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Do you know someone with an eating disorder?

Published in Behavioral Health Services, Weight Management, For the Health of It Author: Amber Vick,MD

Chances are, you already know someone with an eating disorder, whether you realize it or not. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that nearly 1 in 10 Americans will experience an eating disorder in their lifetime. That’s an alarming statistic. So, how do you recognize the signs of an eating disorder, and what can you do to help?

The first thing people need to realize is that there are several different types of eating disorders, and they affect men and women of all ages. The three most common are Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, and Binge Eating Disorder.

Anorexia nervosa is characterized by a severe restriction in food intake. People who suffer from this disorder have a distorted body image which is often tied to emotional trauma, depression, or anxiety. It has the highest mortality rate of any mental disorder, with most victims dying from complications due to starvation or suicide.

Warning signs of anorexia:

  • Severe weight loss
  • Extremely restricted eating
  • A relentless pursuit of thinness
  • An intense fear of gaining weight
  • Unusual eating habits, like sorting food on the plate or cutting it into tiny pieces
  • Hiding their body with baggy clothes
  • Avoiding situations that could involve eating in front of others
  • Extreme exercising

Bulimia nervosa is characterized by binge eating, followed by “inappropriate compensatory behaviors.” In the past, most people have assumed that bulimia is always associated with purging (i.e., vomiting), but there are actually two types of bulimia – purging and non-purging.

People who suffer from purging bulimia regularly induce vomiting after binge eating, but may also misuse diuretics, laxatives or enemas in order to eliminate the calories they’ve just eaten.

With non-purging bulimia, the motivation is the same, but instead, people tend to fast or over-exercise to prevent weight gain.

Warning signs of bulimia:

  • Weight that increases and decreases significantly during a short period of time (e.g. 5 to 20 pounds in a week)
  • Chapped or cracked lips due to dehydration
  • Bloodshot eyes, or eyes with broken blood vessels
  • Eating to the point of discomfort
  • Going to the bathroom immediately after eating
  • Not wanting to eat in front of others

Binge eating disorder is harder to hide than anorexia or bulimia since people who suffer from this disorder are often overweight or obese. Similar to bulimia, this eating disorder is characterized by uncontrolled eating, but is not followed by purging, fasting, or over-exercise. It is the most common eating disorder in the U.S.

Warning signs of binge-eating disorder:

  • Lack of control when eating
  • Feeling shame or disgust after binging
  • Wanting to consume food in private
  • Dieting frequently with minimal results

If you’re concerned that someone you know may be suffering from an eating disorder, the most important thing to remember is that minimizing the seriousness of the situation by saying something like, “Just stop it” or “Just eat” is not helpful. Instead, learn as much as you can about eating disorders by talking to your doctor or health care provider and get his or her advice on how to broach the subject. Use “I” statements instead of “you” statements (i.e. “I’m worried about you” versus “You’re too skinny!”) and be prepared for a negative reaction. It may take time for your loved one to recognize they have a problem, but it’s important not to give up.

For more information on how to talk to a loved one about eating concerns, visit the website of the National Eating Disorders Association at