By Nikki, 16 years old
Hi! So since you’re here, you probably have a suspicion that you (or a friend) is struggling with disordered eating.
It can be hard to know if you have an eating disorder. You wouldn’t think it would be, but it’s easy to be in denial or to just have no idea whatsoever that what you’re doing is unhealthy. Alternatively, people often realize that their habits are not normal but don’t realize that they’re so unhealthy that they could be considered “disordered.” Sometimes friends can help you out, but it’s very difficult to recognize early signs of disordered eating if you don’t know exactly what to look for (especially if it hasn’t developed into an actual eating disorder with obvious effects such as dramatic weight loss), so even the most caring friends and family might not realize what’s going on. That being said, if you already suspect a friend may be struggling with disordered eating, I encourage you to keep reading as well.
First, though, I’m going to talk about the 3 main types of eating disorders. Disordered eating can affect anyone, regardless of gender, age, race, socioeconomic status, etc. Your habits may fall perfectly into one of these types or, more likely, will fit some but not all of the “requirements” for one or more of the types, which does not necessarily mean that you do not struggle with disordered eating. In fact, many people who have disordered eating habits but do not fit all the criteria for a diagnosis for one of these 3 types will be diagnosed with EDNOS, or Eating Disorders Not Otherwise Specified. If you think you have an eating disorder, it’s important to seek treatment, and having a diagnosis makes this a lot easier (I’ll talk more about this at the end).
- Anorexia Nervosa
The first main type of eating disorder is Anorexia Nervosa, which is characterized by a very low BMI that is usually the result of extreme restricting of calories and/or over exercising (even if sick/injured).
- Bulimia Nervosa
People with Bulimia Nervosa can eat normal amounts of food, binge, or eat very little, but the illness is characterized by regularly purging food. Usually the purging is done by induced vomiting, but laxatives are a common alternative. Similarly, some people with Bulimia Nervosa will punish themselves instead, typically via self-harm. Because of the varying amounts of food consumed, the BMIs of people with Bulimia can vary.
- Binge Eating Disorder (BED)
Binge Eating Disorder is characterized by the regular consumption of very large amounts of food (sometimes when not hungry) in a short period of time until uncomfortably full, usually leading to feelings of guilt afterwards. Often times people with BED will express feeling out of control while bingeing and a desire to stop but being unable to do so.
Please keep in mind that this is not the end-all-be-all of lists; I compiled this based on my own experience, my friends’ experiences and some research I’ve done on the topic. So, feel free to add more ideas in the comments!
Things to Watch Out For If You Think You Have an Eating Disorder:
- You frequently visit a website (or several) that promote weight loss
There’s a lot of places for someone with disordered eating habits to get support online. Forums, social media accounts, and even message boards on fitness apps like MyFitnessPal can foster an unhealthy mentality. This gets a little tricky because often times social media accounts that seem to promote fitness and healthy living can actually end up encouraging unhealthy habits and insecurities.
What to watch out for:
- “Thinspo,” or photos of people’s bodies that are considered to be goals.
- Tips on controlling hunger and cutting calories, etc.
- Open discussion about (current) eating disorders, especially if people are sharing tips and tricks (this is mostly found on forums specifically meant for those with eating disorders where, for example, someone might post about how to hide their binge eating from their family).This is different from a support forum, in which people are mostly discussing recovery.
- Others shaming you for not meeting a certain body ideal/ encouraging you to work to get to that ideal
- Challenges, comparisons, and accountability threads
- Talk about goal weights, “fear” foods, etc. (eating disorder slang)
- People asking others to support their unhealthy eating behaviors
- Not wanting to eat in public
Feeling a sense of shame while eating is common in people with eating disorders, and this shame often intensifies when eating in public.This is hard to catch in someone else though, because it’s surprisingly easy to fake being normal.
- Binges usually only happen at night in private because of the sense of shame associated with them, but they may eat normal amounts around others.
- People who purge may also eat normal amounts around others, but often purge after meals, which may become a routine behavior that can be recognized.
- People who are restricting heavily may order a slightly light meal (like a salad), but will often eat normally around friends and family, so they don’t catch on. However, this “normal” meal may be followed by heavy restricting for the rest of the day and/or extreme exercise.
What to watch out for: Not wanting to eat in front of others, not eating much at restaurants but taking home your food for later (even if you were hungry while at the restaurant), feeling the need to make comments “justifying” the amount you’re eating (“I’m rewarding myself!” “I’m being so bad today!”), basing your eating off of others’ eating (i.e. trying to eat the least out of everyone).
