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How to Recognize an Eating Disorder

Updated on October 30, 2012
krsharp05 profile image

Kristi graduated from the University of Kansas with a degree in Human Development and Developmental Psychopathology of Children.

Anorexia in 1900
Anorexia in 1900 | Source

Illusion of Self: Losing Self

Eating disorders affect as many as 1 in every 10 young women today. While they also affect boys, they are much more common in girls and the risk of developing an eating disorder increases as girls move into their teen years.

The two most common eating disorders are anorexia and bulimia. They are considered psychiatric disorders because they are characterized by severe preoccupations with food and body imagery. Children and adults will go to great lengths to hide an eating disorder from parents, family, friends and other important people in their lives.

When the association between a person and food becomes so labored that it interferes with normal daily activities and standard of life, it becomes a complex and potentially dangerous situation. Eating disorders are more than just the purposeful disconnection between a person and their caloric intake, they are about extreme emotions, personal pain and often depression.

Risk Factors

#1 Obsessively exercising

When a child, adolescent or adult suddenly begins an abnormal routine of exercise, you should take note and pay attention. Integrating normal amounts of exercise into your daily life are typical and healthy. Obsessive exercising can be a sign of an eating disorder and a body image problem.

#2 The need to be in control

Suffering from an eating disorder is often about the ability to be in control. Eating disorders are not exclusive to one age group, lifestyle or ethnicity. It's not uncommon for patients who have undergone bariatric surgery to develop an eating disorder because of their tremendous desire to fit into an image they have predisposed.

When a person lives in an atmosphere where they have little or no control over their lives, the splintering effect can be an eating disorder.

Healthy Times
Healthy Times | Source

#3 Preoccupation and distortion of body imagery

People who suffer with eating disorders are often incapable of viewing themselves as normal, attractive, happy or having any worth at all. There is a common misconception that success = popularity and in the United States, the trend in media is to sensationalize "skinny." Runway models are't curvy and normal, they are hyper-thin. Women in music videos are tiny and models in popular clothing ads look fragile and bony. When a child is watching their favorite Disney show and the star of the show looks emaciated, she will want to emulate that beautiful and vivacious character.

#4 Severe dieting

Severe dieting is when a child's normal eating habits change drastically. It's not the same as going through a growth spurt, not being hungry now and then or missing an occasional meal. Severe dieting can be recognized by hunger pains, headaches, dizziness, lethargy, weakness, constipation, dehydration and even death. When you starve your body, it involuntarily goes into starvation mode and begins to eat your muscles for energy. That's one reason emaciation happens. Over time, your organs will begin to fail because they don't have the necessary ingredients to work properly. As multiple organs begin to fail, the chance of survival is diminished.


#5 Intense fear of gaining weight

People with eating disorders often have an overwhelming fear of gaining weight. It's common for a person with an eating disorder to:

  • Weigh themselves constantly
  • Refrain from eating in public
  • Refuse to eat with anyone present
  • Eat only "safe" foods
  • Cook for others but refusing to eat
  • Disappear during or after meals - going to the restroom to purge the meal
  • Use laxatives
  • Appear swollen in the face
  • Ingest large quantities of sweets, candy or treats
  • Hoard food
  • Possess other addictions such as alcohol or drugs

The anxiety presented with gaining weight can be so distressing that it's impossible not to interrupt the normal daily pattern. It's important to note that eating disorders gain steam over time and will eventually either require counseling, treatment or though less likely, they can self adjust. Once a person has arrived at the point where the disorder becomes a pathological behavior and thought process, it is medically recommended that they seek appropriate treatment, counseling and aftercare.

Although many people argue that eating disorders are not serious, people with eating disorders do not choose to take on the psychosis. Eating disorders should be considered with absolute resolution. While some cases are more serious than others, eating disorders can and do lead to death. If you are concerned that you or someone you love might be suffering with an eating disorder, see your doctor immediately.

