Signs of an eating disorder
Someone with an eating disorder may:
- become excessively busy on purpose to avoid food, hunger and meals
- throw large amounts of food away or never fully finish a meal
- hoard or secretly hide uneaten food in bags, pockets, or under beds
- enjoy watching others eat and encourage them to do so
- cook elaborate meals but not take a mouthful themselves
- take a sudden interest in cooking and food preparation and hover around the kitchen while another family member prepares a meal
- show a great interest in ingredients or in how a dish is cooked: steaming or boiling giving them reassurance, roasted or fried prompting trepidation
- ‘read’ packets and count and note calories; study recipe books and food magazines laboriously, and watch cookery television programmes
- come up with never ending excuse for not eating – ‘I ate earlier’ or ‘don’t worry I’ll have something later’
- may adopt dangerous and altered food habits – pile their plate high with vegetables, almost to the exclusion of protein and carbohydrates, and have a fear of fatty and indulgent foods – no cheese, butter, salad dressings or mayonnaise, and certainly no chocolate, biscuits or cake
- constantly chew gum or consume vast amounts of diet fizzy drinks or black coffee to distract themselves from feeling hungry
- adopt food fads – a liking of foods with strong flavours, for example – mustard, chilli, tomato ketchup, Tabasco, marmite, vinegar
- add copious amounts to a meal to mask its taste if forced to eat, or deliberately spoil their food by overcooking or adding too much salt
Relationships, mood and behaviour
People with eating disorders have low self-esteem. They constantly doubt themselves and at any opportunity put themselves down. They are highly self critical and always dissatisfied with their achievements.
This dissatisfaction runs beyond body size and weight, shape and figure. They find it difficult to cope with themselves both physically – despising their appearance, the way they dress and look – and as a person. ‘I’m rubbish’, ‘I’m stupid’, ‘I’m such a bitch’, ‘I’m lazy’, ‘I’m such a freak’, ‘I’m useless at that,’ are common thoughts.
About the home
An individual may seem distant and disinterested in others – food, meals, exercise and weight are their only interests. They may be difficult to live with – experiencing low mood, anxiety, or frequent, unpredictable fluctuations in temperament. Alternatively they may be numb – emotionless – rarely showing anger, joy, sadness, pleasure, anxiety or pain. They may be restless, continually on the go, unable to sit still and insist on rising early.
An eating disorder takes precedence over everything and everyone. It is an individual’s one and only priority, a full time occupation. People with eating disorders forget hobbies, cut off their friends and social ties. They prefer isolation.
Changes in interests
Important signs at home include:
Excuses are made for not eating, sinks and toilets blocked with vomit; large quantities of food going missing from cupboards; empty food packets; the smell of vomit in bathrooms; someone continually disappearing after meals and making excuses – ‘I’m just going upstairs for something,’ ‘I’m just going to the toilet.’
Some people enjoy cleanliness and neatness, spending hours hoovering, wiping and dusting, or going to great lengths to ensure tidiness. They may become distressed or agitated if someone else interferes, of if objects are not left ‘just so.’
Their personal hygiene may be of great importance: they may incessantly wash their hands or shower several times a day, particularly after meals.
An individual will reorganise their life around weight control – spend hours in the supermarket shopping for food, and then carefully prepare it. After eating, they will compensate or purge by fasting, exercising or taking laxatives.
Often, someone previously uncommitted to sport develops a strict, regular and fierce exercise routine. Solitary exercise is preferred – running or gym sessions as opposed to team sports. They may choose to walk everywhere, even inconceivable distances, and in all weathers, sometimes at night. They will experience extreme panic, fear and distress when the schedule is broken or if their calorie count for the day is altered.
Above all, watch for overt, sometimes rapid weight loss in someone who has anorexia. Often some of the signs will have been present for a considerable period of time. Weight loss could be considered as the final sign, proof that previous suspicions were correct.
The weight of people with bulimia remains unchanged, allowing them to hide their bulimia for years. But they will have swollen glands, a puffy face, hamster cheeks, tooth decay and dry pale skin. These are subtle signs.