Someone you love has been diagnosed with an eating disorder. You Monday morning quarterback and rack your brain. Would your loved one even have an eating disorder if you had known about subtle warning signs of eating disorders? Maybe. Maybe not. In any event, please do not take on the eating disorder as your fault. Because it is not your — or any one person’s — fault.

One of the hard things when it comes to eating disorders is how to differentiate — in people of any sex, sexual orientation, age, or demographic — what’s normal and what’s considered clinical. You may wonder “is this part of being a fill-in-the-blank (teenager/woman/athlete)? Or, is it a sign of a problem?” The “this” could be just about anything – negative body image, certain eating behaviors, or various exercise patterns.

Diet Culture makes differentiating warning signs of eating disorder behaviors hard to evaluate. Especially when disguised as ‘clean eating’, ‘healthy lifestyle’, or ‘wellness.’ They all mean the same thing.

Remember, eating disorders are caused by a combination of biological, psychological, and socio-cultural risk factors — including genetics. In people who are genetically predisposed, subtle warning signs add up quickly and create the perfect storm.

Here are 10 subtle warning signs of eating disorders:

1. Bathroom use Discretely going to the bathroom after eating something is a common warning sign of eating disorders. Often the reason is to induce purging. Notice if you hear the water faucet running for an unusually long period of time. The running water sound is to drown out any evidence you might otherwise be able to hear.

2. Food rules This could be an entire book! There are so many. Here are some examples:

  • not eating after a certain time of day
  • waiting until a certain time of day before eating anything
  • eating only a certain number of calories or grams of a nutrient like fat
  • insisting that food can’t touch on the plate
  • at restaurants only ordering salad, with dressing on the side
  • declining any invitations that involve food, even with friends

3. Inflexible routines The eating disorder becomes the center, around which everything else revolves. This focus influences anything and everything else a person does or thinks during the day.

4. Unusual interest in what other people eat. Vicarious eating is common. In other words, eating ‘through’ watching or talking about what other people are eating.

5. Sudden interest in nutrition, food labels, additives/preservatives. And spending time scouring the nutrition information on products. Looking up nutrition information online before eating is another example.

6. Preoccupation with ‘clean’ eating, Aka dieting, ‘just being healthy’, or some other word that is a stand in for restriction.

7. Viewing Cooking shows, food related videos, or recipes on the internet becomes a regular part of the day.

8. Irritability, whether from the effects of restriction or due to having binged, she has mood fluctuations that are somewhat new.

10. Sneaking exercise, to compensate for what she’s eaten.

And 10 more….

11. Lying about food, exercise, and eating disorder behaviors. Denial of having a problem is common too.

12. Sudden decision to become a vegetarian/vegan, and the decision does not come from a place of animal rights.

13. Frequent use of scale to weigh self, or starting to use a food scale to measure the amount of food before eating it.

14. Excuses to avoid meals with family/friends, such as “Oh I already ate at Megan’s house”,

15. Wearing oversized/baggy clothing to camouflage body.

16. Monitors and compares own intake with others; “the rule” is to consume less than other people at the table.

17. Zoned out expression, due to hunger/malnutrition or preoccupation with eating disorder symptoms.

18. Strange combinations of food, including certain condiments.

19. Insistence on preparing all food herself in order to have complete control over ingredients and quantity.

20. Unusual forms of eating behavior, such as pulling food apart with fingers.

There are many other early warning signs, and the presence of any of the above does not mean the the person is necessarily destined to have an eating disorder.

Plus, the early warning signs for eating disorders vary depending on the type of eating disorder. Early signs of anorexia nervosa, for example, may be different from those of Binge Eating Disorder.

Regardless of the specific thoughts and behaviors, all disordered eating and eating disorders begin with some form of a diet. Or a decision ‘to eat healthy’. Or ‘to lose weight and get in better shape.” The diet could be recommended by a physician, family member, or friend. Even by a Health Education teacher. Or a coach.

Eating disorders are serious conditions, even at times deadly. The symptoms don’t go away on their own. Early recognition of subtle waring signs of eating disorders will shorten the duration of the disorder. And, early treatment is key in full recovery.

And with treatment, full recovery is absolutely possible.

I have specialized in treating people with eating disorders for over twenty years and know personally and professionally that recognizing warning signs can make a huge difference in whether a full blown eating disorder develops. Please contact me if you would like to know more.