Eating Disorder Facts

  • Women are three times more likely to develop an eating disorder than men. The National Institute of Mental Health: “Eating Disorders: Facts About Eating Disorders and the Search for Solutions.” Pub No. 01-4901. Accessed Feb. 2002.
  • Nearly 10% of all women who diet will progress to a pathological stage of dieting. Shisslak, C.M., Crago, M., & Estes, L.S. (1995). The Spectrum of Eating Disturbances. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 18 (3): 209-219.
  • 70% of adolescent girls stated that their desire to diet came from their belief in the ideal "body image". Prevention of Eating Problems with Elementary Children, Michael Levine, USA Today, July 1998.
  • More than 80% of 4th graders admitted to being afraid of becoming "fat". (Mellin et al., 1991).
  • 5.2% of people who suffer with an eating disorder eventually lose the battle and die. Crow, S.J., Peterson, C.B., Swanson, S.A., Raymond, N.C., Specker, S., Eckert, E.D., Mitchell, J.E. (2009) Increased mortality in bulimia nervosa and other eating disorders. American Journal of Psychiatry 166, 1342-1346.
  • 1/3 of all eating disorder deaths are due to suicide. The Renfrew Center Foundation for Eating Disorders, “Eating Disorders 101 Guide: A Summary of Issues, Statistics and Resources,” published September 2002, revised October 2003,


Eating Disorders and Sports

Several years ago a vibrant young woman came into the gym wanting to do gymnastics. I tested her skill level and put her into the appropriate class. It was only a matter of a few months before she became the superstar of the group so, being the "good coach", I immediately asked her if she was interested in competitive gymnastics. It was a delight to hear that she was indeed interested.

She spent the next season training and competing. Since she had never worked out with the competitive team, I didn't suspect a problem at first. It wasn't until about 6-8 months into training when I realized that she hadn't just slimmed down, she had become a physically fit, training machine. I spoke with the other coach and he agreed that we should address the issue.

When we asked her about her conditioning, she did the most amazing verbal dance I've ever heard and tried to convince us that she was just doing some conditioning at home because she liked to win. How could I argue with that? That's a coach's dream athlete. A few months later she began to present even skinnier. We attempted to speak with her mom but at home she was eating and seemed to be appropriately involved. It seemed that we were attributing the exhaustion to school, homework, activities and gymnastics. I wasn't buying it.

When spring rolled around, after the gymnastics season was over, we host our yearly banquet. It's the time when we come together as an entire team, recognize each kiddo's accomplishments and the team's overall wins for the season. When we called her name to come to the stage she was no where to be found. When she finally appeared to a packed banquet hall, everyone staring, it seemed that her cover was blown and she was devastated.

It's been almost fifteen years that she has struggled with this disease. She's been hospitalized numerous times. She's gone for more than 30 days without eating, suffered through feeding tubes, painful treatments, discrimination, fear, loss and the inability to hold down a job because of her health. I'll never believe that this was the path she designated and hoped for nor could it be the direct result of being a competitive gymnast.

Have you ever suffered with an eating disorder?

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    • krsharp05 profile imageAUTHOR

      Kristi Sharp 

      5 years ago from Born in Missouri. Raised in Minnesota.

      tamarawilhite, thanks for the great ideas. I appreciate you reading and recognizing those oversights. -K

    • tamarawilhite profile image

      Tamara Wilhite 

      5 years ago from Fort Worth, Texas

      I would add an obsession with the ingredients of foods. Someone who is afraid that eating something with any non-organic or GMO ingredient will somehow kill them while millions do so daily and are just fine. Or "OMG, it has trans-fats in the butter you used in dessert, I have to go throw up!"

      Another sign of an eating disorder is someone who always brings their own food and won't eat what others make, or always says "I ate before" so no one ever sees them eat.

    • krsharp05 profile imageAUTHOR

      Kristi Sharp 

      6 years ago from Born in Missouri. Raised in Minnesota.

      joedolphin88, For some, even the awful parts are "okay" as long as they don't have to change and be "uncomfortable". It's the "I'm fine" attitude.

    • joedolphin88 profile image


      6 years ago from north miami FL

      The saddest part is some people just can handle being healthy they have to push it into obscene levels and they just cant stop.

