A friend has been voicing concerns about her weight, eating less and spending a lot more time at the gym. Are they trying to get healthier, or is something more sinister at play?
Eating disorders, including anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorders, are complicated mental illnesses that affect a person’s emotional and physical health. They can occur in women and men at any age and, if left untreated, can have life-threatening consequences.
To help prevent or diagnose an eating disorder early, you need to understand warning signs. Does your loved one:
▪ Have increased weight concerns? Are they preoccupied with weight, dieting, counting calories and reading food labels? Are they eating less, avoiding high-calorie or high-fat foods, asking questions about food preparation or eliminating certain food groups?
Hint: Sometimes becoming vegetarian or avoiding dairy or carbohydrates can be an eating disorder in disguise.
▪ Obsess with food-related activities, such as watching food TV shows or reading food magazines or recipes? Do they take excessive time preparing meals, but never eat the food?
▪ Have mood changes, or are they withdrawn? Are they showing signs of depression, increased sadness or hopelessness?
Hint: If a loved one starts avoiding social activities around food, such as birthday parties or dinners, they might be suffering from an eating disorder.
▪ Have bodily changes, such as increased sensitivity to cold, hair loss, brittle nails and changes in skin?
Hint: Look for scars or calluses on hands and knuckles or bloodshot eyes, as this could be from self-induced vomiting.
▪ Display behavioral changes, including unusual food rituals, such as eating foods in a certain order or not letting food touch on the plate? Do they refuse to eat in front of others? Are they becoming rigid around meal times or using the bathroom right after meals?
Hint: If your loved one starts wearing loose or bulky clothing to hide body shape and weight, it could be an eating disorder.
▪ Exercise excessively, becoming upset over missed workouts, spending long hours at the gym despite an illness or injury or prioritizing exercises over other activities?
If you notice any of these signs in a loved one, it doesn’t mean they have an eating disorder, but it warrants concern. If you suspect they have an eating disorder, seek medical help. Recovery will take time, patience and support, but with the appropriate treatment, recovery from an eating disorder is possible. If you need medical assistance for an eating disorder, call (305) 243-2301
Ingrid Barrera, PsyD, is a clinical psychologist specializing in eating disorders at the University of Miami Health System. To learn more, visit umiamihospital.com/specialties/psychiatry.