Manolo for the Big Girl Fashion, Lifestyle, and Humor for the Plus Sized Woman.

February 20, 2011

How Do I Recognize That Someone Has an Eating Disorder?

Filed under: Food,Health — Twistie @ 1:30 pm

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

Compulsive exercise

Continual dieting and obsession with weight to the exclusion of other subjects


Social withdrawl

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

Extreme exercise

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

Tooth decay

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.


  1. Ok. I’ll jump in.

    what this does is remind me exquisitely of a really, really annoying coworker I had about 10 years ago. I’m actually starting to have some sympathy for her after reading your posting. Her comments to me, many about my eating, were often really nasty. I wasn’t even overweight at the time, but I was pregnant and yes, I ate a lot! I am slowly seeing that this was probably a great deal more about her than me. (she was nasty to me in general, not just about my eating.) My solution was to try to never, never interact with her. (Kind of difficult, but I just never initiated conversation and tried to duck out of groups with her as quickly as possible.) Fortunately, I’ve never had issues about my eating. Unhappiness/happiness for me tends not to be related to my weight.

    she also did that kind of thing of preparing food for people at work that she “couldn’t eat”.

    I’m also the mother of two teenage daughters, so I was particularly curious to read this list. They both have pretty healthy attitudes about their bodies, but one has struggled with depression, so I’m always on the lookout for signs of self-destructiveness…

    Thanks, Twistie for a thought-provoking posting.

    Comment by larkspur — February 21, 2011 @ 6:55 pm

  2. And the hefty girl weighs in…

    So guitly. Way down deep in my frosty little heart I know that all those scrawny girls don’t have eating disorders. I know some of them do, just like some hefty girls. I know that the dear sweet lord above made teeny, tiny, tea cup Pomeranians and earth shuddering, shambling Roman Mastiffs. But every now and then – really, it’s as rare as a rain storm in the Gobi – I will think to myself that some sweet little plucked chicken needs to be force fed a peanut butter sandwich.

    So yes, I’m as guilty as the person who looks at me and thinks, “Hmmm she should walk away from that fried chicken.” I guess all my heft does not include a blameless heart.

    Comment by mel — February 21, 2011 @ 8:04 pm

  3. I had a friend in grad school who cured me of the urge to ever comment on anyone’s food. She was recovering from a mild eating disorder, and she had a VERY strong defensive-of-self personality. She would berate anyone who ever commented on someone else’s food in front of her, saying it can trigger eating disorders and encourage generally unhealthy thoughts.

    Listening to her tirade got annoying after you had heard it a few times, but…it did change my behavior. Now, the only comments I make about food others are eating are of the “Mmmm, that looks yummy!” variety.

    Comment by jen209 — February 22, 2011 @ 12:10 pm

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