Eating Disorders are extremely hard to detect. With many different diagnoses including Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, Binge Eating Disorder, Orthorexia, Otherwise Specified Feeding and Eating Disorder (OSFED) and Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID), there are a variety of signs and symptoms which might signal that someone is starting to struggle with an Eating Disorder. This can make them particularly hard to diagnose, especially in a world that is rife with diet culture.
For parents and caregivers this can be extremely unnerving. Looking back at the start of my Eating Disorder there were definitely some indicators early on that I was developing an unhealthy relationship with food. My experience is with Anorexia, although I did develop some bulimic behaviours over the course of my Eating Disorder. That being said, from my experience to onset of many Eating Disorders is quite similar, no matter what the diagnosis ends up being. Here are some of the signs I wish my family had been aware of when I was a teen developing an Eating Disorder.
This is an easy one to fly under the radar. I come from a family that enjoys food, so it wasn’t odd for us to be talking about what we were going to make for dinner at breakfast time. However, when I was first developing Anorexia, the food obsession was incessant. I got much more interested in cooking for the family and my sister, who also developed an Eating Disorder, even decided she wanted to become a chef and asked for cookbooks for Christmas. The food obsession thing is tricky. There are many people that have a healthy relationship with food who find a passion for cooking. But I would say that if your teen or someone in your family suddenly seems to become obsessed with food, when they weren’t as interested in it before, it is a cause for concern.
Not only did I become obsessed with food, I became extremely inflexible with it as well. I stopped letting my parents make my meals, except for dinner. Dinner was the holy grail of my day and if plans changed at all I would get extremely upset. I remember one time throwing a tantrum because my Dad decided to make something different than the tofu stir fry I was expecting. This type of inflexibility is a common sign of an Eating Disorder and can manifest in many forms. Maybe, like me, your loved one is suddenly the only one who can prepare their meals; or they get extremely upset about any changes of plan surrounding food. Others may be more deliberate in their choices, like suddenly becoming a vegan out of the blue. Any significant change in diet; or change in the way someone interacts with food can be an important early sign of an Eating Disorder and should be addressed.
ANY weight changes
This may seem like an obvious one; but if someone isn’t aware that it may be an early sign of an Eating Disorder, this one can also go unaddressed. When I was first developing my Eating Disorder I lost some weight; but because my family was going through a difficult time with my sister I chalked it up to stress. My parents, friends, family and even my doctor seemed to accept this excuse and only caught on to the fact that I was struggling with food when I continued to lose weight, despite being told I needed to eat more. As someone who was in a naturally smaller body to begin with, it didn’t take much for me to enter into the underweight category; but for many who suffer with Anorexia, they are never clinically underweight. People developing Bulimia or Binge Eating Disorder may even gain weight as a result of their issues with food. This is why ANY change in weight should be considered a possible symptom of an Eating Disorder and should not be overlooked.
This is only scratching the surface of the possible Eating Disorder signs and symptoms and is largely based on my own experience as someone who developed Anorexia in my teens. For a more exhaustive list of Eating Disorder signs and symptoms for all of the diagnoses check out this list on the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) – https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/warning-signs-and-symptoms. If you want to talk to someone who has been there – check out FEAST at https://www.feast-ed.org/i-need-help/.