    • krsharp05 profile imageAUTHOR

      Kristi Sharp 

      6 years ago from Born in Missouri. Raised in Minnesota.

      joedolphin88, thank you for reading and commenting. Very true that many people don't recognize they have a problem - definitive denial. -K

    • joedolphin88 profile image


      6 years ago from north miami FL

      Sad how few recognize when they have a true problem.

    • krsharp05 profile imageAUTHOR

      Kristi Sharp 

      7 years ago from Born in Missouri. Raised in Minnesota.

      Miss Mimi, Thank you for sharing your story. It's an extremely touchy topic that should be dragged out, opened up and and discussed. I know that many dancers struggle with ED and like gymnasts, ice skaters and many other professional athletes, they suffer silently because they want to maintain their perfect bodies. I sincerely appreciate you taking the time to read and comment and thank you for voting and sharing. It's nice to hear from you again. -K

    • Miss Mimi profile image

      Miss Mimi 

      7 years ago from On the road again

      Thanks for writing such a clear, helpful article and thanks for bravely sharing the story of your student. Growing up, I was a competitive dancer (ballet, jazz, modern, contemporary and tap) and I know for a fact about 25% of my fellow company members had eating disorders, and I suspect there were more that I didn't know about. I wish I had known at the time that it was ok to say something to a teacher so those girls and boys could get help and get healthy. It's so important to know the signs, and to know that, even if they get angry, it's good in the long run to reach out and help someone suffering from an eating disorder find a way to get better. Voted up and sharing.

    • krsharp05 profile imageAUTHOR

      Kristi Sharp 

      7 years ago from Born in Missouri. Raised in Minnesota.

      rfmoran, Thank you for the input. Watching my dear girl struggle through this was terrible. It was a helpless feeling and continues to be difficult today. As with all addictions, she has to be ready to be better. I appreciate you taking the time to read and thank you for voting. -K

    • rfmoran profile image

      Russ Moran - The Write Stuff 

      7 years ago from Long Island, New York

      A very good treatment of a disorder that is difficult to understand unless you are the one suffering. Your story about the gal who trained obsessively was touching and brought meaning to your point, and also illustrates how an observer (such as you) can be there to help. Very well done Kristi. Voted up and interesting.

    • krsharp05 profile imageAUTHOR

      Kristi Sharp 

      7 years ago from Born in Missouri. Raised in Minnesota.

      ChitrangadaSharan, Thank you for taking the time to read and comment. It's definitely a topic of concern and a topic that parents should know more about. I appreciate your input. -K

    • ChitrangadaSharan profile image

      Chitrangada Sharan 

      7 years ago from New Delhi, India

      Such a wonderful hub. Very useful information about a very important area of concern. And it is well researched too. Thanks for sharing.

    • krsharp05 profile imageAUTHOR

      Kristi Sharp 

      7 years ago from Born in Missouri. Raised in Minnesota.

      krillco, Thank you for reading and voting. I appreciate you taking the time. -K

    • krillco profile image

      William E Krill Jr 

      7 years ago from Hollidaysburg, PA

      Well done, voted up.

    • krsharp05 profile imageAUTHOR

      Kristi Sharp 

      7 years ago from Born in Missouri. Raised in Minnesota.

      spartucus, Thank you for reading and commenting. This topic is difficult and terribly taboo especially because you never know how to speak to the person who is suffering - or if you might overstep your boundaries. I'm glad to have provided some understanding and sincerely hope for the best for your friends. -K

    • spartucusjones profile image

      CJ Baker 

      7 years ago from Parts Unknown

      I have had close friends that have struggled with eating disorders and even though I always did my best to be understanding, your hub has help shed further light on this important issue. Thanks for providing info which could potentially be lifesaving.

    • krsharp05 profile imageAUTHOR

      Kristi Sharp 

      7 years ago from Born in Missouri. Raised in Minnesota.

      Kate, Thank you for taking the time to read and comment. I appreciate your input and your votes. -K

    • Kate Mc Bride profile image

      Kate McBride 

      7 years ago from Donegal Ireland

      This is such a comprehensive and well-researched article on eating disorders. Voted it up, interesting and useful. Thanks!


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