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If you have an eating disorder, you may be relying on food (or dieting) to numb agonizing emotions. 

Restricting food may help you feel in control of an otherwise uncontrollable situation. You may believe that overeating temporarily alleviates sadness, loneliness, boredom, or rage. You may feel that purging temporarily alleviates self-loathing and feelings of vulnerability. But this relief is only temporary.

Some of the behaviors that surround eating disorders include secrecy about food, excessive exercise, hiding discarded food containers, dizziness, dehydration, hoarding food, or eating rapidly. You don’t have to exhibit all of the signs to have an eating disorder; several signs of eating disorders are enough to indicate that there may be a problem. Complicating matters is the fact that it’s common to have more than one eating disorder at a time, or another condition such as depression, anxiety, or substance abuse.

Signs of anorexia nervosa

People with anorexia nervosa are essentially starving themselves. The cycle of self-starvation deprives the body of vital nutrients needed for normal functioning; many of the body’s processes are slowed in the effort to save energy, and physical changes result.

Many organizations, such as the Mayo Clinic and the National Eating Disorders Association, note that signs of anorexia nervosa can include:

  • Dry and/or yellowish skin
  • Growth of fine hair over the body as an attempt to keep the body warm
  • Constipation
  • Thinning of bones
  • Brittle nails and hair and hair loss
  • Mild anemia
  • Muscle weakness
  • Loss of muscle mass
  • Low blood pressure
  • Decreased internal body temperature
  • Severe dehydration, possibly resulting in kidney failure
  • Menstrual irregularities, including lack of menstruation
  • Dizziness, fainting
  • Often being cold

There are also behavioral and emotional red flags, too, such as refusing to eat, denying hunger, extreme exercise, lack of emotion or a “flat mood,” trouble concentrating, being preoccupied with food, wearing baggy clothing, complaining about being fat and weighing yourself repeatedly.

Symptoms of bulimia

Dieting, it seems, is a part of everyday life for many of us. Shedding excess pounds slowly through healthy eating habits and exercise can help our overall health.

But the state of being “constantly on a diet” could be a sign of an eating disorder. Other signs of bulimia nervosa include a sense of being unable to control eating, eating so much that discomfort or pain sets in, self-induced vomiting and/or laxative use, extreme amounts of exercise, hoarding food, and frequently excusing yourself to the bathroom either during meals or after eating.

The Mayo Clinic provides a list of physical signs potentially indicating bulimia, including:

  • Abnormal bowel function
  • Mouth problems, including sores in the throat and mouth and damaged teeth and gums
  • Swollen glands around the throat, jaw, and neck
  • Bloating
  • Dehydration
  • Dry skin
  • Irregularities in the heartbeat
  • Menstrual irregularities, including lack of menstruation

Many other physical ailments can arise from bulimia, not the least of which include kidney damage due to abuse of diuretics, gastric rupture during periods of bingeing, peptic ulcers, pancreatitis, and inflammation or rupture of the esophagus from repeated vomiting.

Signs of binge eating disorder

The signs of binge eating disorder are similar to bulimia, but the difference is that people with binge eating disorder don’t purge. Researchers aren’t sure what causes this disorder, but some factors may include depression, dieting, inability to cope emotionally, and genetics. People with binge eating disorder also often suffer from depression and may have difficulty with weight regulation.

This list, adapted from the Mayo Clinic, highlights some of the signs of binge eating disorder:

  • Eating until one is in pain or other discomfort
  • Eating a great deal more food during a binge compared to the amount eaten during a normal meal or snack
  • Eating rapidly
  • Feeling out of control
  • Repeated dieting without weight loss
  • Often eating alone
  • Hoarding food
  • Hiding food containers
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Feeling depressed, distressed, or disgusted over the binge

Not everyone who experiences binge eating disorder is overweight. But those who are obese can experience serious health consequences, such as high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes.

These pros aren't good for you

There’s an open secret among those with eating disorders: pro-ana and pro-mia Web sites.

Pro-ana stands for pro-anorexia; pro-mia means pro-bulimia. These sites tend to present anorexia nervosa and bulimia as lifestyle choices rather than serious disorders. They may have the effect of teaching people ways to diet, purge, and lose more weight.  

Researchers report the following findings:

  • Eating disorder patients frequenting those sites were sicker longer and spent less time attending to school or work compared to patients who did not visit such sites
  • Seventy percent of those who found new weight control or purging techniques on those sites said they tried methods they read about
  • Parents reported they didn’t have much knowledge about their children visiting the sites

Defenders of the sites state that the sites offer support for those who already suffer from eating disorders, including information about health consequences, and they refute the notion that the sites could be harmful.


The Academy for Eating Disorders speaks out against pro-anorexia Web sites:

“One of the diagnostic criteria for anorexia nervosa is denial of the seriousness of the illness; thus [W]eb sites that glorify anorexia as a lifestyle choice play directly to the psychology of its victims. There is always a creative tension between respecting the right of free speech and protecting vulnerable individuals, particularly children. It's important to note that the peak age of onset of eating disorders is during adolescence, and thus these sites target largely an audience of children. The Web sites pose a danger in that they promote anorexia nervosa as a lifestyle, provide support and encouragement to engage in health-threatening behaviors, and neglect the serious consequences of starvation.”

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