding food, behaviors and appearance is referred to as “the Eating Disorder Voice”, and for many struggling with an eating disorder, corresponding with the ED voice can be a full-time job. Imagine communicating with a nagging boss 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. You would likely feel exhausted, irritated and drained by your boss by the end of one business day. The same goes for people entrenched in eating disorder thoughts, with the thoughts acting as an internal, nagging boss. Often, an individual may describe the “ED voice” as a close friend, because they spend so much time internally responding to the voice while externally withdrawing from their peers and environment. For this reason, they are often drained of their energy and capacity to engage in other activities, which can lead to social isolation, depressed mood, irritability and increased anxiety.
- More frequent and longer trips to the bathroom are taken
Many eating disorders involve engaging in “compensatory behaviors”, or actions that are used to counteract calorie consumption. Some of these compensatory behaviors include engaging in excessive exercise, self-induced vomiting, and taking laxatives, diuretics or diet pills. For many individuals who struggle with compensatory behaviors, the impulse to compensate after eating can become automatic, and time spent in the bathroom can become excessive as these behaviors increase. Another reason for excessive bathroom time could stem from what is called “body checking”. This is when an individual physically examines the body for perceived flaws or changes. If an individual is spending more time comparing or examining their body, they are likely spending more time in front of a bathroom mirror.
- Appearance seems to change or fluctuate
It is extremely important to remember that eating disorders do not discriminate. They affect women and men of all ages, races, religions, sexual preferences, socioeconomic backgrounds, body types, etc. For this reason, you cannot rule out that someone is struggling with an eating disorder just because they appear to look average or healthy. With that in mind, it is also important to be aware of shifts in a person’s general appearance. Perhaps they have gained or lost a significant amount of weight in a short period of time, their weight seems to fluctuate often, their skin appears sallow or discolored, their hair appears to be thinner, their face is puffy or swollen, etc. Shifts in the way a person is dressing may be another indicator that someone is struggling with ED behaviors. For instance, they may begin to wear an unusual amount of layers or baggy clothing to hide shifts in their weight or to divert attention from their body.
Eating disorders are treatable and preventable, and early intervention is key to successfully helping a struggling individual. With increased insight and awareness around problematic behavior, you can help someone you love get the support that they may need to overcome a devastating disease.
Read more about OPG’s work with people suffering from Eating Disorders.
Wade, T.D., Keski-Rahkonen, A., & Hudson, J. (2011). Epidemiology of eating disorders. In M. Tsuang and M. Tohen (Eds.), Textbook in Psychiatry Epidemiology (3rd ed.) (pp. 343-360). New York L Wiley