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How to recognise the early signs of an eating disorder

Eating disorders are complex mental health conditions that cause people to develop extremely unhealthy eating habits and have distorted views of their appearance and body shape. Without help, eating disorders can have a devastating impact on a person’s life and can even be fatal.

If you’re worried about someone, it’s really important to be able to recognise the early signs of an eating disorder so you can spot behaviours and support them to get the help they need.

Here, we outline these early signs of an eating disorder to be aware of, as well as some of the specific symptoms of different eating disorders, before providing information on the support we can provide at Life Works.

What are the early signs of an eating disorder?

A change in eating habits

One of the earliest signs of an eating disorder is a change in a person’s eating habits.

  • You may notice that their eating habits become more regimented. For example, they may only eat at certain times of the day, only use certain plates and cutlery, and may insist on eating food in a certain order
  • They may start moving their food around their plate a lot, or chopping it up into tiny pieces or certain shapes before they eat it
  • You may notice they use a lot more condiments (such as sauces) or seasoning (such as salt and pepper) on their food than they usually would
  • They may appear to be fidgety and anxious during mealtimes
  • You may find that they want to eat the same foods over and over again
  • They may suddenly decide to embark on a new diet e.g. becoming vegetarian or going gluten-free

Becoming very interested in food

Another early sign of an eating disorder is suddenly becoming very interested in food. You may notice that the person has an in-depth knowledge of nutrition and the calorie content of certain foods, which seems to have come from nowhere. They may also start downloading and reading recipes or watching cookery programmes on TV, despite never having had an interest in those sorts of things previously.

Social withdrawal

Another early sign that someone may have an eating disorder is if they no longer seem to want to be around other people. You may notice that they stop seeing friends or taking part in hobbies they used to enjoy. While this can be a sign of other mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety, it’s also one of the early warning signs for an eating disorder.

Changes in mood, especially linked to eating

While it’s normal for our mood to change throughout the day, if you notice that these are more pronounced or extreme in the person, this could be an early sign of an eating disorder. These may happen especially around mealtimes or in the run-up to eating, causing them to be anxious, irritable and tearful.

Other signs and symptoms of eating disorders

As well as the early signs of eating disorders outlined above, these conditions also have a number of more general symptoms that can happen at any point in the illness. These can be different for everyone and can vary depending on the type of eating disorder that a person is struggling with. However, the most common signs and symptoms to look out for include:

Anorexia nervosa symptoms

  • Losing a lot of weight over a short period of time
  • Having a very low body weight and an unwillingness to gain weight
  • Wearing baggy clothes to try and hide how much weight they’ve lost
  • Controlling and limiting food
  • Exercising excessively
  • Believing they are fat when other people say they’re thin
  • Becoming obsessed with how they look and what other people think of them
  • Repeatedly weighing themselves
  • Making themselves sick after eating
  • Abusing laxatives
  • Exhaustion
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Self-harm
  • Panic attacks
  • Anger management issues

Bulimia nervosa symptoms

  • Binge eating (where they eat a lot of food in one sitting), followed by purging (where they try to remove food from their body using harmful methods such as making themselves sick)
  • Having an obsession with food and calories
  • Going to the toilet straight after eating to make themselves sick or take laxatives
  • Excessive exercise
  • Repeatedly weighing themselves
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Self-harm
  • Panic attacks
  • Anger management issues

Binge eating disorder (BED) symptoms

  • Binge eating, even when they’re not hungry
  • Eating lots of junk food including chocolate and crisps
  • Chaotic eating habits e.g. not eating all day and then bingeing at night
  • Wanting to eat in private
  • Obesity, lack of fitness and general poor health because of their unhealthy diet
  • Having bad skin and hair because of a lack of nutrients
  • Anxiety
  • Depression

Treatment for eating disorders at Life Works

If you think someone is showing the early signs of an eating disorder, it’s important to help them understand that eating disorders are treatable and it’s possible for them to make a full recovery.

At Life Works, we can provide specialist eating disorder treatment, to help the person you care about tackle their symptoms and get back on track. We offer:

  • A free eating disorder assessment
  • Flexible inpatient, day care and outpatient treatment options, depending on the intensity of the support that’s needed
  • 1:1, group and family therapy
  • A range of practical dietetic techniques and therapeutic approaches
  • Access to online Anorexics and Bulimics Anonymous (ABA) meetings
  • An expert treatment team
  • A comprehensive family programme for people who stay at Life Works for 28 days or more

The Life Works clinic in Surrey, is one of Europe’s leading private centres in the treatment of eating disorders. Our dedicated team of psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists and nutritionists are waiting to help you get your life back on track.

Contact Life Works Today

If you have recognised the signs of an eating disorder in yourself or someone you know, call 01483 745 066 for advice and support from the Life Works specialists. Alternatively, click here to make an enquiry.

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