Signs of eating disorders that often go unnoticed: ‘They’re not about food’

Signs of an eating disorder (that are not obvious)
Results from a new U.K. survey says that 1/3 of adults are unable to name any signs or symptoms of an eating disorder.

Although a symptom of eating disorders can include an obsession over weight, this is just one piece of a larger puzzle, experts say.

According to a recent survey by Beat, an eating disorder charity based in the U.K., many adults couldn’t name the early signs or symptoms of eating disorders, Huffpost U.K. reports.

“This research has showed us that in the U.K., many people still do not know how to identify an eating disorder in its early stages,” Beat chief executive Andrew Radford said in a statement.

READ MORE: Are you an emotional eater? Blame your parents, study suggests

“These results are worrying because we know lack of awareness can stop sufferers getting the treatment they desperately need as soon as possible,” he continued. “Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses and when people are treated quickly after falling ill, they are much more likely to have a fast and sustained recovery.”

Story continues below advertisement

The survey, which asked more than 2,000 adults in the U.K. about eating disorder signs and symptoms, found 79 per cent of respondents were not able to name any psychological symptoms including low self-confidence and self-esteem.

It also found 34 per cent of respondents couldn’t name any signs or symptoms at all, and if they did, 62 per cent believed it was weight loss or being thin.

‘They’re not about food’

Jody Brian, executive director of eating disorder support centre Hopewell based in Ottawa, says despite the statistics, eating disorders are still generally viewed as a choice people make, born of vanity.

According to a 2002 survey, 1.5 per cent of Canadian women aged 15 to 24 years had an eating disorder, the National Eating Disorder Information Centre notes. Brian adds that combined, anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa can kill upwards of 1,500 Canadians a year.

“They’re not about food,” she tells Global News. “Eating disorders can be caused by many factors… low self-esteem, past trauma, difficulties resolving conflict and negative emotions, bullying, and other psychiatric issues.”

READ MORE: Sophie Grégoire Trudeau opens up about her former struggle with bulimia

An eating disorder can develop when an individual attempts to treat the lack of control they may have in other areas of their life through extreme control over food and exercise, she says.

Story continues below advertisement

“The temporary feeling of relief from the emotions they are trying to stuff down is often followed by feelings of guilt and shame over their food restriction, binging or purging activities… which then leads into a vicious cycle of control and compensatory behaviours again,” she continues.

Warning signs to look out for

And while eating disorders are unique for every individual who develop them, Brian says there are some warning signs people can look out for:

    • Increased stress and irritability around meal times
    • Compulsive exercise
    • Rigid thoughts about food being “good” versus “bad”
    • Eating alone, or disappearing immediately after a family meal
    • Preoccupation with weight and body image, which can be accompanied by a distorted view of their size and shape
    • Hoarding or stealing large amounts of food
    • Withdrawal from friends and family

“There are other types of eating disorders beyond the ‘top three’ we usually think of: anorexia, bulimia and binge-eating disorder,” she continues. “For instance, clinicians are reporting increasing instances of orthorexia, which is an obsession with eating only ‘clean’ and ‘healthy’ foods.”

A guide for parents

For parents in particular, watching out for these kinds of signs and openly discussing eating disorders with your children can prevent harmful outcomes down the road.

Dr. Pei-Yoong Lam, a pediatrician with the BC Children’s Hospital provincial specialized eating disorders program, says other physical signs in females can include irregular periods, adding if this happens regularly, talk to a family doctor.

Story continues below advertisement
“Other common signs [include] fainting spells, dizziness episodes and cold hands and feet when it’s not really that cold,” she tells Global News.

Dr. Jennifer Coelho, a psychologist with the same program adds that young people may also wear baggy clothes to hide the shape of their bodies.

READ MORE: Fundraiser fetches $450,000 to treat eating disorders in Metro Vancouver

Lam says other signs include shortness of breath, more cavities and enamel erosion of the teeth due to vomiting or eating more acidic foods. Constipation and bloating are also common: “If you are eating irregularly, you are not stimulating your gut.”

Coelho adds sometimes there is just a lack of hunger and this is a result of that irregular eating cycle.

Eating disorders are also associated with symptoms of low self-esteem and negative thoughts about one’s body. Lam says young people (as well as adults), have desires for what they think the perfect body looks like, and may go to extremes to get it.

And with teens plugged into social media sites constantly, it’s important for parents to notice not only the types of conversations their children are having but what they’re doing online.

“What we hear from parents when children come through the ER is they were aware their child made changes to focus on healthy eating and thought it was great,” Coelho says, adding that often, it’s hard to recognize when it becomes a disorder.

Story continues below advertisement
“Open and transparent communication with your child about what their online activities are would be my message,” Lam says. “These things can be discussed within the family and not [kept] a secret.”