Trigger Warning: If frank discussion of eating disorders and disordered eating may be triggering to you, this would be a good time to move along. Your well-being is way too important to ignore.
Let’s start with a fact that may startle some of you: you cannot tell if someone has an eating disorder based purely on how much they weigh.
That’s right, there’s more to it than that.
While the majority of people with anorexia or bulimia will lose weight and the majority of people with binge eating disorder will gain weight, the amount of weight gained or lost will vary wildly from person to person. There will also be some people whose weight doesn’t change dramatically at all.
And while a sudden, dramatic weight gain or loss is a significant potential sign of an eating disorder, it can also be a significant potential sign of many other health issues that have nothing to do with a change in eating patterns. A sudden weight loss can be a sign of some forms of cancer, a sudden weight gain could stem from a tumor. A person with an eating disorder may or may not change weights dramatically.
Oh, and if you see someone you don’t know walking down the street simply being very fat or very thin, you don’t know what their weight was last year or last week, so you don’t know if there has been a change. You do not know their genetic background, habits, or medical history. Therefore you do not know whether or not they have an eating disorder. Don’t make assumptions. Don’t yell ‘eat a sandwich’ at thin people. Don’t yell ‘put down the donuts’ to a fat person. Aside from the fact that you are probably wrong about that eating disorder, it’s not helpful and it is incredibly rude.
So, if you can’t tell just from looking at waistlines whether or not someone has an eating disorder, what are the danger signs you should be looking for?
As I said, it’s definitely not the only sign or an infallible one, but yes, a sudden, unexplained, significant weight change is one possible sign. If you see that, do keep an eye open. It’s a sign not just of an eating disorder, but of quite a few other health issues. Don’t ignore it, but don’t be confrontational. Be on the lookout for other signals as to what exactly is going on.
Some important signals of anorexia include:
Preferring to eat in private
Hiding food so as to avoid eating it
Odd food rituals such as cutting food into very tiny pieces or chewing food, then spitting it out rather than swallowing
Continual dieting and obsession with weight to the exclusion of other subjects
Brittle hair and nails
A fondness for making elaborate treats and meals for loved ones, which the cook does not join in eating.
Some important signs of bulimia include:
Frequent trips to the bathroom immediately after eating
Reddened fingers and swollen cheeks from inducing vomiting
Depression or mood swings
Frequent use of laxatives and diuretics
Frequent sore throats
Hiding food to eat in private
Obsession with weight
Frequent heartburn or bloating
Some important signs of binge eating disorder include:
Constant dieting using popular plans
Shortness of breath
Holding onto the Fantasy of Being Thin
Blaming all problems on being fat
Thinking of food as their only friend
Mood swings, depression
Another – and somewhat surprising to me – sign of an eating disorder is reading large amounts of material on the subject. If someone you know develops a sudden, intense interest in the subject of a particular eating disorder, you may want to watch for other signs.
Note that some signals of an eating disorder (obsession with weight and calorie-counting, fear of being ‘caught’ eating, constant exercise) are popularly touted as healthy behaviors by our society, making it that much more difficult to know when someone has tipped over the edge into an actual eating disorder. If someone you love is at risk for an eating disorder, keep an eye open… but know that you can’t fix it on your own if it happens. We’ll talk a little about what to do next week.