By Ilana K. Moss, M.A., Registered Psychological Assistant (CA PSB94022900)
Society is brimming with “healthy-living” messages. Magazines and websites promote “clean eating” and strategies for toning belly fat while condemning food that contains additives. Beautiful pictures of gluten- and sugar-free meals adorn social network sites, equating eating a certain way with living a more balanced, happy life. Juicing companies advertise specials for adolescents who want to cleanse before returning to school. Even pregnancy reads encourage women to swap that nutritionally-void candy for kale if they truly want to take care of their developing baby.
Taking on a healthy lifestyle has emotional and physical benefits and most people who are cognizant of what they consume don’t have an eating disorder. However, problems can arise when individuals already at risk for eating disorders (through genetic vulnerability, stress, etc.) are exposed heavily to healthy eating messages. Further, declarations of “clean” and “healthy” eating may cloak eating patterns that are pathological. It can be difficult to know whether someone is trying to eat “cleaner” or whether they are eating to satisfy toxic psychological urges. Increased awareness of the symptoms that accompany disordered eating patterns is paramount for proper identification, prevention, and treatment.
Towards this aim, we highlight a few eating disorder warning signs below. Exhibiting these behaviors does not mean that someone definitively has an eating disorder. Rather, it may be a sign to be more watchful or seek professional consultation.
1. Body Dissatisfaction
Research indicates that body dissatisfaction predicts eating disordered behaviors. Although many people are dissatisfied about certain aspects of their bodies, those with eating disorders may constantly engage in negative body talk, seek reassurance that they look okay, spend large amounts of time examining themselves in the mirror, and focus on body parts that they want to change.
2. Ritualistic and Unusual Eating Patterns
Although some at risk for an eating disorder will be forthcoming about trying to lose weight, others will deny their intent to restrict. Yet, they still may engage in atypical eating behaviors. For example, they may count their mouthfuls of food, hoard food, state that they are full after eating progressively smaller portions, or cut food into tiny pieces and take a very long time to finish their meal. Additionally, individuals with disordered eating patterns may use large quantities of spices (e.g., jalapeno) or condiments, possibly to gain flavor without calories, or due to the erroneous belief that eating hot pepper boosts the metabolism.
3. Eliminating Food Groups
If you or someone you care about limits certain foods, it may be important to focus on whether these behaviors have become more restrictive over time. For example, although most vegans do not have eating disorders, if someone suddenly decides to become a vegetarian, then vegan, then gluten free, this may warrant heightened alertness, particularly if it coincides with weight loss. Individuals with disordered eating may also begin to label foods as “good” or “bad” or be overly concerned about what ingredients someone is using when cooking.
4. High Interest in Food
Those with or at risk for eating disorders may have a heightened interest in food. They may watch cooking channels, search for recipes, cook for family members while refraining from eating themselves, and discuss how much they love different types of food even though you cannot remember that last time you have seen them eat these items. They may also express concern that others are not eating enough.
5. Interference with Life
If one’s eating and exercise routines disrupt daily functioning and social life, it could be a sign that his/her lifestyle may be transforming into something more problematic. Abstaining from social events in order to exercise or avoid eating something deemed unhealthy, for instance, leads to social isolation, a hallmark sign of an eating disorder
6. Social-Emotional Features
Research suggests that eating disorders are associated with numerous emotional concerns. Negative affect, low mood, increased irritability, and perfectionistic and controlling type behaviors have been linked with eating disorders. Individuals with eating disorders also report having a difficult time concentrating, possibly because there may not be adequate nutritional intake for the brain to operate optimally.
7. Medical Symptoms
In addition to possible physical symptoms- such as hair loss, dry skin, and sensitivity to cold-various medical complications can also arise. These include, but are not limited to, syncope (loss of consciousness due to fall in blood pressure), bradycardia (very slow heart beat), electrolyte problems, and orthostatic hypotension. Because many of these symptoms cannot be detected by the naked eye, if you or someone you love shows signs of restrictive eating, binging and purging, or if they have lost a significant amount of weight, a visit with a primary care physician is advised. A physician can identify possible medical complications that may warrant more intensive treatment.
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