Advice & Features Articles

What Are the Warning Signs of an Eating Disorder?

Warning signs are not always obvious. Like a relationship that looks healthy on the outside, the truth can be hidden behind closed doors.

Look for:

Evidence of dieting or possibly appropriate weight loss that eventually goes “too far”

Excessive exercise or inflexibility in exercise patterns

Sudden interest in being vegetarian or increasingly picky or rigid eating behaviors

Frequent trips to the bathroom during or right after eating

Taking multiple showers per day (especially after meals)

Skipping meals, eating alone or hiding in bedroom to eat

Unusual increase in frequency of “stomach flu” symptoms

Irregular periods or loss of menstrual cycles in girls

Interest in websites about anorexia, bulimia, or weight loss

Pointers for Parents

Why body image matters. Negative perceptions of body shape or size can lead to harmful behaviors and negative consequences for mental health.  A positive body image frees us to take good care of ourselves and turn our attention to more productive activities in our daily lives.

Love your child?  Love yourself.  When was the last time you got dressed up, wanting to look nice, and said (loudly enough for your children to hear you), “I look great!”  Our ability to accept ourselves honestly and to tolerate imperfection leads to the ability to resist the shame that underlies most disordered eating behaviors.

Make active family outings a priority.  Limit “tushie” time leisure activities like TV or video games to 1-2 hours a day, and prioritize active family activities like talking the dog for a walk or playing a game in the park.

Teach your family to use the “Hunger Scale.”  If “0” is so starving you could eat your own shirt and “10” is so full you’ll be sick, learn to eat anywhere between a “3” (comfortably hungry) and “7” (comfortably full).

Make healthy snacking easy and encourage healthy food options outside the home.   Keep baggies of cut veggies at eye level in fridge, a bowl of fruit on the kitchen table, etc.  Don’t use food as a “prize.”

Teach treat moderation.  Allow “junk food” in the home in reasonable amounts.  If sweets become “forbidden fruit,” it’s harder to eat them in moderation in other settings.

Never joke with a child about his or her body size—or anyone else’s.  Even a positive comment can be misconstrued, and hearing adults comment on someone else’s body may cause a child to worry that she or he has the same problem.

Provide praise or positive comments that focus on strength of character and not on body shape or size.  Refuse to tolerate “fat talk” about anyone.

Teach media literacy.  Help children understand how the media uses unrealistically thin models to sell products.  Explain that almost every image they see in magazines and movies has been computer-altered to remove natural “flaws” or  “defects.”

What do you do if you are worried about someone you love?

First, educate yourself. Refer to the educational resources provided  to learn what separates healthy eating from going too far and occasional over eating from a binge eating disorder.  Then, identify resources of support for yourself and your loved one in advance of saying something to them.  Finally, in a loving and non-confrontational manner, find a private time to let that person know you are worried about them and have some ideas about what you might be able to do to help if they are willing.  Then make arrangements to support them getting to support professionals who can help evaluate and make appropriate recommendations for next steps.


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