Eating disorders are about more than a person’s relationship with food. These complex mental health conditions can affect your relationships, your academic or professional success, and your goals in life.
Left untreated, they can also be deadly. Nearly 30 million Americans, or 9% of the population, will have an eating disorder in their lifetime. And more than 10,000 deaths each year are the direct result of an eating disorder, making them the second-deadliest behavioral health concern behind opioid use disorder.
Eating disorders can be even more dangerous for certain populations. Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) who have eating disorders are half as likely as white people to be diagnosed or receive treatment. Transgender college students have reported suffering from disordered eating at four times the rate of their cisgender classmates. And women who have physical disabilities are more likely to develop eating disorders.
It’s clear that eating disorders are very serious mental health concerns. But how do you know if you have an eating disorder?
Understanding the Definition of an Eating Disorder
According to the National Alliance for Eating Disorders, there’s a significant difference between disordered eating and eating disorders. Disordered eating doesn’t interfere with a person’s ability to function but may include irregular eating patterns as well as judgment around food or their body.
Eating disorders, however, represent a significant range of behaviors involving food and eating. They can impair your physical and mental health and make it difficult to function on a daily basis.
Before we get into the warning signs to look for to tell if you have an eating disorder, let’s go through the three most common types of these devastating conditions.
- Anorexia nervosa. Anorexia is characterized by weight loss that is often due to excessive dieting or exercise, occasionally to the point of starvation. This is fueled by a fear of becoming obese — even if the person is underweight.
- Bulimia nervosa. A person who has bulimia often follows a binge-purge cycle. That equates to a period of extreme overeating followed by attempts to purge that food to compensate for what they just ate. Bulimia is typically associated with feelings of loss of control about eating.
- Binge-eating disorder. Someone who has binge-eating disorder tends to eat large amounts of food in a short period of time. They feel out of control and unable to stop, which can cause a tremendous amount of shame and distress.
Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (being restrictive in what you eat to the point of struggling to meet appropriate nutritional needs) and other specified feeding and eating disorder (all other eating disorders that don’t fit the previous clinical definitions) round out the five eating disorders listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-V).
To further differentiate if you’re struggling with disordered eating or meet the criteria for an eating disorder, it’s important to understand what signs and symptoms to watch for.
Common Signs that you Might Have an Eating Disorder
All the eating disorders mentioned above can present differently. For the most part, though, there are some common signs that could indicate that you may have an eating disorder.
- You struggle to eat in front of others. It can be difficult to have a meal in social settings if you’re struggling with an eating disorder. Many people feel the need to hide the food they’re eating around friends or avoid it altogether.
- You develop rigid rules around eating. There’s a difference between a casual routine and a strict rule. If you’re eliminating entire food groups, limiting intake, or generally being inflexible about what you’ll eat and where, that could be the sign of an eating disorder.
- You’re exercising — a lot. If you have an eating disorder, exercise can be much more than a way to stay healthy. Pay attention to whether you’re obsessing over calorie tracking or working out too hard to compensate for “overeating.”
- Physical symptoms are catching up with you. A lack of sufficient nutrition can damage your gastrointestinal system. Some people who have an eating disorder frequently struggle with cramps, reflux, or constipation. Dizziness, dehydration, and blood pressure fluctuations are other signs to look for.
- You’re feeling a lot of guilt or shame. Low self-esteem is a common symptom of eating disorders. So too are guilt and shame over an inability to “control” your eating habits to your level of satisfaction.
- You’re suffering from body dysmorphia. This mental health condition involves an inability to stop thinking about the perceived flaws or defects in your physical appearance. Body dysmorphia can be a major trigger leading to eating disorders.
The first step in getting help for an eating disorder is recognizing that you need it. With the right level of professional eating disorder treatment in Toronto, someone who is diagnosed with an eating disorder can learn healthier eating habits, develop a better relationship with food, and get their life back on track.