- Feeling guilty after eating
This is similar to not wanting to eat in social situations, except it extends to when you’re in private. And yes, contrary to popular belief, people with B.E.D. tend to feel guilty after eating as well.Again, this is difficult to catch in a friend.
What to watch out for: Literally just that. Regularly feeling guilty after eating, regardless of the amount.
- Avoiding social situations specifically to avoid eating more than usual/eating in front of people
This kind of goes hand in hand with not wanting to eat in front of people.Alternatively, if you find yourself avoiding social situations because you don’t want to eat certain foods (because of their calorie content), that could be a sign of disordered eating.
Another scenario would be if you find yourself avoiding social situations so you can binge alone in private instead. Again, this is difficult to see in a friend unless they explicitly say that.
What to watch out for: Avoiding social situations for food related reasons, lying to yourself and others about having eaten/not being hungry
- Eating/ food related “rituals”
People with disordered eating habits often will have rituals they must do before/after eating. For example, some people will force themselves to drink a certain amount of water before eating anything or chew everything a certain number of times.These rituals can extend to things that are food-related but not necessarily eating. For example, some people must weigh themselves at a certain time of day every day/week/whatever in a certain way (i.e. wearing a certain t shirt, pajamas, or nothing at all).
Similarly, if you find yourself avoiding certain “fear” foods, that could be another sign of disordered eating habits.
What to watch out for: Feeling the need to go out of your way to do certain things relating to eating or getting upset if you can’t do these things.
- Using food as a punishment or a reward that you must earn
Thinking of food as a reward you must deserve or as a punishment for “bad” (usually food-related) behavior could be a sign of disordered eating.This is tricky to see in a friend, but if they’re constantly justifying their food choices, this might be part of what’s going on.
What to watch out for: Talking/thinking about food as a reward (“I earned this!”) or a something bad (“I really shouldn’t be eating this”) or as a punishment (“Since I just had to have that cake, I’m gonna force myself to finish it like the fat pig I am”).
- Punishing yourself for eating too much food
Throwing up, abusing laxatives, and other forms of purging due to eating more than an allotted amount can signal disordered eating.Punishments such as over-exercise or self-harm fall into this category as well.
What to watch out for: Consistently going to the bathroom shortly after eating, calluses on knuckles and/or swollen cheeks (from induced vomiting), large consumption of laxatives (or evidence of it, like if you find lots of empty laxative containers in your friend’s room), scars from self-injury (does not always mean an eating disorder, but definitely something to be concerned about nonetheless), comments/thoughts about food as a bad thing (“I’m such a pig, I can’t believe I ate all of this”).
- Dramatic weight loss or gain
Not always the best judging criteria because lots of people with disordered eating habits or full-blown eating disorders (esp. Bulimia) are not noticeably under or overweight, but if you or your friend is not at a healthy weight and you think it’s because of your/their eating habits, this may be a problem.But don’t make this the only criteria… people’s weights can vary for many reasons, and going on a diet or gaining weight does not mean they have disordered eating habits.
What to watch out for: Dramatic changes in weight AND at least some other things on this list.
- Preoccupation with body image
This can include judging yourself harshly (and body dysmorphia) as well as judging others based on their weight.Also, if you often catch yourself comparing your body to others’.
What to watch out for: Mean remarks/thoughts about your own body (think: would you say this to your best friend? If the answer is no, it’s probably mean), fixating and obsessing over your body insecurities, comparing your weight/body to others’, comments/thoughts about other people’s bodies, feeling better than people if you think your body is better than theirs.
- Preoccupation with food/dieting
This seems obvious, but just think for a second. Are you always thinking and/or talking about food?
What to watch out for: Repeat mentions/ frequent thoughts of calories, nutrition, diets, and food, choosing prepackaged foods because of the definite calorie count, calorie/nutrition tracker apps on phones
If this sounds like you or a friend, you/they may be struggling with disordered eating. I encourage you to check out the National Eating Disorders Association or call their hotline at 1-800-931-2237 (open from 9 a.m. – 9 p.m. EST Monday-Thursday and 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. EST on Fridays). Alternatively, we welcome you to call Teen Line at 310-855-4673 from 6 p.m. – 10 p.m. PST or text “teen” to 839863 from 6 p.m. – 9:30 p.m. PST to talk to a trained teen volunteer like myself.
And finally, if you think you (or a friend) may be struggling with disordered eating, it’s important to tell an adult. Your health is important, and I could go on and on about the health risks that come with disordered eating but the bottom line is that they’re dangerous. Telling a parent, doctor, school counselor, or even a teacher or coach could make a world of a difference.