By On September 19th, 2014

6 Warning Signs of Eating Disorders You Might Not Know


Everything seems to think they could spot an eating disorder when they see one. But, with up to 24 million people struggling with eating disorders across the U.S. and only 1 in 10 receiving treatment, it seems these disorders aren’t as easy to spot on sight as you might think.

Some signs of eating disorders are distinctive and obvious. When a friend has a sudden dramatic change in weight, refusal to eat, or noticeably long disappearances to the bathroom, anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating could be responsible. The problem is, these types of symptoms only tend to appear once eating disorders have fully manifested while there are plenty of other more subtle signs that can allow for earlier intervention.

So how do you know if a friend or family member may be struggling with an eating disorder? There is no easy way, especially as each disorder has its own unique signs and all eating disorders present themselves differently. Nonetheless, these lesser-known warning signs may help more people with eating disorders get the help they need.

Poor Body Image

One of the most consistent issues that facilitates the formation of eating disorders is poor or obsessive thoughts about body size, and these thought patters are present at the very earliest stages of the disease. Some warning signs may be negative speech about one’s self such as individuals calling themselves fat or lamenting lack of self-control. However, these types of thoughts can also be noticed by how individuals compare themselves to idealized figures – the easiest example being how young girls compare themselves against toys like Barbies.


Working out is normally healthy, obviously, though it is quite possible to overdo it. Excessive work-out-habits are often tied to eating disorders, but defining exactly where the line is can be difficult when looking at young athletes or highly active individuals. Health.com suggests looking for two red flags when concerned with over exercising: Does the person panic if they miss a day of exercise? And do they work out even when they feel injured or sick? If either of those are true, the exercise may be more than just an attempt to stay healthy.

Fear of Public Eating

When a friend or family member shows clear issues with eating in public it can mean one of a few things. It may be related to existing body image issues, where the person might feel as if they are being watched or judged, or if could be an indicator that eating has in itself become a nerve-wracking experience. “Eating can be enormously anxiety-provoking for someone with an eating disorder,” Cynthia Bulik, PhD, says. “Doing it in public just compounds the enormity of the task.” Though typically associated with anorexia, this issue can exist with all eating disorders.

Fine Body Hair

When bodies are deprived of nutrition for too long, they develop fine, soft hair on much of the body such as arms. The hair is called lanugo, and is a physical adaptation to dangerously low weight and loss of body fat. “It is a symptom of starvation and [an] attempt by the body to keep itself warm,” says Bulik, the author of The Woman in the Mirror: How to Stop Confusing What You Look Like with Who You Are.

Dry Skin

Eating disorders can also lead to dry or blotchy skin as a result of dehydration. Regular purging or use of laxatives causes dangerous dehydration which can effect more than just the skin. People with eating disorders also experience dry mouth, sunken cheeks and eyes, and severe electrolyte imbalances from dehydration. The big sign to look out for, especially in cases of bulimia, is the presence of calluses on knuckles. Called Russell’s sign after the first psychiatrist to notice it, the lesions are cause by the repeated scraping of the back of the hand against teeth when inducing vomiting.

Feeling Cold

Another result of poor nutrition and low body fat is the constant sensation of being cold. Mostly associated with anorexia, constant complaints about being cold or wearing heavy clothing in moderate or warm weather could be a give away that someone may have an eating disorder. Without body fat to store energy and protect from cold, it is difficult to maintain proper body temperature and some even develop hypothermia.

One Response

  1. Veronique H says:

    Thanks for writing about this, Griffin. There are so many things about eating disorders people don’t understand. It’s great to see awareness being brought to this issue. Family and friends should also be on the look out for these signs. Sometimes an eating disorder might go unnoticed until it has become very severe.

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