How Do I Know If Someone Has an Eating Disorder?

Have you ever looked across the room at someone you care about and felt a pang of concern, wondering if they might be struggling with food? It’s not always easy to discern whether these concerns are fleeting moments or indicative of something deeper. Eating disorders can be discreet, often concealed behind closed doors or masked with a smile, with many of those affected going to great lengths to hide their struggles.

If you’ve been worried about someone at work, in your family, among your friends, or even about yourself, understanding the signs is paramount. The earlier people receive support, the better. This guide will offer insights into what to look out for and how to take those crucial next steps towards seeking help and intervention.

  1. Behavioural Signs:
  • Dietary rigidity: are they following extreme diet rules, avoiding certain food groups, or showing distress when unable to stick to a strict food rules
  • Obsession with food and body image: are they constantly talking about weight, calories, fat content, and dieting
  • Secretive behaviour: Are you finding hidden stashes of food or noticing that someone disappears to the bathroom soon after eating
  • Avoiding meals: Are they skipping meals, claiming they’ve already eaten, or creating excuses to avoid group dining situations
  • Tired and exhausted: Are they often tired or struggling to concentrate
  • Extreme exercising: Are they exercising excessively or showing a lot of distress when they can’t exercise
  1. Emotional and Psychological Signs:
  • Distorted body image: Do they have distorted beliefs about their body size
  • Extreme mood swings: Do they experience severe mood fluctuations
  • Fear of gaining weight: do they have an irrational fear of weight gain
  • Social withdrawal: Are they isolating themselves, feeling ashamed or overwhelmed, or fearful of not being able to keep to their food rule
  1. Impact on Daily Life:
  • Intense preoccupation with food: are they spending hours planning meals, reading about dieting, or thinking about food constantly
  • Interference with regular activities: Are they avoiding social functions, skipping school or work, or foregoing activities they once enjoyed

Not everyone will show all these signs, and some may display symptoms not listed here. Eating disorders come in various forms, and they may not fit neatly into a particular category.

What Can I Do?

Remember eating disorders are serious mental illnesses and are not anyone’s fault. Often people with eating disorders deny or don’t realise there’s a problem, but that doesn’t mean they’re not ill.

If you recognise these signs in someone:

  • Approach them with compassion and kindness
  • Inform yourself about eating disorders and think about what you want to say in advance
  • Remember to express your concerns without judgement or blame
  • Explain why you are concerned without listing too many reasons as this may feel judged. Don’t focus on food and weight, wherever possible
  • Don’t react if they get angry or defensive. Just reassure them that you care about them
  • Encourage professional help and offer to help them in finding resources, if appropriate
  • Don’t be discouraged if they don’t want your support. Try again in a few weeks

Remember that listening, just being there, and showing that you care can be invaluable. Helping someone begin their journey to recovery and healing starts with awareness and understanding.

Here are some other resources: How Do I Know If Someone Has an Eating Disorder?

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