5 Signs of an Eating Disorder & What To Do

Disclaimer. This article is for educational purposes. Do not use it as a tool to self-diagnose. However, if you feel like any of the points listed in this article apply to you, please seek professional help. 

In the past, not many people knew how to classify or even approach the topic of eating disorders. For a long time, eating disorders were not acknowledged for what they are– a complex mental health condition characterized by an unhealthy relationship with food. 

In 2018, NEDA estimated that about 20 million women and 10 million men in America have had or will have an eating disorder at some point in their lives. Although anyone can be affected by an eating disorder, this condition usually targets younger women and men

Eating disorders do not have a specific cause, but they can be brought on by many different factors such as:

  • Biological factors: irregular hormone fluctuations, genetics, or nutritional deficiencies. 
  • Psychological factors: trauma, negative body image, poor self-esteem, or bullying. 
  • Environmental factors: dysfunctional family dynamics, aesthetically oriented sports or careers such as ballet, rowing, gymnastics, or wrestling, stressful transitions in life, or family or childhood trauma. 

Eating disorders are more than just not wanting to eat. It is a complex psychological portrait surrounding food that can manifest itself through restrictive, binging, purging, or other behaviors. 

Below are some signs of an eating disorder and what to do. 

Signs and Symptoms

  • Fear of gaining weight

A common symptom of an eating disorder is the fear of gaining weight or obesophobia.  Obesophobia, sometimes known as pocrescophobia, is a type of anxiety disorder that involves an irrational fear of a specific place, object, or situation. In the context of eating disorders, obesophobia presents itself through the prism of the body. It can lead you to obsessively counting calories, fasting, frequent dieting, or over-exercising. 

Although the fear of gaining weight does not have a specific cause, there are several contributing factors like weight stigma, perfectionism, anxiety disorder, or personal experience. 

  • Food control

When facing a difficult period in your life, it is normal to want to feel in control. The usual outlet is food. It seems logical. Food and how you look are visible indicators of how in control you are. 

However, it can quickly devolve into something else. This desire to feel in control manifests itself through behaviors like restrictive eating, extreme dieting, binging, purging, or hoarding. 

Feeling a sense of control is not the only reason one might engage in these behaviors. Restrictive or purging behaviors are sometimes self-soothing or coping mechanisms cause by different factors. Some factors are the normalization of purging or restrictive behaviors, bonding purges, and diet culture can all affect your relationship to food. Society has normalized the idea of seeing food as something that is earned. For example, skipping breakfast or lunch to “make room” for what you will eat during a holiday dinner. 

Unfortunately, continuous engagement in these behaviors can lead to health complications such as heart failure, heart arrhythmia, malnutrition, gastrointestinal complications, and even death. 

If you find yourself feeling anxious about eating, remind yourself that food is not earned. It is necessary! Food is fuel that your body needs to do even the most basic functions, like keeping your heart beating.

If you notice that you are engaging in food-controlling behaviors as a coping mechanism, please work with a licensed therapist. They can help you create better adaptive coping mechanisms that address the fear, anxiety, and pain connected to food. 

  • Food and body image plays a large part in self-esteem. 

According to American Psychology Association, low self-esteem is one of the underlying triggers for an eating disorder. In today’s culture, we are bombarded with photoshopped images of what the ideal woman or man needs to look like. The beauty industry and media can brainwash you into thinking that if you lose another 10-pounds, you will feel much better about yourself. But, that is not true.  

Now, I do not want to discourage you from working out. If you want to work out or lose weight, do it healthily but do not attribute the numbers on the scale to your worth as a human being. Your self-esteem should not depend on your clothing size, the calories you consume or don’t, your waist measurements, or your weight. You are worth so much more than a scale or mirror could possibly reflect. 

If you struggle with self-esteem and food, please seek professional help. Engaging in CBT-E or other forms of treatment can help you recognize and reduce harmful thoughts and emotions related to food. 

  • Ritualistic eating patterns

We all have preferences as to how we choose to prepare or eat food. For example, some people add the first milk before adding in cereal. However, the presence of ritualistic eating does not necessarily say eating disorders. In fact, many people who have obsessive-compulsive disorders can exhibit extreme eating rituals. Regardless, some behaviors do. 

For example:

  • Cutting food into small pieces before eating
  • Arranging food a certain way on a plate
  • Only eating foods in a specific order
  • Weighing and measuring food
  • Only using specific plates or utensils to eat foods
  • Only eating at specified times or places
  • Checking portion sizes, sometimes multiple times

Eating disorders are anxiety-driven illnesses, and having a specified ritual provides a certain degree of comfort and familiarity. 

  • Continued fixation on food

Food is an integral part of culture and society. It is present in nearly every situation– holidays, celebrations, birthdays, ceremonies, and occasional meet-ups. For someone with an eating disorder, these moments have a bitter sentiment attached. The constant ruminating thoughts around the food you are or will eat can slowly take over your mind and prevent you from living these moments. Not only that, but it can cause or exacerbate an eating disorder. 

These intrusive thoughts can look like:

  • What am I going to eat next?
  • Will I be able to stop once I start?
  • Have I eaten too much?
  • Will this make me fat?
  • How many calories in this?
  • Is this healthy or clean enough?

These thoughts take you out of the experience of eating and make you deaf to the hunger signals your body sends you. However, one way of becoming attuned to your body and needs is by practicing intuitive eating. Intuitive eating is not a diet. It is an approach that focuses on connecting you with your body by teaching you how to listen to bodily signals and cues. 

What to do

If you are struggling with an eating disorder or any of the points mentioned in this article, please consider seeking professional help. A licensed therapist or professional can help you build the tools necessary to recognize, examine, and deal with the underlying triggers of your eating disorder. They can also help you establish better coping mechanisms and build a better relationship with food. 

I hope that this article has helped inform you, but I really hope that you make the choice to seek help and fight for your well-being. 

I wish you all the best and take care.


Bernstein, Bettina E. “Anorexia Nervosa.” Practice Essentials, Background, Pathophysiology, Medscape, 28 Feb. 2020, emedicine.medscape.com/article/912187-overview#a4. 

Counselling Directory. “Obsessed with Food? 10 Ways to Change This.” Counselling Directory, Counselling Directory, 7 Sept. 2016, www.counselling-directory.org.uk/memberarticles/obsessed-with-food-10-ways-to-change-this. 

Ekern, Jacquelyn. “Eating Disorder Information, Education & Resources.” Eating Disorder Hope, 11 July 2018, www.eatingdisorderhope.com/information. 

Ekern, Jacquelyn. “Towards an Understanding of Self-Esteem and Eating Disorders.” Center for Change, 11 Feb. 2018, centerforchange.com/towards-understanding-self-esteem-eating-disorders/. 

Fuller, Kristen. “Eating Disorders: It’s Not All About Food.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 22 Mar. 2017, www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/happiness-is-state-mind/201703/eating-disorders-it-s-not-all-about-food. 

NEDA. “Busting the Myths About Eating Disorders.” National Eating Disorders Association, 22 Feb. 2018, www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/busting-myths-about-eating-disorders. 

Petre, Alina. “6 Common Types of Eating Disorders (and Their Symptoms).” Healthline, 30 Oct. 2019, www.healthline.com/nutrition/common-eating-disorders#cause. 

Rollin, Jennifer. “Bulimia and Starvation: How Restriction Perpetuates the Binge-Purge Cycle.” Eating Disorder Hope, 11 Nov. 2015, www.eatingdisorderhope.com/information/bulimia/bulimia-and-starvation-how-restriction-perpetuates-the-binge-purge-cycle. 

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